The last brave acts of the five Ukrainian men found dead and tied up in a Bucha cellar

Victoria Verde holds a portrait of her husband, Dmytro Shumeister, who joined volunteers to retrieve his documents from the car, in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 8.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and the Mail

Natalia Stupnyk may never know what happened between her husband’s departure on the morning of March 12 and the moment, 19 days later, when she first saw a video showing him and his nephew collapsed in the basement of the Shiny Children’s Health and Leisure Center, dead. .

What he does know is that he was told that they were taking pain relief pills to a local elder in need. By then, they had grown accustomed to raids through deadly Russian-controlled streets, after weeks of traveling through a war zone to transport food, water, medicine and children’s toys to people hiding in a shelter. nearby core.

“They left with the car at 9:30 am,” Stupnyk said. “They were going to deliver medicine. But they never came back.”

It was not until nearly three weeks later that their bodies were found underground, along with three other men. Most had their hands tied and the bodies showed obvious signs of ill-treatment.

The discovery of the bodies was part of an ongoing litany of horrors that have emerged in Bucha, a community west of kyiv, following the withdrawal of Russian forces last week. Ukraine’s prosecutor general called it a “torture chamber,” and blamed Russian soldiers.

The Kremlin claims that its soldiers have not killed civilians.

But The Globe and Mail, in a dozen interviews with family, friends and local authorities, identified the five men found in the basement and learned of the weeks of fear and anger that led to their disappearance.

Viktor Prutko, 24, installed doors and dabbled in advertising. Volodymyr Boychenko, 35, worked with a blacksmith. Serhii Matiushko, 41, was a laborer. Valeriy Prutko, 47, did plumbing work. Dmitriy Shumeister, 56, had just started a cleaning business.

It is not known why they were captured by Russian forces and how they spent the time between their disappearance and death, perhaps in captivity. But the discovery of their bodies suggests an atrocity that could one day form part of a war crimes prosecution.

“We are absolutely convinced that all the work we do day and night will be used directly in the International Court to prove guilt. These crimes are not justified in any possible way,” said Andrii Turbar, deputy head of the Bucha district prosecutor’s office. He spoke outside the building where the bodies were found, which had been used as a command post by Russian forces.

“These people were just local civilians providing food for others. What was the point of killing them?

Natalia Stupnyk, wife of Valeriy Prutko, and Lyudmila Kovalenkom, mother of Viktor Prutko, near the family home in Hostomel, Ukraine.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and the Mail

The men’s bodies remain in state custody, where the nature of their deaths will be examined and documented. But police photos and television footage show signs of brutality. Mr. Shumeister seemed to be missing an eye. Mr. Matiushko’s teeth appeared to be broken. Mr. Boychenko’s skull was visibly crushed. His family was told that he had been shot in the knees and chest.

“It is not a murder. It is torture and humiliation,” said Ilona Ilchenko, Boychenko’s cousin.

Those responsible “are worse than animals,” Stupnyk said. “I curse his entire family line for all his abuse towards my husband and my nephew.”

The five men found in the cellar were not all saints. Some had fractured relationships. Some were prone to anger. Some had histories of interactions with the police and domestic abuse. They talked about looting.

But none had a military affiliation, friends and relatives said.

Bucha residents face the aftermath of the carnage as they fear the return of Russian forces.

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Instead, when the war came to their homes, they offered to help. Russian attack helicopters and paratroopers arrived in the first hours of the invasion, attempting to seize control of a key military airport in Hostomel, a community bordering Bucha. Most of the five men lived within a few miles of the airport. By nightfall, many of his neighbors had sought refuge more than 10 meters below ground, in the safety of a bunker below Bucha Penitentiary, a nearby decommissioned prison.

The bunker became home to 286 people. They slept on prison beds and mattresses, but conditions quickly became difficult. A virus spread, leaving many sick. Supplies ran out.

But to surface was to face danger. Mortars fell on the prison grounds. Russian troops “started shooting when they saw people in the prison going for water,” said Viktor, a senior prison official whose last name is not published by The Globe and Mail because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

One of the men in the bunker, 64-year-old Viktor Zabarylo, offered the use of his blue Peugeot Boxer van to collect supplies. “People would have starved to death without food,” he said. Too old to go himself, he entrusted the truck to a group of men willing to brave the streets. They included the five men who were later found in the basement and another: 16-year-old Aleksey Buhera.

To obtain supplies, the men raided the shelves of local stores. “We also raided pharmacies because there were people who just couldn’t be without medication,” Mr. Buhera said. They marked the truck with yellow crosses and filled it with carrots sourced from a local processing plant. They brought rice, pasta, potatoes and some meat.

Alexey Buhera, 16, in front of Bucha prison.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and the Mail

There was, Buhera said, no choice but to break down the doors to get what they needed. His main objective, he said, “was to feed the bunker.” But some in his group also sought to profit from the chaos. Mr. Buhera observed how some members of the group tried to steal a car. He overheard them discussing plans to loot an electronics store.

However, inside the bunker, the men were seen as heroes. “Under martial law, the most important thing is human life. And those people saved a lot of human lives here, even if the way they did it was illegal,” said Viktor, the prison official. He described men as “risk takers.”

And the risks were real. Mr. Boychenko “was scared. I was very scared,” said Alena Boychenko, his sister, who spoke to him regularly. “A couple of times he was even crying on the phone. Once he told me that he loved me. That’s something he never said.”

On March 10, the authorities emptied the bunker, evacuating some people to other parts of Ukraine and sending others home. But the men continued to secure goods for the people who needed them.

They set out again on March 12. They told different stories to different people. Mrs. Stupnyk heard that they planned to deliver medication. Shumeister, an accomplished cook who enjoyed singing Soviet pop songs, told his wife Victoria Verde that he wanted to retrieve documents left in a car he had abandoned during heavy bombing at the beginning of the Russian invasion.

What happened next is unclear. But a short distance from Hostomel, in neighboring Bucha, Victor Petrovich saw the blue Peugeot arrive at Campa, a tennis club that serves as a starting point for people on the run. An evacuation corridor had been opened “and people were being taken away,” Petrovich said. The van left Campa and drove in the direction of the Bucha town hall buildings, on a route that passed the Shiny children’s center, located less than a kilometer away.

Victoria Verde and Viktor Petrovich, the last eyewitness to the blue van, were shot in front of the vehicle in Bucha.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and the Mail

A short time later, Mr. Petrovich heard the sound of automatic gunfire and the sound of a vehicle crashing into natural gas lines on the side of the street. He later got out to see that the blue Peugeot had returned. Now, however, it was speckled with bullet holes. He found it empty, with the keys inside. He believes the men were returning for a second evacuation run, he said on Friday, recounting the memories of him to Ms. Green.

“They were saving people,” he said. “I did not know that.”

Mr. Petrovich said his memory of the exact dates was clouded by the stress of the war. But satellite images from Planet Labs reviewed by The Globe show that the van was not present on March 11. A later image 10 days later shows her there.

Mrs. Green can only imagine what happened to Mr. Shumeister after the van crashed into the side of the road, and she has a hard time understanding how her husband got to the basement of a building under Russian control.

She only knows that he was stubborn in his insistence on distributing goods, even when the shelling was so intense that the house shook and they slept with their clothes on.

“The war is long,” he said. “You need to help people.”

With information from Anton Skyba

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