Unearthing the evidence of Russia’s war crimes in east Ukraine
KHARKIV, Ukraine — On March 27, Rita Horbyk got into the backseat of her family’s car, wedged between her mother and grandmother.
Her dad, Andrii, was at the wheel, bringing up the rear of a three-vehicle convoy evacuating families from the village of Stepanki.
Bodies lay on the streets. Rockets exploded. Soldiers opened fire. The next thing the Horbyks knew, 13-year-old Rita was slumped over with a fatal head wound.
Unearthing the evidence of Russia’s war crimes in east Ukraine
The incident is among thousands under investigation by Ukrainian authorities, who are treating Russia’s invasion not only as a war but also as a series of war crimes.
But it reveals the challenges of that approach, especially during a large-scale armed conflict like the Ukraine war.
An investigation by Global News has found that overwhelmed prosecutors failed to conduct basic groundwork before publicly announcing their findings and their suspect, a Russian commander.
The family was not interviewed. Captured Russian soldiers who were prosecution witnesses were allowed to leave the country in prisoner swaps. A crucial piece of evidence, the car in which Rita was killed, was sold.
“The world should know what happened,” said Rita’s mother, Liudmyla Horbyk.
But that is the problem: What happened?
Rita was a Grade 7 student at the Vilkhivka School, an only child who lived with her parents and grandfather on his property in Stepanki, a village east of Kharkiv.
She collected books, loved animals and made sure the local cats and dogs fed. She was a dancer and was always doing something with her hands. She hoped to become a dentist and was learning Korean online, dreaming of travelling to Seoul. The neighbours adored her.
“Rita was like one of our own kids,” said Natalia Karikova, who lives down the road from the Horbyks. “When she was walking to school she would join us and talk to us,” she said.
“She was a very good girl.”
On Feb. 24, the Horbyks watched as a procession of Russian tanks and army vehicles passed their front windows. Helicopters and jets flew overhead. They hid from the shelling in the cellar.
On day three of the invasion, the power went out and they could only charge their phones in the car.
During those harrowing initial days of the Russian occupation, Rita somehow became the reassuring voice, telling her parents not to worry, that everything would be okay.
“She was never scared of anything,” her mother said. “Even when the war started she was all of the time so calm and said to us please don’t be afraid. I was worried more than her.”
A month went by before the Ukrainian defence forces began to retake the area. As the Russians fell back, they took over the Horbyk’s property, placed a tank in the field behind the house and told the family to leave if they wanted to live.
After conferring with the neighbours, they all decided to drive out in a convoy. They left Stepanki and entered the next town, Vilkhivka. Liudmyla held Rita’s head down so the teenager wouldn’t see all the bodies.
They drove down Ukrainian St. but it was blocked so they turned back. Two or three rockets landed and exploded. They tried Myru St. instead and made it to Central St.
Although the Horbyks didn’t know it, Central St. had become a frontline. The Russians controlled the area north of the road, while the Ukrainians held the south.
As they turned onto Central St. and proceeded towards Kharkiv, Rita sat up and Russian soldiers positioned around a BTR armoured vehicle started shooting at them and an elderly woman in the lead vehicle of the convoy was killed.
Andrii stopped the car and told everyone to get. Rita stayed inside with her head down. Liudmyla went to her and saw that part of her skull was gone.
Andrii yelled to the soldiers, asking for help.
“Get away from here,” one of them responded.
The Horbyks got back in the car and raced towards the city, barely slowing at the checkpoints, telling the soldiers to do what they wanted but he wasn’t stopping because his girl was injured.
They drove to the district hospital in Kharkiv’s eastern Saltivka neighborhood. From there, an ambulance took Rita to the Kharkiv regional hospital, where she underwent surgery.
“It was so scary for us because he said to us you shouldn’t wait for a miracle,” Liudmyla said.
Three days later, her temperature normalized and they were hopeful, but the doctor told them to leave her room and 30 minutes later, they were told they should go to the morgue.
The death of Rita Horbyk ended up on the desk of Andrii Kravchenko, a prosecutor in the Kharkiv region who was assigned to the fast-growing team investigating Russian war crimes.
The program was the result of a decision to treat the Russian invasion as a sequence of crimes that required investigation and prosecution.
Months into the invasion, Kravchenko’s office was working on no less than 2,000 cases, each estimated to take six months to a year, and requiring expert analysis of victims and evidence.
According to Kravchenko, on March 26, a Russian commander gave the order to fire TOS-1 rockets at civilian areas. This was done to create a sense of panic among the population, he said.
The village council office in Vilkhivka was hit, along with the school in nearby Mala Rohan. A girl was injured in her home, he said. Her name was Margarita, she was 13 and she died at the hospital on March 30, he said.
The case was at the pre-trial investigation stage, he added, and while it wasn’t always possible to figure out who was responsible for war crimes, “in this case we identified the person.”
Six witnesses, all of them captured Russian soldiers, pointed the finger at an artillery commander named Col. Sergey Viktorovich Maksimov.
They told investigators that Maksimov had given the order to fire a TOS-1 positioned multi-launch rocket system located in a clearing at the edge of Mala Rohan. The prosecutors have a map with the launch site circled.
The colonel is suspected of war crimes and attempted murder. The Russian soldiers were not charged. They claimed they were only given the target coordinates and did not know they were firing at civilians.
On May 23, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Iryna Venediktova, released a statement saying that Col. Maksimov had ordered his subordinates to fire a TOS-1 at residential areas of Mala Rogan and Vilkhivka.
“He was well aware that there were no military objects there,” it said.
As a result of the attack, it said, a 13-year-old girl was killed.
Kravchenko said prosecutors were just following evidence and it made no difference if it lead to a senior Russian commander.
“For us, it doesn’t matter, big person or small,” he shrugged.
Col. Maksimov was born in Uzhhorod, a city in western Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains. Nudged against the Slovenia border, the area has largely escaped the horrors of the Russian invasion.
In 1996, Maksimov graduated from the Russian airborne school in Ryazan. He took command of the 247th Guards Air Assault Regiment in 2013, according to a Russian news item. In 2019, he was named in a news story as commander of the 83rd Air Assault Brigade.
During the invasion of Ukraine, he commanded the 138th Guards Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, Ukrainian authorities said. The fighting group was among several that tried to capture Kharkiv on Feb. 24.
But the Russians ran into fierce Ukrainian defences and, after occupying villages around the city for a month and taking what the Ukrainian military described as “significant losses,” they retreated towards Russia.
Neither Maksimov nor the Russian government has publicly responded to Ukraine’s allegation he was responsible for Rita’s death.
The Horbyks’ home in Stepanki is just as the Russian soldiers left it when they fled: makeshift beds on the floor, socks drying on a line, bullet holes in the fence.
The family hasn’t returned since Rita’s death. They now live in Maiorivka, a village six hours away in the Sumy region.
Liudmyla sat in the living room with her phone, scrolling through photos of Rita: In front of the Christmas tree; arm in arm with her father; giving the peace sign in front of a waterfall; at school on Peace Day.
“We lived only because of her,” Liudmyla said.
The family has seen the prosecutor general’s statement about Rita’s death and insisted it was inaccurate.
She was killed on March 27, not the 26. And she did not die at home, she was in the car. But the most significant mistake is that she was not killed by a rocket. Rather, she was shot with a machine gun, the parents said.
“I don’t know why they wrote like this,” said Liudmyla.
While they had driven through shelling, they were not hit, she said. Instead, Russian soldiers shot up their car; it had bullet holes in it, they said. They found a bullet inside the car. Liudmyla said she later found a hole in her own jacket, where it was grazed by a bullet.
The Horbyks took no photos or video that could assist prosecutors. They could not bring themselves to. They sold the car, not wanting to be reminded of that day. Rita was cremated.
The family has only spoken to the prosecutors over the phone and knows little about the case. They were unaware of any witnesses or expert reports.
They support bringing those responsible to justice. They just don’t know who to blame. Shown a photo of Col. Maksimov, they did not recognize him or recall seeing him at the scene.
“The commander who gave the order, of course, he is responsible for it, and also the soldiers who did it,” Liudmyla said. “Putin, he is responsible.”
Asked about the discrepancies between his account of events and that of the Horbyks, Kravchenko said an expert found that fragments of a rocket had struck Rita’s head, causing her death. But he said the investigation remained incomplete.
He did not interview her father or mother, he said, reasoning they were too distraught and in shock.
“At the moment we can’t tell you for sure how it happened,” he said.
A volunteer who helped the family when Rita was hospitalized said the doctor also told him her head wound was caused by an explosion.
“From machine guns, it’s not possible to have these types of injuries,” said Anatolii Cherniavskyi, a member of the civil defence forces who sold fertilizer before the war.
“This is the information I received from the doctors.”
War and Heartbreak
Andrii walked through the cemetery gates and followed the trail past a crucifix overgrown with ivy to a small clearing boxed in by trees.
He squatted and placed his left hand on a mound sprouting artificial flowers. Around him, the grass had grown high around the tombstones.
Who put Rita there and whether he will ever face justice were questions too big for the Horbyks at that moment. The pain of loss was enough.
The war has left Stepanki, and they know they should return to repair their home and resume their lives. They just aren’t sure how they will cope without their Rita.
It has occurred to them that she is the reason they are still alive, that the Russians only stopped shooting at their convoy because a child was hurt.
She comes to them in their dreams, still their guardian angel, their voice of reassurance in this awful war, soothing them with her fearlessness.
“She tells us ‘everything is good with me,’” Liudmyla said, on her front step in Maiorivka, heartbroken but trying to believe it.
“‘Don’t worry mom, everything is good.’”