‘They took my big love’: Ukraine woman searches for answers

OZERA, Ukraine — Tetiana Boikiv peered from the doorway of the cellar on the Russian troopers questioning her husband about his cellphone.

“Come up,” her husband, Mykola Moroz, known as to her. “Don’t be afraid.”

Moroz — Kolia to his associates — was making an attempt to clarify that the surveillance video they’d discovered was from his job as an electrician, all taken earlier than the Feb. 24 invasion.

“I’m a spiritual particular person,” Kolia stated. “I haven’t damage anybody.”

However the two troopers and their commander weren’t listening. They put a bag over his head. Despairing, Boikiv demanded to know what they might do with the person she known as her huge, huge love.

“Shoot him,” one of many troopers replied. They took him away.

She would by no means see Kolia once more.

Whereas atrocities within the close by city of Bucha have captured the world’s consideration and develop into case primary for Ukraine’s prosecutors, the slaughter there was not an aberration. Quite, it was a part of a path of violence that unfold far and extensive, usually below the radar of prosecutors, to extraordinary villages like Zdvyzhivka, a half hour north of Bucha, the place Kolia lived.

A lot of the violence was systemic, not random, conceived and carried out inside the command constructions of the Russian navy, an investigation by The Related Press and the PBS sequence Frontline discovered.


This story is a part of an AP/FRONTLINE investigation that features the Conflict Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive expertise and the upcoming documentary “Putin’s Assault on Ukraine: Documenting Conflict Crimes,” which premieres 10/9c Oct. 25 on PBS.


Troops have been instructed to dam and destroy vestiges of “nationalist resistance,” in keeping with Russian battle plans obtained by the Royal United Providers Institute, a distinguished protection and safety suppose tank in London. They did so with constant brutality, searching potential enemies on Russian intelligence lists and torturing and killing volunteer fighters, veterans and civilians suspected of helping Ukrainian troops. The AP and Frontline interviewed dozens of witnesses and survivors, and reviewed audio intercepts and surveillance digicam footage to doc what occurred.

These cleaning operations — zachistka, in Russian — took on a sharper edge as the road between civilians and combatants blurred. Ukraine has made it breathtakingly simple for anybody with a mobile phone connection to report the place of Russian troops, and lots of civilians do. As Russian troopers fought to suppress what has successfully develop into a crowdsourced resistance, they’ve swept up many civilians who’ve performed nothing in any respect.

Ukrainian prosecutors say they are going to handle each crime dedicated on this conflict, however they’re scrambling to triage greater than 40,000 conflict crimes investigations. Proper now, their most urgent priorities are circumstances with promising proof and excessive physique counts, locations like Bucha that gripped the general public creativeness. Kolia would die in a backyard not distant, presumably by the hands of troops commanded by the identical man who led the Bucha operation, however his demise has gone largely unnoticed.

That left Boikiv on her personal to seek out her lacking husband and battle to make sense of his demise.


Every time a brand new physique turned up in Zdvyzhivka — a bucolic village an hour north of Kyiv that Russians changed into a serious ahead working base for his or her assault on the capitol — Father Vasyl Bentsa’s cellphone would ring.

The village priest had taken it upon himself to doc the deaths.

On Mar. 30, as Russian troops withdrew, the our bodies of two unknown males, marked by torture, have been discovered within the again backyard of one of many greatest, ritziest homes on the town. Bullets had ripped by way of the pink wooden fence close by and casings littered the bottom. By the following morning, when Bentsa arrived, three extra our bodies had appeared in the identical spot.

There have been no police, no prosecutors, no ballistics consultants, no Ukrainian navy round to name for assist. There have been simply 5 males who wanted names.

“We didn’t know in any respect who to contact,” Bentsa stated. “To go away the our bodies like that for a very long time was silly. Clearly, everyone knows physiology — the human will decompose and odor. What would we do with them?”

Father Bentsa placed on medical gloves and searched by way of the pockets of the corpses, searching for identification. He discovered none.

It didn’t look like the boys had been useless very lengthy. A lady from city who helped take away the blindfold from one of many corpses acquired recent blood on her arms.

Bentsa snapped pictures and helped haul the our bodies to a graveyard on the fringe of the forest. He buried them collectively in a sandy pit, taking care to mark the spot with a tough wood cross. “March 31, 2022,” he scratched into the wooden. “5 unknown males.”

“It’s a very good factor somebody had a pen,” he stated.


Fifteen minutes south, in Ozera, Boikiv stored hoping Kolia would reappear.

They’d met on the botanical backyard in Kyiv on a church outing for singles. Boikiv had moved from her house within the metropolis to the village of Ozera only a few months earlier than Russia’s invasion to construct a brand new life with Kolia.

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Their home had shiny blue doorways and tough wooden siding painted in cheerful blues and inexperienced. Buddies stated Kolia had golden arms and will repair something. Their again yard was stacked with building supplies to interchange the roof, add brick cladding and construct a brand new barn.

Kolia acquired up earlier than daybreak to carry Boikiv recent flowers from the fields. Once they have been aside, he despatched her images of flowers on her cellphone.

“He was like a toddler deep inside,” stated Boikiv, who goes by Tania.

He preferred to gather small, lovely issues — stones, stamps, postcards, items of glass. Within the evenings they’d take turns cooking. He baked higher apple pie than she did.

“As soon as Kolia stated to me, Tania, what’s the purpose in residing for oneself? It’s when you may have anyone subsequent to you, you may really feel completely happy,” she recalled. “Any individual to stay for, anyone to bake for, anyone to work for.”

After the Russians left, phrase went spherical {that a} priest from Zdvyzhivka had images of people that’d been killed.

As quickly because the roads have been away from landmines, Boikiv and two neighbors went to speak with him. They discovered Father Bentsa in a big, hushed room stuffed with gilded Orthodox icons, the place he had simply completed mass.

Bentsa scrolled by way of the photographs of the useless on his cellphone.

On the third man, Boikiv froze. There was Kolia, wearing his personal garments, together with his personal face, bloodied and overwhelmed however intact. His arms have been curled into fists and his physique was mounted in a fetal place. The joints of his legs have been bent at unusual angles. One eye was swollen shut, and his cranium had been crushed.

“My Kolia! Kolia!” she cried, grabbing the priest’s cellphone.

Father Bentsa advised her police had exhumed Kolia and 4 others from their widespread grave six days earlier.

Boikiv and her neighbors drove house in silence.

The place was Kolia now?


Two different males from Ozera have been additionally swept up by Russians searching for spotters and died collectively within the backyard with Kolia. One really was a spotter, reporting detailed details about the placement of Russian troops to the Ukrainian navy.

On March 21 — six days after Kolia was taken — Serhii Kucher heard somebody hollering his title outdoors the home he’d taken refuge in, simply across the nook from Boikiv’s. When he walked outdoors, he noticed his buddy — a neighborhood driver named Andrii Voznenko — kneeling, shirtless within the chilly, surrounded by Russians.

Kucher stated a soldier held a gun to Voznenko’s head and he confessed to performing as a spotter.

The troopers demanded to know if Kucher was a spotter too and compelled him to strip so they might search him for tattoos. They threatened to shoot him within the knees.

“They searched the home, each room, each crevice,” Kucher stated. “They threatened that if any information will get despatched from anyplace inside the village, ‘We are going to come again and shoot you on sight.’

Round 1 p.m., the Russians put a bag over Voznenko’s head and drove him away. Two different eyewitness corroborated Kucher’s account. They by no means noticed Voznenko alive once more.

Ivan Boiko, an Ozera native who works for the emergency providers of Ukraine, advised AP and Frontline that Voznenko was expert at figuring out Russian planes and automobiles.

“I used to be sending all of this data to the headquarters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Military was hitting these positions,” Boiko stated.

Boiko stated he misplaced contact with Voznenko round March 10, practically two weeks earlier than the Russians picked him up.

The day after Voznenko was taken, one other Ozera man, named Mykhailo Honchar, was picked up. Eyewitnesses stated Russian troopers blindfolded him, certain his arms and legs and took him away after discovering electronics gear in his backpack.

In Syria and throughout the Arab Spring, civilians used their telephones to doc battle. However by no means earlier than has a authorities mobilized know-how to assemble data in such an organized, widespread approach, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy known as on each citizen to assist the conflict effort.

With a contact of the button from the beginning display screen of Diia, Ukraine’s e-government app, anybody can report Russian troop actions by way of a Telegram bot arrange by the Ministry of Digital Transformation. Mykhailo Fedorov, the Minister of Digital Transformation, stated on Twitter in April that in simply 5 weeks the bot had collected 257,000 studies on navy {hardware}, troops and conflict criminals.

The Safety Service of Ukraine created its personal Telegram bot and despatched out SMS messages encouraging individuals to report Russian troop actions: “We are going to win collectively!”

“It does concern me since you are successfully turning residents into intelligence property,” stated Eliot Higgins, the founding father of Bellingcat, an investigative group that has been working with crowdsourced documentation of atrocities for years. “It creates a danger for these civilians. … Do we actually need a authorities placing civilians in that place?”

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Oleksiy Danilov, the top of Ukraine’s Nationwide Safety and Protection Council, acknowledged the dangers for civilians, however stated the volunteers felt empowered by contributing to the protection of their nation.

“The engagement of the locals was crucial,” Danilov stated. “They risked their lives. They have been serving to their nation.”

Underneath the legal guidelines of conflict, civilians who pose a safety risk might be detained, and troopers might goal civilians actively collaborating in hostilities, worldwide human rights legal professionals say. However not at all is it authorized to torture and kill civilians or combatants held as prisoners of conflict.

The diploma of crowdsourced intelligence in Ukraine presents new authorized questions.

“This actually is a novel form of situation,” stated Clint Williamson, a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Massive for Conflict Crimes Points. “It’s not contemplated below worldwide humanitarian legislation.”

However, he added, the Ukrainian authorities has each proper to mobilize the inhabitants.

“It’s nonetheless the selection of every particular person as to whether or not they take part,” he stated.

Russian troopers have been sloppy about deciding who would stay and who would die. Maybe concern or rage clouded their judgment. Maybe they didn’t actually care that a lot.

Three individuals picked up and tortured by Russian troopers close to Kyiv admitted to the AP, kin or associates that they’d been passing details about Russian troop positions to Ukrainian authorities. Two have been later killed.

The day earlier than Kolia was kidnapped, drone footage reveals a fiery cloud bloom from the woods simply outdoors Ozera as a Ukrainian rocket hit Russian artillery munitions. The strike was so correct that it was “completely logical” for Russians to suspect a spotter who gave data, stated Pierre Vaux, an skilled in digital investigations on the Middle for Info Resilience in London who analyzed the video.

Nevertheless it appears like Kolia advised the reality about not being concerned. Cellular phone tower information for Kolia’s cell phone numbers obtained by The AP present that his cellphone was final lively on Feb. 25 — making it extraordinarily unlikely that he despatched in coordinates from the occupied city within the 18 days earlier than his abduction.


Boikiv’s first cease in her effort to seek out Kolia was the Bucha morgue.

By the point she arrived, spring was settling in over Bucha. Daffodils bloomed in entrance of ravaged homes. Because the solar warmed the earth again to life, the our bodies of Bucha started to stink.

The thick, sticky stench of the useless lingered across the morgue for weeks. The one fast aid got here from the scent of recent reduce pine wooden in a small room full of coffins.

Anna Dolid, a psychologist on obligation on the morgue, tried to ease issues by explaining, step-by-step, the method of reclamation when proof of crimes have to be gathered. All corpses wanted to be exhumed so correct investigations could possibly be performed. There can be autopsies at certainly one of a half dozen native morgues, and solely then might a physique be handed over for burial.

Folks watched in horror as family members have been dug up from their yards.

“It was chaos. Nobody understood what was occurring,” Dolid stated.

She stored smelling salts readily available to revive those that fainted from the trauma and handed out rafts of prescriptions for sedatives.

The query that rips by way of individuals’s grief, Dolid stated, is why. Why did this occur? “It takes years to seek for solutions to those questions,” she stated.

If Boikiv couldn’t get a why, she would accept a the place. However Kolia’s title wasn’t on the lists of our bodies on the morgue. There have been three massive refrigerated vehicles parked outdoors. Her Kolia was most likely inside certainly one of them.

Boikiv’s buddy from church opened every physique bag and peered in at every useless face. He known as her over from time to time to look at doable matches. She stated they went by way of dozens of our bodies.

They didn’t discover Kolia.

A number of days later, she acquired phrase that two unidentified our bodies from Zdvyzhivka had are available in. However the Bucha morgue was farming out overflow corpses to a half dozen different morgues. By the point Boikiv acquired again to Bucha, the Zdvyzhivka our bodies have been on the backside of a stack of physique baggage in a refrigerated truck about to depart for the close by city of Bila Tserkva.

Boikiv started to weep. If she couldn’t hitch a trip on the truck, she threatened, she would climb within the again with all of the useless individuals. She couldn’t let Kolia slip away once more. The driving force made house for her within the cab.

When the truck was unloaded in Bila Tserkva, Boikiv peered in on the corpses from Zdvyzhivka. They have been in such poor form that it was arduous to make sure. A nurse advised Tania to look not simply on the garments, but additionally on the tooth.

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“I opened the mouth and regarded on the tooth,” she stated, flinching on the reminiscence. “It wasn’t him.”

She stored trying, then noticed Kolia’s shoe peeking out from {a partially} open bag.

By the point Boikiv set eyes on her husband once more, Kolia had been useless for a month. His eyeballs had liquified right into a form of white jelly. His pores and skin was stretched and dry, disintegrating. The stench was piercing.

“I requested the nurse what’s with the eyes,” Boikiv stated. “She advised me the eyes rot first.”

She acknowledged her husband by the form of his cranium and his beard. She peered into Kolia’s mouth and checked out his fillings.

“I didn’t need to carry another person to my home,” Boikiv defined. “Even with out the eyes, I might inform it was my husband.”


The day of the funeral, associates from church trickled into the yard and stood round Kolia’s coffin. The sky threatened rain.

“We are going to meet once more, Kolia,” Boikiv stated, working her work gloves alongside the highest of the casket. “I’ll give him a tough time for not listening to me, and never leaving after we had an opportunity. And the way a lot time was I trying to find him? How a lot I’ve travelled.”

She felt a stab of panic. “I double-checked if it’s him or not,” she stated in a low voice. “I’m calm. I’m calm.”

The mourners sang, deep and sluggish, about coming nearer to God, discovering a spot with out sorrow. Underneath low slate clouds, they walked in a brief procession to the cemetery behind the church.

Overhead, majestic storks circled as an alternative of warplanes. As Boikiv went again house, neighbors embraced and sat collectively in entrance of their fences. That they had survived, up to now. They’d bury their useless and life, someway, would start once more.

“Every thing is gorgeous right here. However Kolia is gone,” Boikiv stated, a row of tall pink tulips her neighbor had planted. Fats, heat drops of spring rain splattered the dust.

“They took my huge love,” she stated.


All that’s left now could be the seek for justice. For individuals who have misplaced family members, it’s every little thing, and it’s also nothing.

Across the time of the funeral, Father Bentsa knelt on the forest ground subsequent to the pit the place he had buried Kolia, Voznenko and Honchar. He nonetheless doesn’t know the names of the opposite two males discovered within the backyard. Police had left issues behind once they took away the corpses, and Bentsa matched them together with his pictures of the mangled our bodies.

Right here, Honchar’s purple scarf.

There, the bloody fabric that certain Voznenko’s eyes.

Kolia’s black winter hat.

“Perhaps in the future it is going to be helpful,” he stated. “If I bury them within the floor and there are not any photos, there’s no proof, no investigation.”

How does one demise – as deep a loss as the following – leap the road within the seek for justice?

All throughout Ukraine, gardens and courtyards and basements have been filling up with our bodies. It was removed from clear whether or not Kolia’s would rely.

The early indicators didn’t reassure Boikiv. The one official documentation of his demise she had was a slim strip of paper summarizing the post-mortem, which struck her as deeply insufficient. It stated her husband died of a number of gunshot wounds on March 25, 2022.

Boikiv had seen the images of Kolia’s physique and doubted it was bullets that killed him.

She gave an announcement to Ukrainian authorities, however she stated she hasn’t heard from anybody since. She thinks she’d be capable of establish the troopers who took him, however nobody has come round to ask. Most of what she realized about her husband’s final days got here from Father Bentsa.

If she believed that discovering Kolia would carry her a measure of aid, it didn’t prove that approach. Her search was over, however Kolia was nonetheless gone, and her home rang with silence.

She stated the individuals liable for her husband’s demise needs to be recognized and punished. However she’s not optimistic that may occur. Neither is she satisfied it will matter a lot.

“You’ll not carry him again,” she stated. “It gained’t change something.”

She sat at house within the darkening gentle surrounded by reminders of what she has misplaced. The mattress she’d dropped at share with Kolia. The water from the nicely Kolia dug. The little blue and white plastic butterflies Kolia pinned to their buckling wallpaper.

She was pondering of leaving Ozera, however then who would eat the fruit from Kolia’s backyard?

“I perceive that every little thing is within the arms of God,” she stated. “And the time will come when individuals might be punished for this. The judgment day is awaiting them.”


Frontline producers Tom Jennings and Annie Wong, co-producer Taras Lazer and AP reporter Solomiia Hera contributed to this report.


To contact AP’s investigations staff, e-mail [email protected]