KYIV — U.S. army veteran Ryan O’Leary looks a little unsteady and draws heavily as he smokes — unsurprising after what he’s seen and done over the past month during some vicious firefights on the northern outskirts of Kyiv, for weeks among the most intense front lines in Ukraine.
Added to that, he was clearly aghast at what he had seen in the last 48 hours, assisting with clean-up operations in the town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, in the wake of a Russian withdrawal that was part rout.
The 35-year-old Iowan, who did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, is one of hundreds of foreign volunteers who enlisted with Ukraine’s foreign legion immediately after Russia invaded. He says he did so to “support democracy.” He reached Kyiv on March 1, and within hours was sent with about a dozen American and British military veterans to Moshchun, a village near Bucha, part of an uneven line of settlements blocking the Russians from entering Ukraine’s capital from the north.
O’Leary was in combat for a month without much pause; and then on Saturday, he was ordered to Bucha, the same day Ukraine declared the once-quiet suburban town liberated from Russian troops.
Bucha is now the focus of an international outcry. Ukrainian officials and rights groups accuse Russian forces of massacring civilians in Bucha, as well as other villages on the outskirts of Kyiv. The barbarity being uncovered in Bucha after Russian forces pulled out a few days ago is fueling demands for international war crimes investigations — and adding to Ukrainian fury.
“I’ve had seven years in combat zones fighting ISIS, fighting the Taliban, and what the Russians did to civilians is insane,” says O’Leary. The veteran adds: “They killed everyone — not just men, like the media is reporting right now. They killed women, too. It is something I am never going to forget. When you go into some of the villages, you see civilians dead with their hands tied behind their backs.
“The photos and videos you’re seeing right now only tell half the story,” he says. “We went into one house, cleared the house of mines, and in the back yard there was a van and inside there were five dead women. They had been shot; then someone had tried to burn them.” There have been other reports of scorched and semi-burnt female bodies, prompting suspicions that whoever set them alight was trying to destroy evidence of rape.
“We captured seven Russian soldiers that were left behind; they were hiding in a golf course. I don’t know what happened to them,” he says.
O’Leary does express some professional pity at the hopelessness of some of the Russian conscripts he’s been fighting. “They don’t know what they are doing,” he says. “Some of them are just kids and they have only been training for a few months. You can’t teach anybody anything in that short time. Our sniper, another American, shot one guy in the chest. He dropped and bled out. Another Russian tried to grab his gear. We shot him. The next day they took over a building about 200 meters from us and started shooting and we shot back with a rocket targeting the top story, and they all started running from the building. It was a turkey shoot. We just unloaded on them.”
Sympathy for the plight of any Russian soldier, however, is in very short supply in Ukraine in the wake of mounting allegations of the murder and torture of civilians in towns and villages briefly occupied by Russian forces. Ukrainian officials describe the killings as “executions,” arguing many of those slaughtered may have been on Russian hit lists drawn up prior to the invasion. But residents who escaped these towns paint a different picture — they describe random shootings of ordinary people for no reason at all.
“Dead bodies of civilians were strewn across some streets in Bucha when I left,” says Veronika. The father of one of her neighbors was shot as he walked back into his house, she says. “Sometimes they killed people for no reason — they offered no reason. I don’t know why. They just didn’t want them to be alive or something like that and they just killed them,” she adds. Veronika, who has left Ukraine and is now in Spain, says she knew of one girl who’d been raped but the girl refuses to talk about it. “They burnt houses just to have fun. Like they didn’t care.”
In a post on Facebook Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy echoed the sentiments of many Ukrainians as more evidence started to come to light of the slayings in Bucha under Russian occupation. He said the mothers of Russian soldiers should be shown photographs of the dead. “See what bastards you’ve raised. Murderers, looters, butchers,” he said in the post.
The allegations about civilian massacres are not only fueling outrage. They are also adding to a widespread determination to concede nothing to Russia in any peace talks, and to wage war until all Russian forces have been expelled from the country, including from Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. And from Moscow’s breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where the Ukrainians and Russians have been fighting for eight years.
That view is also expressed by ethnic Russians who have fled predominantly Russian-speaking towns in east and southeast Ukraine. Russian soldiers were told by their officers at the outset of the invasion that they would be greeted as heroes. Instead, they’ve been met with civilian protests and surliness, to their apparent surprise. Widespread looting and stealing by Russian soldiers has added to the anger of locals, with some saying it is a tactic of thuggish terror aimed at breaking their will and others suspecting it is plain hooliganism by ill-disciplined troops.
Lydia, a mother of a 9-year-girl, spoke of a change of heart and of affiliation among many of her neighbors in her Donbas town of Slovyansk, just north of Donetsk. Now an evacuee in the central Ukrainian town of Vinnytsia, she says: “In 2015, most people were pro-Russian and they wanted to be part of Russia. But right now, the majority of the population have switched. They see what the Russian soldiers do. They see what Russia brings.”
Standing outside an evacuee center, she describes the exhausting two-day journey it took her and her family to reach Vinnytsia. She had to abandon everything. “Look at me,” she says, gesturing to what she’s wearing. “I left without anything — just the clothes I was in. These clothes aren’t mine; they were donated. Putin says he came to save us. But I didn’t need saving. Now I do because of the invasion.”
Dozens of Russian speakers I talked with say they are disgusted with Kremlin claims that the shelling of civilian homes and the images of dead civilians in Bucha, and some other Ukrainian towns, have been staged. Several say when they explain to relatives in Russia what’s happening in Ukraine, they are rebuffed and told the problem is all because of NATO or the Ukrainians are faking things. They try to explain to them that ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers are suffering as much as ethnic Ukrainians.
“I tell them what I have seen,” says Anya, a mother of two young boys and an evacuee now in Kyiv from the east. “I send them photographs and videos and they still don’t believe me. They just watch the Russian One Channel and listen to state radio; they are brainwashed.”
“I have given up talking with them,” she adds.