Bucha: A street filled with bodies

Published: 05:02 PM, 21 Apr, 2022
Bucha: A street filled with bodies
Caption: Bucha: A street filled with bodies
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An AFP team were the first journalists to discover the horrors of Bucha, a quiet commuter town near Kyiv occupied by the Russian army for over a month. 

Russian troops are accused of massacring hundreds of civilians there, shocking the world and prompting allegations of war crimes. 

AFP's bureau chief in The Hague, Danny Kemp, was part of the team that uncovered the atrocities on April 2, 2022. Here is his account of what they saw that day, originally published on AFP's Correspondent blog site. 

Some may find the account distressing.  

We saw three of them at first, lying in the dirt like piles of rags. That alone would have been bad enough. 

"Bodies," someone in the car said, because it was all that could be said. Our driver screeched to a halt and we jumped out of the vehicle. 

A long grey road on the edge of Bucha stretched out under an equally grey Ukrainian sky. The three bodies lay next to a stack of construction materials and wooden pallets.

As we approached we could see that one had his hands tied behind his back.

Yet it seemed to take a while before any of us -- myself, photographer Ronaldo Schemidt, video journalist Nicolas Garcia, along with our fixer, our driver and our security consultant -- actually looked up and down the rest of the street.

When we did, we realised that these three bodies were only the beginning. Dotted here and there, for as far as we could see in either direction, were more, many more. Corpse after corpse after corpse along this single debris-strewn street

It seems strange that a human can look so inhuman. The face of the first body, a man in a brown hooded jacket and jeans lying on his side, looked so white and waxy it seemed almost unreal. Instead it was his hands, tied behind his back with white cloth, that brought the reality of his death home: the lines of slightly wrinkled skin, the discoloured nails. He was in the largest group of bodies, a cluster of three. The trouser leg of one of the others had ridden slightly above a sock, showing purplish skin. That was all too real.

Reporters often have to suppress the instinct that tells us not to intrude on people, and that is true even of the dead. At first it felt somehow wrong to look too closely at these people who had no way of saying that they did not want to be looked at. Then you realise there is no other way to try to find out how they died, and maybe who they were. These people, it became clear, were all wearing civilian clothes.

They all appeared to be adult males, but of various ages. And they all appeared to have been dead for some time. They had sallow, sunken skin and stiff fingers. I had not seen many bodies before that day, but some of the few I had were recently killed, and they did not look like this. 

A reporter's task is simple enough in circumstances like this: you try to put the enormity or the horror to one side, you count the bodies and observe and describe. I walked up and down the street at least twice trying to keep a tally but there were so many I kept losing count, and on one occasion found another body lying in a courtyard that I hadn't seen. In the end I had to take photos of each one with my phone to ensure that I had the right number. On the third pass I was sure: 20 bodies.

For my colleagues Ronaldo and Nicolas the job is tougher. The poet T.S. Eliot famously said that "human kind cannot bear very much reality", and this is one of the paradoxes of photo and video journalism. How do you convey the horror of the situation without being too graphic, so that people will not scroll past it on their mobile phones?  And how do you somehow try to preserve the dignity of these victims who have been left shorn of it by the manner of their deaths?

My colleagues' skill in walking that line would be seen later on the front pages of newspapers and on screens around the world, and used later by politicians both in Ukraine and abroad to illustrate the devastation in Bucha.

Still, the reality of it would cut through sometimes while we were on that freezing, grey street. Who were these people who lay in such different poses on the tarmac? The older elderly man whose head rested on a yellow and white striped curb, eyes closed and legs crossed, almost as if taking a nap? The two younger men lying side by side in a puddle, one with his eyes open, gazing sightlessly at the sky — were they friends, or relatives? And the man with his hand in the pocket of his black jacket, was he reaching for something when he died?

A Russian campaign to discredit the allegations began too, suggesting that the scene in Yablonska Street was staged by Ukrainian forces and that some of the bodies were filmed moving. 

Journalists are used to dealing with disinformation, but it is different when you have seen something with your own eyes. I was able to tell AFP's Fact Check service that these people were clearly dead, and at no time had we seen any of them move.

Had we realised at the time we were documenting history? All journalists like to think so, But on that grey, cold street, it was the individual tragedies that were most important. 

I wished we had somehow been able to tell the stories of these people -- who they were, what they did, who they loved, or even as simple as how they died. 


Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.