Lyubov Leus and her future husband met as children spending a summer in Motyzhyn, a village of cottages and allotments ringed by fields, 50km from Kyiv.
“I was 12 years old and staying with my aunt, and Serhiy was 13 and visiting his grandma. Five years later we were married in Kyiv. Our 40th wedding anniversary would have been this summer,” she says, in the small house in Motyzhyn that Serhiy inherited.
They had two daughters and a son in Kyiv, where Serhiy worked in an engineering plant and Lyubov in a sewing factory, before they opened their own kiosk and then a café when the demise of the Soviet Union brought independence and free enterprise to Ukraine.
It was a financial struggle to raise a young family in the capital, and became even harder when medical problems forced Serhiy into semi-retirement. So they moved to Motyzhyn, where the peace and quiet of the village was good for Serhiy’s health and Lyubov found the kind of job she had always wanted, working with children at a kindergarten. “Serhiy was good with his hands, a jack-of-all-trades. And Sasha was just the same,” she says of her son (32), who was their youngest child.
When Russia launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, Serhiy started hiding things in the basement: his gardening machinery, mechanic's tools, even the batteries from their cars – anything he thought marauding troops might want to steal.
“On February 27th, in the evening, he was putting stuff in the cellar when I heard the sound of tanks. The Russians were coming into the village with tanks and trucks and I don’t know what else. I looked out and there was a tank right by the gate of the house and suddenly it began shooting and I got under the table. I can’t describe the noise,” Lyubov recalls.
“When it went quiet I came out, and Serhiy was there by the car and he said: ‘I think they wounded me.’
“He went hunting sometimes and it seems he got his gun and took a shot at them. And they fired with an automatic rifle or a machine gun. Skin and flesh were hanging off his arm and a bullet had gone in near his belly button and there was an open wound on his side.”
Stop the bleeding
Serhiy did not lose consciousness and Lyubov helped him into the house and tried to stop the bleeding. As the Russians spread out around Motyzhyn, Sasha managed to cross the village to reach his parents, and a local doctor, Serhiy Golovan, came to their aid.
“The doctor said he won’t survive unless he gets to a hospital. But I asked him, ‘How, if we’re surrounded, if the Russians are everywhere?’” Lyubov recalls. “They were thinking and discussing here in the yard until about 11pm, when the doctor says: ‘We have to go.’ And Sasha says: ‘I’m going with dad.’”
Lyubov made Serhiy as comfortable as possible in the back of the car, and Golovan and Sasha set off with him towards Makariv, a town 20km away across a major highway leading to Kyiv, through an area that was fought over fiercely at the start of the war.
Then, alone at home, she heard nothing more for several days, as Russian troops took control over a swathe of territory where they would menace Kyiv and commit atrocities and alleged war crimes in towns such as Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka, and villages including Motyzhyn and neighbouring Kopyliv.
“Three or four days later, I don’t know now, I was in the back yard when a friend arrived and said, ‘Come on, let’s go to our place’,” Lyubov says. “I told him no, I’m staying here and waiting for news. ‘Get your things and come with me,’ he said again. ‘I’ll explain everything.’ That finished me off. Until then, I still had hope.”
Serhiy, Sasha and Golovan were dead inside their bullet-riddled car, which sat wrecked on a stretch of road that was too dangerous to approach. It seems they turned back before the highway but were shot with a heavy machine gun from a Russian position.
Lyubov says a member of the local volunteer territorial defence force who saw the car told her that Sasha appeared to have died trying to shield his wounded father from the hail of bullets. Now she smooths out their death certificates on the kitchen table and says that they suggest the same thing, noting that Serhiy officially died of “gunshot wounds” but Sasha of “multiple gunshot wounds”.
Lyubov seems to find the tiniest scrap of comfort in this thought, and in covering the table with the cakes and sweets and biscuits that she says her husband adored, and in the two dogs that he loved that now doze peacefully on the sunny doorstep.
“What should we call them?” she asks of the Russian invaders.
“Monsters? Beasts? But those two beasts lying there would never do anything like that. The [Nazi] Germans didn’t do this when they were here. I don’t know what to call those who are wandering around our land as if they own it, going into every house and cellar.”
After about a week, and at great personal risk, volunteers retrieved the three bodies and they were immediately buried in the local cemetery “even though people were worried there might be tripwires and landmines there. If we hadn’t managed it, we would have had to bury them here in the garden,” Lyubov says.
'There are foreign bastards in our village,' she wrote. 'Take care. Don't leave your homes. Keep calm'
A few days after hurriedly burying her husband and her only son under continued shelling, Lyubov called her old friend Olha Sukhenko, the elected head of Motyzhyn. “She was a golden person. She was also from Kyiv and I was very close to her and her husband Ihor, and their son Oleksandr was one of my children at the kindergarten.”
When the Russians had arrived in Motyzhyn, Olha had made her feelings clear on her Facebook page: "There are foreign bastards in our village," she wrote. "Take care. Don't leave your homes. Keep calm."
Locals say that under occupation she found food and medicines for elderly villagers and served as a link between the military and territorial defence force members who covertly gathered information on the location and movements of the Russians.
“We spoke a couple of days before she disappeared, and she told me not to worry, to be strong, and that when everything calmed down I should bring in the passports of my boys and she’d register their deaths and so on,” Lyubov recalls.
“She should have left, but she said, ‘How can I leave when there are elderly people here who need my help’?”
Russian troops abducted Olha, Ihor and Oleksandr Sukhenko on March 23rd, and after Ukrainian forces liberated Motyzhyn five days later, their bodies were found with another corpse in a pit close to the former Russian encampment on the edge of the village.
“Olha and I were in touch the day before they were taken, and we often shared information about where the Russians were and what they were doing,” says Oleh Kravchuk, the head of neighbouring Kopyliv village, who is also in temporary charge of Motyzhyn. “They were a great family, and Olha really did a lot for her village and community.”
The Russians dropped several huge bombs on Kopyliv in a possible attempt to hit the nearby Kyiv-Zhytomyr highway, leaving yawning craters in a village where war has completely destroyed six buildings and damaged well over 100 others.
Motyzhyn and Kopyliv will be repaired, Kravchuk says, but who will answer for all the wanton destruction, for the numerous alleged cases of murder, abduction, rape and torture in the area, and for the fates of missing people who may now be in Russian hands or a mass grave?
Roman Koval of Truth Hounds, an NGO that is collecting testimony on possible war crimes, says Kopyliv's ordeal resembles, on a smaller scale, that of Borodyanka, a town 40km north that suffered immense destruction when Russian forces were there.
“At first a couple of columns of Russian troops passed through the village, took it over without a fight and saw there were no Ukrainian troops there. Then a couple of days later they bombed the centre of the village, dropping something like eight bombs from aircraft with no military target around,” he explains.
“It’s very important for us not only to focus on places like Bucha and Borodyanka, but also on villages like Motyzhyn and Kopyliv,” Koval says in a Kyiv café that is busy with breakfast customers as life returns to the city a month after Russian forces were driven from its outskirts. “It’s important to show that the kind of incidents that took place in Borodyanka or Bucha are not just things committed by individual troops, but they are part of a pattern of behaviour – that it is ‘normal’ for [Russian forces] to commit war crimes.”
Ukraine’s prosecutor general says her office has received reports of more than 10,500 alleged war crimes, identified 622 suspects, and is now preparing for its first trial – of a Russian soldier accused of shooting dead an unarmed 62-year-old civilian in the village of Chupakhivka on February 28th.
The UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on Thursday to launch an investigation into alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, after hearing that “the scale of unlawful killings, including indicia of summary executions... is shocking.
"These killings of civilians often appeared to be intentional, carried out by snipers and soldiers. Civilians were killed when crossing the road or leaving their shelters to seek food and water. Others were killed as they fled in their vehicles," said Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights. "Unarmed local men were killed because Russian soldiers suspected them of supporting Ukrainian forces or otherwise being a potential threat, and some were tortured before being killed."
Moscow boycotted the council session and accused the West of “organising another political rout to demonise Russia”, and it insists its forces are only striking military targets in Ukraine and that all apparent evidence of mass killings in Bucha and elsewhere is “fake”.
“It’s going to take years and we should be realistic about that,” Koval says of the effort to hold Russia to account for crimes committed during an invasion that has already killed thousands of civilians and displaced more than 10 million. “It’s a national challenge, but also a national goal to find every perpetrator and war criminal. And it’s not only about justice but about the truthful narrative of what has happened, and what is happening right now in Ukraine.”
'When I told friends and relatives in Russia about Serhiy and Sasha, they said Ukraine had killed them. I told them not to call me again or to speak such filth'
It is illegal in Russia to say it invaded or is waging war in Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin’s actions and aims are not questioned, let alone criticised, by Kremlin-dominated media; instead, there is only relentless repetition of the official line, that this is a special military operation to protect Russia from a Nazi-tainted Ukraine and a hostile West.
“When I told friends and relatives in Russia about Serhiy and Sasha, they said Ukraine had killed them. I told them not to call me again or to speak such filth,” says Lyubov. “What else does Putin need? He has money up to his eyeballs, he can go anywhere in the world – what does he need? To make a war? I don’t know what is in that idiot’s head... If someone in his circle doesn’t kill him then nothing good will happen. While that bastard is still alive, things won’t calm down.”
When Motyzhyn was liberated on March 28th, two days before neighbouring Kopyliv, Lyubov was told that the hastily buried bodies of Serhiy and Sasha must be exhumed for official identification.
"The gravediggers here said, "Lyubov Vladimirovna, it's one thing to bury someone but quite another to dig them up.' But they agreed to do it for 1,000 hryvnia [€33] and a bottle of vodka," she recalls. "All the morgues around here were full, so we had to do a round trip of more than 100km to take their bodies to Bila Tserkva. Thankfully, an old friend who's a policeman looked at the bodies. It would have killed me to have to see them."
Only then could Lyubov give a dignified funeral to her husband and her only son.
“Finally they had a civilised send-off,” she says. “These reburials – there are a lot of them around here now.”