Accessibility links

Breaking News

'Shot In The Head': Beloved Son, Son-In-Law Among Victims Of 'Deliberate Cruelty' In Russian War On Ukraine

Viktoria Vovk holds portraits of her son and son-in-law. "They tormented our children. For what? They didn't hurt anyone!"
Viktoria Vovk holds portraits of her son and son-in-law. "They tormented our children. For what? They didn't hurt anyone!"

STARIY BYKIV, Ukraine -- As the bitter memories came rushing back, Viktoria Vovk couldn't hold back tears.

When Russian troops entered Stariy Bykiv on February 27, three days after the invasion of Ukraine began, they took her adult son and son-in-law from her courtyard by force, saying they would be questioned and then released later in the day.

They did not come back that evening, though, and when they had still not returned the next morning, Vovk, growing anxious, set off with a cousin to search for them.

She found them not far from her home -- lying dead along with four other bodies next to an abandoned, windowless, one-story building.

"They were shot in the head," Vovk told RFE/RL in an interview at her home in Stariy Bykiv, about 100 kilometers east of Kyiv in the Chernihiv region of northern Ukraine.

An examination conducted by Ukrainian authorities weeks later indicated that her son, Bohdan Hladkiy, 29, and son-in-law, Oleksandr Mohyrchuk, 38, had been tortured before they were shot. One had an artery cut while the other had punctures to the heart and broken ribs, Vovk said.

"They tormented our children. For what? They didn't hurt anyone!" Vovk said, tears running down her face as she clutched portraits of the two men. "I don't know how to survive all this."

Rolling into northern Ukraine from Belarus in the first days of the invasion, Russian forces pressing south toward Kyiv occupied numerous towns and villages while pounding parts of the capital and the city of Chernihiv with bombs, rockets, and artillery.

In many towns and villages, Russian forces abducted male residents, sometimes accusing them of passing information about their location to Ukrainian forces or being members of local defense units.

Vovk said her son had just arrived by train from Kyiv, where he worked for a private postal company, because he thought the sleepy village would be safer than the capital. It was a fatal decision for him and for many others who left Kyiv and other large cities in the early days of the war. Vovk described her son as a "regular guy" who had no interest in the military.

Olha Yavon, another resident of Stariy Bykiv, is also grieving: Her sons Ihor, 32, and Oleh, 33, were among the six whose bodies were found outside the abandoned building. They too were snatched off the street, purportedly on suspicion of passing on information.

Olha Yavon is grieving her two sons.
Olha Yavon is grieving her two sons.

Russian forces retreated from areas around Kyiv weeks after the invasion began, unable to seize the capital, and the Russian offensive is now focused on eastern and southern Ukraine.

But they left behind thousands of victims, and the accounts of bereaved survivors like Vovk are part of a growing body of evidence and allegations of war crimes that are being examined by Ukrainian authorities and international organizations.

In an April 3 statement, Human Rights Watch said that the "summary executions" of Hladkiy, Mohyrchuk, and the four men whose bodies were found with them were among several cases it has documented that "amount to unspeakable, deliberate cruelty and violence against Ukrainian civilians."

Some of the most prominent evidence has emerged in Bucha, a town northwest of Kyiv. Ukraine says more than 1,000 bodies of civilians have been discovered in or around Bucha after Russian troops withdrew. Many bodies showed signs of torture.

Russian troops occupied Stariy Bykov as well as Novy Bykiv, the neighboring village across the Supiy River, for more than a month before being pushed back by Ukrainian forces at the end of March. They left a trail of death, destruction, and agony that residents will never forget.

Russian troops occupied the local school, kindergarten, and hospital and set up their headquarters in a bomb shelter beneath Noviy Bykiv's cultural center. They rounded up dozens of residents from both sides of the river, saying they suspected them of aiding Ukrainian forces and keeping them locked up in the small, one-story boiler building that supplied hot water to the cultural center.

Maksim Didyk
Maksim Didyk

Some of the hostages, including Maksym Didyk, were held in the dark, narrow cellar below the boiler building. Didyk, who was held for 12 days, told RFE/RL there were about two dozen people kept captive in the boiler building, including in the cellar, during his detainment. Overall, more than 40 people were held there during the monthlong occupation, locals said.

Among the captives was Viktoria Andrusha, a 25-year-old schoolteacher who lived elsewhere but had returned to Stariy Bykiv after Russia's invasion to be with her parents. Russian troops seized her on March 25 and brought her to the boiler room, according to Didyk. They took her away two days later, and she has never been seen since.

Viktoria Andrushka
Viktoria Andrushka

Nor has Oleksandr Ihnatov, a 52-year-old who suffered from amnesia following a car accident a few years ago. Residents who were held hostage said that Russian soldiers abused Ihnatov most of all.

Several residents who were held in the boiler building did not survive, Didyk says.

As Russian troops were preparing to pull out of Noviy and Stariy Bykiv in late March, the commander called out several hostages one at a time and shot them, says Didyk, who heard the gunshots from inside the boiler building.

Three hostages were later found on the ground about 100 meters away with fatal gunshot wounds. Among the dead were Volodymyr Vovk, a 38-year-old worker at a school for orphans who himself was raised in an orphanage.

Russian troops destroyed more than 100 buildings in the two villages as well as nearly all its infrastructure.

Written by Todd Prince based on reporting by Dmytro Dzhulay of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.