“This Breaks My Soul”: A Ukrainian Boy And a Murder

As he listened to his father die, the boy lay still on the asphalt. His elbow ached, pierced by a bullet. He stung her thumb where another had brushed it.

It was another murder on a lonely street in Bucha, a town on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, kyiv, where civilian bodies continue to be found weeks after Russian soldiers withdrew. Many of the dead were shot in the head.

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Yura Nechyporenko, then 14 years old, was about to become one of them.

Survivors have described how soldiers shot them near the feet or threatened them with grenades, before being pushed away by a calmer comrade. But on that March day there was no one to hold the Russian soldier as Yura and her father, Ruslan, 47, cycled down a tree-lined street.

They went to visit vulnerable neighbors, sheltered in basements and houses without electricity or running water. They had a white cloth tied around their bicycles, a sign that they were riding in peace.

When the soldier came out of a dirt road to scold them, Yura and his father immediately stopped and raised their hands.

“What are you doing?” asked the soldier. Yura’s father didn’t have time to reply.

The boy heard two shots. His father fell to the ground, his mouth open and already bleeding.

A shot hit Yura’s hand and he too fell. Another shot hit him in the elbow. He closed his eyes.

There was one last shot.

Yura’s extraordinary testimony of an assassination attempt by Russian soldiers draws attention at a time when international justice experts arrive at Bucha, which has become the center of horrors and war crimes in Ukraine. In Bucha alone, 31 children under the age of 18 were killed and 19 were injured, according to local authorities.

“All the children were deliberately killed or injured, as Russian soldiers deliberately shot at evacuating cars with ‘CHILDREN’ signs and white cloth tied, and deliberately shot at civilians’ houses,” he said. to The Associated Press the region’s chief prosecutor, Ruslan Kravchenko.

The United Nations human rights office says at least 202 children have been killed in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and believes the true number is considerably higher. The Ukrainian government has counted 217 dead children and some 390 wounded.

From various sources, AP and Frontline have independently documented 18 attacks that killed children that likely meet the definition of a war crime. The number of minors who were victims of the attacks is unknown, and that number represents only a part of the possible war crimes.

Yura is a growing teenager, tall and pimpled on his face, with dark shadows under his eyes. She lies on the floor of the family home to explain what happened, showing the healing holes in his elbow.

His mother, Alla, takes a deep breath to calm herself. Yura sits up and hugs her, before laying his head on her mother’s shoulder.

On that fateful day, Yura survived the assassination attempt thanks to that adolescent constant, his gray sweatshirt. The shot went through the hood instead of him, and he felt her move.

Yura stayed quiet for a few minutes on the ground, waiting for the soldier to leave.

Then Yura started running.

When he finally got home, his family called the police. Police told the family that officers did not know what to do with the case, according to the boy’s uncle, Andriy. A prosecutor’s report describes the murder and attempted murder in a few sanitized sentences. Kravchenko told the AP that they are still working on the Yura case.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced in March that investigations of crimes against children in particular would receive support from a new fund. Children make up half or more of those affected by conflict, but they are often seen as too vulnerable to testify or have poor memories, said Veronique Aubert, special adviser to the ICC prosecutor on crimes involving children.

Yura’s case is unusual.

“Prosecutors might want this case because the victim is still alive and could testify,” said Ryan Goodman, a New York University law professor and former Defense Department special counsel. “It could be difficult, if not impossible, for a defendant to claim that they had any justification for trying to kill a child.”

Yura’s family recovered her father’s leather the next day. Yura’s grandmother implored the Russian soldiers to let her get closer.

Weapons loaded, they let her walk past. Another soldier shouted from afar, “don’t come here or we will kill you.” But he didn’t shoot.

The body was brought home in a wheelbarrow and buried in the garden, in one of the many hastily dug graves during the month of Russian occupation.

Yura and her family left Bucha the next day in one of the few opportunities to go out in an evacuation corridor. They had to go through the scene of the shooting. Yura had his arm in a white sling and the Russian soldiers asked what had happened.

“I was shot by a Russian soldier,” the boy replied.

The answer terrified her mother. “I felt like everything was collapsing inside of me,” she recalled. “I thought they would all shoot us.”

But the soldiers let them pass. The family left the place that day.

The gray sweatshirt, bloodied at the elbow and with the top seam torn, is now at the center of the family’s quest for justice. When the Russians left, they returned to Bucha and reburied Yura’s father.

His mother considers sending the boy abroad for his mental health. She also needs some distance.

“Physically I am never alone, but it is possible to be alone mentally,” she said on the verge of tears. “I try to avoid it.”

She hopes the courts work and believes that no one should go through what her son went through. Yura fears that it has already happened.

“I’m not the only one who wants justice,” he said. “Even now there could be people being tortured and killed in Ukraine.”

Yura turned 15 on April 12. It was a birthday with few celebrations. Normally, her father, a good cook, prepared something to celebrate.

The family reconvened on April 25 to commemorate 40 days since Ruslan’s death, as is the local custom. Yura quietly lit a candle and placed it on the grave. She then covered her head with the hood of a sweatshirt, a black one, to protect herself from the cold.

The boy’s uncle, Andriy, fears that the trauma of surviving death will affect Yura.

“This breaks my soul,” Andriy said through tears. “What we see is suffering after suffering.”

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Frontline producer Tom Jennings contributed to this report.

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