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'What did they liberate us from?': Russian troops' brutality detailed

By Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop and Phil Hemingway in Berestyanka, Ukraine

Warning: This article contains details readers might find distressing.

When Vira Holubenko returned to her once sleepy village near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv yesterday, she found condoms and empty alcohol bottles in her ransacked home, and a shallow grave in her neighbour's backyard.

Borodyanka, UKRAINE - APRIL 6: A teddy bear hanging from a tree in front of a building bombed by the Russian army in Borodyanka (Ukraine), 6 April 2022.
A teddy bear hanging from a tree in front of a building bombed by the Russian army in Borodyanka - like Berestyanka, it has been attacked as part of the Russian army's push to capture Kyiv. Photo: AFP

Rockets and ammunition lay strewn in the fields behind Holubenko's house in the rural village of Berestyanka, which was looted and set alight late last week by Russian soldiers retreating from a brutal month-long occupation.

"They broke everything in my house, they burnt down my neighbour's house," she said.

"They ate all the potatoes in the cellar, they ate all our food. What are we going to plant? What are we going to eat? How are we going to survive like this in the village?"

The ABC has gathered accounts of potential war crimes against civilians in the village - rapes, shootings and a senseless execution - allegedly carried out by Russian forces when they used Berestyanka as one of their bases in their thwarted five-week attempt to storm Kyiv.

The alleged atrocities add to mounting evidence of widespread war crimes in the Kyiv area, including in the town of Bucha, 25 kilometres south of Berestyanka, where the Russians left behind hundreds of bodies of civilians, including in the streets.

An international team of investigators is documenting the widespread slaughter of civilians in the towns on the road to the capital, some apparently shot at close range, others with their hands bound or their skin burned.

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Workers line up bodies for identification by forensic personnel and police officers in the cemetery in Bucha, north of Kyiv, on April 6, 2022,
Workers carry a body bag so that it can be identified by forensic officials, at a cemetery in Bucha near Kyiv. Photo: AFP

After fleeing the area at the start of the war, Vira Holubenko returned to Berestyanka yesterday to hear harrowing tales of drunken soldiers using machine guns to terrorise her neighbours, who were forced to creep through fields in the dead of night to find food and tend to pets.

Russian armoured vehicles first rolled through the village's dirt roads on 27 February, the third day of the invasion, in a 64km-long convoy headed for the capital.

Six days later, on 3 March, they returned to dig in trenches around Berestyanka, after the troops dispersed in an attempt to encircle Kyiv, about 50km south-east.

Satellite imagery showed rocket launchers moving into firing positions in the village.

The soldiers occupied homes, including Holubenko's, spraying them with the letter 'V' - a common Russian army symbol which the country's Defence Ministry has said stands for "truth is strength" or "task will be completed".

Less than a week after they settled in, the occupation descended into depravity.

On the night of 9 March, a group of armed Russian soldiers wandered past the chicken coops at the home that 65-year-old Valentina Cheradnienko shared with her daughter, her son-in-law and their child.

According to witness accounts to the ABC, they came hunting for her daughter and a female friend.

Cheradnienko said her daughter's husband, Sasha Pistun, a construction worker and father of two, answered the door to soldiers pointing guns.

"They came to take these two women to rape them," she said.

"Sasha said, 'I will not let her go, take me instead.' He said, 'I'm Russian. Are you going to shoot me?'

"Then I heard the sound of a click and Sasha fell."

The female friend told the ABC she and a woman were raped by two soldiers in a captured home that night after Pistun was executed.

She said her rapist was the age of her son: 19. She estimated the other to be aged in his 40s.

Like many victims of this war, there was one final indignity for Sasha Pistun: A shallow, unmarked grave in his backyard.

Standing in the doorway where her son-in-law was killed, Cheradnienko told the ABC her family begged Russian forces to help them bury him.

"Two young soldiers came and dug a hole," she said.

"They could hardly drag him from the house. We couldn't go to the cemetery because there was shelling all around and the rockets were coming."

The grave now sits surrounded by other additions to the village, destroyed armoured vehicles in the nearby forest and stacks of artillery boxes left behind outside the homes.

As the Russian troops approached Berestyanka in February, the village's women were warned by a nearby occupied community to make themselves as unattractive as possible for the soldiers.

"People from there were calling us to tell us to take off our jewellery, put on our headscarves and dress as old women," said Cheradnienko's next-door neighbour, Larysa Fedorets.

"They also told us that the soldiers would use women and children as human shields."

Fedorets, 56, spent the month hiding in her neighbour's cellar, sometimes crawling on hands and knees at night to return to her home and avoid the soldiers.

"They treated us badly," she said.

"They were walking with their machine guns pointed at us, and late at night they were showing up drunk and shooting people in the legs."

Before Ukrainian forces liberated the village late last week, she said the soldiers tore through the homes, looting them and destroying her car.

"They were taking clothes, they were breaking windows and doors and taking whitegoods and electronics from the houses. They took gas stoves and TVs," she said.

Vira Holubenko returned to her home yesterday to find a cyclonic mess: Broken windows, destroyed furniture, and clothes, food and Russian army supplies strewn across her floors.

The Russian occupation has devastated her family.

In the nearby city of Borodyanka, where Ukrainian authorities expect the largest number of deaths in the Kyiv area, the apartment she and her husband bought for their son with their life savings was destroyed in an air strike.

BORODIANKA, UKRAINE - APRIL 06: A woman walks past destroyed buildings after Ukrainian army regained control of Borodyanka, Ukraine on March 06, 2022.
A woman walks past bombed buildings in Borodyanka. Photo: AFP

"Look at these 'liberators'," she said of Russian troops, who President Vladimir Putin claimed were invading Ukraine to liberate its people.

"What did they liberate us from? From a good life, a cosy house, a stable family.

"Now everyone is trembling and no-one can sleep. We have nothing here, no light, no gas, no warmth.

"So what did they liberate us from? Let Putin answer that question.

"I don't know how we are going to keep living."