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In Bucha, death, devastation and a graveyard of mines

A man walks his bike through a parking lot littered with broken glass in Bucha, Ukraine.

BUCHA, Ukraine – The Russian forces had not been in town for long before they came to the home of Volodymyr Avramov, a resident of Vokzal'na Street in the quiet Ukrainian suburb of Bucha.

Three Russians kicked in the doors and threw in a grenade, the 72-year-old Avramov said. Inside were Avramov, his daughter, and his son-in-law, Oleh.

They dragged Oleh outside and made him kneel – then shot him in the head as Avramov and his daughter watched, he said. The two then had to shelter in a basement for weeks as the fighting continued.

"Oleh was laying on the street for a month. I could not come close or bury him, nothing," he said.

Images of dead civilians lining the streets of Bucha have shocked the world in recent days and heightened concerns that Russian soldiers are committing war crimes in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called it genocide.

"There were piles of dead corpses lying here, without arms, without legs, without skulls," Avramov said. "You wouldn't see it in a nightmare. It's horror."

Stories resembling the one told by Avramov have been documented by Human Rights Watch, which found evidence of execution-style killings of civilian men in multiple Ukrainian cities, including Bucha.

Now Ukraine has intensified its calls for the West to provide more military aid and take greater action against Russia, in hopes of tipping the scale as the fight shifts from Kyiv to eastern Ukraine.

"If we had already got what we needed – all these planes, tanks, artillery, anti-missile and anti-ship weapons – we could have saved thousands of people. I do not blame you — I blame only the Russian military. But you could have helped," Zelenskyy said in a speech Monday.

200 bodies of civilians have been recovered so far

As part of the effort, Ukrainian authorities have organized tours for foreign journalists to see the extent of Russia's devastation of Bucha: Destroyed homes, blackened buildings, blown out windows, and the apocalyptic Vokzal'na Street – a half-mile-long graveyard of burned out tanks and cars.

Amid the ruins, members of a demining crew showed journalists some of the explosives that have been recovered from homes in the city. About 4,000 were found on Monday alone, officials said, a mix of mines, ammunition and unexploded missiles.

The bodies of some 200 civilians have been recovered so far in the Bucha area, officials say, and more are uncovered each day as crews work to remove mines and clear rubble.

On Tuesday, officials showed journalists six bodies burned beyond recognition in a backyard in a quiet, wooded corner of town. They had been discovered the previous night, according to Dymtro Andriv, a Ukrainian National Police spokesperson.

"We know they were killed by gunfire, because there are many bullet wounds. Then somebody tried to hide this crime by burning the bodies," Andriv said, adding that the site had no signs of artillery shelling or other explosives.

As bodies are uncovered, authorities say they are working to verify their identities and investigate their deaths for any evidence of war crimes, including physical evidence linking their deaths to specific Russian soldiers.

"We know that they came here to kill Ukrainians as a nation and to destroy our country as a state. But we need to prove that to the whole world. That's why we are meticulously collecting evidence," Ukraine's Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said Tuesday.

In the midst of it all, a misinformation war rages

Russia repeatedly has tried to discredit photos and other evidence of dead civilians in Bucha.

"It is simply a well-directed – but tragic – show," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov Tuesday. "It is a forgery aimed at denigrating the Russian army, and it will not work."

Russian officials have put forward several claims about the origin of the images. Former president Dmitry Medvedev said that Western public relations companies fabricated the photographs.

Another Russian theory held that Ukrainians staged the bodies after winning back control of the city. But satellite images by the firm Maxar show that the dead had been laying in place since mid-March, when Russian forces occupied the town.

The efforts at propaganda have disgusted Ukrainian officials, said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, who served as Ukraine's minister of defense from 2019 to 2020.

"It is absolutely clear that these people weren't just dressed in civilian clothes. They were civilians, because most of them have already been identified. We know their addresses. They are locals. They're local residents who lived in those houses," he said. "It just shows how sickening the Moscow government is."

Among everyday Ukrainians, the images and stories out of Bucha have evaporated what little sympathy may have remained for Russian soldiers, hundreds of whom have been captured as prisoners of war.

One Ukrainian soldier, who could not give his name for security reasons, warned that Ukrainian forces may no longer try to take Russians alive.

"Now, with most of our units having the information about Mariupol and how many dead people and those horrible Bucha pictures are available publicly, nobody will capture them anymore," he said. "No one cares anymore. They're all going to go into the ground."

Daniel Wood contributed to this story. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.