In an apartment in the relative safety of Kyiv, now a world away from the Ukrainian city she escaped from after her husband was beaten to death, Alyona Lapchuk is preparing for an international mission to seek justice.
“I am going to The Hague to find justice,” she says. “I want those bastards found and punished according to the law.”
We meet Alyona on her way out of the country, where she will be part of a Ukrainian delegation meeting war crimes investigators in Vienna and then The Hague. She is prepared to testify at the International Criminal Court.
When it was clear the city of Kherson would become the first major settlement to be captured by the Russians in late February, Alyona’s husband, Vitaliy, knew he needed to do something.
The 48-year-old had left the military years ago but wanted to defend his city, on the south coast of Ukraine.
Along with another former soldier, Denys Myronov, he tried to join the city’s civil defence unit, but it disbanded after the Russians started taking over large parts of the city.
Instead, the two men secretly created their own resistance movement, with 59 people under their command. Vitaliy was the commander and Denys the deputy commander of the hastily formed guerilla unit. Another man, Anton Hladkiy, was appointed third in command.
They started collecting abandoned weapons from all around the town and stored them at the house of Alyona’s mother.
With a sign saying “bread” on their car, the men delivered bread to volunteers around the city, which was officially taken over by the Russians on March 2. This allowed them to get through checkpoints so they could collect weapons. They also observed Russian positions and reported them back to the Ukrainian military.
On the night of March 27, they agreed to meet at a garage owned by one of the platoon commanders within their unit. A month into the Russian occupation of the city, clandestine meetings in dark rooms were a regular occurrence for Vitaliy Lapchuk and his two comrades.
“Someone betrayed them on that day,” Alyona says, tears running down her face.
When Alyona couldn’t get in touch with Vitaliy for hours, she knew he had been captured.
Then at around 1am, three cars marked with the letter “Z” – the Russian military’s call sign in Ukraine – pulled up outside her house. Her husband rang the doorbell and asked her to open the gates.
“When I opened the gates, I could not recognise my husband,” Alyona recalls. “He was severely beaten. His jaw was broken. He had a split eyebrow. Blood was all over his face.”
Nine armed soldiers entered the house with Vitaliy. He could barely talk, but he kept saying to the Russian soldiers “you promised not to touch my family”.
Alyona admonished the soldiers for invading Ukraine. Then a soldier named Andrey, who had a badge representing the Moscow-backed separatist state, the Donetsk People’s Republic, said “one more word and your teeth will be broken.”
“I immediately stopped talking as I saw they meant it,” Alyona says.
They took the family’s hunting weapons, mobile phones, computers, gold and cash, and Vitaliy took another beating in the basement of the house.
In front of her 73-year-old mother, the soldiers then put bags over the heads of Vitaliy and Alyona, as well as her 34-year-old son, and brought them to the city’s main police station.
They were then put in different rooms and the soldiers started interrogating them. But Vitaliy refused to give them anything. Alyona says she could hear her husband being beaten with sticks, electrocuted and choked.
She thinks she heard the exact moment Vitaliy died. She could no longer hear his moans. They then released Alyona and her son.
When they returned home, they found their house had been destroyed by a missile. They went to her mother’s house, only to find it had been hit by a cluster bomb.
After bunkering down for a week, Alyona and her family decided to escape the city on April 7 to the relative safety of Ukrainian-controlled territory.
On May 22, a boy who had been swimming in the Dnipro River near Kherson’s port, found a body with a kettlebell tied to the feet. Ukrainian authorities contacted Alyona and informed her the body was her husband.
In a four-part series, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age is revealing new details of war crimes committed in Ukraine – including unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and indiscriminate bombings – based on first-hand accounts of victims, witnesses and forensic investigators.
While the actions of Vitaliy and his friends made them genuine enemy combatants under international law, it did not give Russian soldiers the right to beat, torture and kill them.
Matilda Bogner, head of United Nations human rights mission in Ukraine, says her organisation is investigating hundreds of unlawful killings by Russian soldiers.
However, with areas such as Kherson still under Russian occupation, the true extent of Russia’s summary executions could be much higher.
“I don’t mean civilian casualties; I mean specific killings,” Bogner says.
“These have been where Russian forces have been targeting certain individuals they consider are linked to the Ukrainian forces or have been providing support, and once they have identified them, they have just arbitrarily or summarily executed them.”
Alyona is talking to Ukrainian investigators as well as the International Criminal Court about prosecuting the people responsible for her husband’s death. Last month, she visited The Hague and confirmed she would be a witness in any case it brings against soldiers who killed her husband.
“The whole world needs to know this, about these brutes who came here,” Alyona says. “We need to do something … to protect society from these people. This is happening on a mass scale; it is not an isolated incident. This is such a horror.”
Russian FSB agents involved
While Vitaliy was probably killed the night he was captured on March 27, Denys and Anton endured a month of beatings in the police station.
Anton was captured by Russian soldiers on the same night outside the garage as he was late to the meeting. The soldiers repeatedly beat him and his friend over the face with a rifle silencer and then put a bag over his head and tied it with duct tape before taking him to the police station.
Anton, 35, was accused of being a Nazi because of his bald head. He was accused of being a member of a Ukrainian far right political group, the Right Sector, because of his red and white jacket. He was accused of being an American agent because of his Simpsons boxer shorts.
He says the interrogation took place at the same time as the torture: beatings, suffocation with bags, choking, arm twisting, electrical shocks, stripping him naked and firing gunshots from behind his head.
While he couldn’t see Denys, he could hear him being tortured and beaten in another room. Vitaliy was probably already dead.
At some point after a few days, Denys and Anton were brought into the same room.
Agents from Russia’s infamous intelligence service, the Federal Security Service (FSB), came in and ordered them to get up before beating them on the face.
“I didn’t fall after the first and the second blow. It pissed them off. They hit me for the third time. I fell,” Anton says.
The agents then turned to Denys, beating him in the head and groin while threatening to cut off his genitals. After he fell to the floor, they took off his pants and hit him in the bottom and legs with batons.
Anton says the beatings left all of his limbs blue, teeth broken and seven of his ribs broken. One of his ribs still sticks out.
“For some time, all of us were pissing pink,” he says.
Denys was so badly injured the soldiers had to carry him in and out of the room.
After 22 days of being held in Kherson, on April 18 the Russian soldiers handcuffed Denys and Anton and took them by car on a six-hour journey to Sevastopol, in the Russian-held region of Crimea. They were brought into a former military academy called Ushakov, named after a Russian admiral, which Anton recognised because he served there while in the Ukrainian military.
They underwent medical examinations, and Anton says it was clear that Denys was in bad condition and needed help.
The next day, they took Denys to the hospital. It was the last time Anton saw him alive.
Four days later, he was asked to identify a body; it was Denys’. The official cause of death was “chest injury with pneumothorax fracture”.
Five days after that, on April 28, a prison guard came in and began calling last names.
Anton was released as part of a prisoner exchange, more than a month after being captured.
Months later, he talks almost every day with Ukrainian authorities and international organisations about getting justice for Denys and Vitaliy.
“I can’t say that I want vengeance. I want those people – not just the people who did that to me, but the Russians as a whole – to realise that there should be no war in the 21st century,” he says.
Denys’ mother, Natalia Mironova, says her son could have survived if he was given basic medical care.
“I don’t think they tried to save him,” she says. “No medical assistance was provided to him for three weeks.”
“It’s the 21st century, and they are inhuman barbarians. I think these people are born to kill. A human can’t do that to another human.”
With Fedir Sydoryk
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