July 26, 2022 18:23 GMT
Ruslan Kulyk was one of five civilians whom relatives and residents say were summarily executed by Russian soldiers at a post office in Peremoha shortly after they seized control of the village on February 28.
PEREMOHA, Ukraine -- For years, Serhiy Kulyk has been holding onto a plot of land next to his modest house in Peremoha, a village about 60 kilometers northeast of Kyiv.
He hoped his 27-year-old son, Ruslan, would one day build a home on the spot for his own family so they could remain close together.
That dream is gone forever: It died along with Ruslan, one of five civilians whom relatives and residents say were summarily executed by Russian soldiers at a post office in Peremoha shortly after they seized control of the village on February 28, according to an investigation by Schemes.
The Ukrainian government is investigating the killings as a possible war crime. Based in part on reporting by Schemes, the authorities have identified two Russian officers they allege ordered soldiers to shoot civilians in Peremoha -- Maksim Krasnoshchyokov and Aleksandr Vasilyev -- as suspects.
Maksim Krasnoshchyokov (left) and Aleksandr Vasilyev
Serhiy and Larysa Kulyk are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after their loss, but every day the question looms: What’s the point?
“We have come to terms a little bit, but it is difficult, very difficult, to bury your children,” Ruslan’s mother, Larysa Kulyk, told Schemes, an investigative unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, as she placed flowers on the fresh grave of her only son.
After Russian forces were driven out of Peremoha in March and April, the Kulyks went back to a semblance of the lives they were living before Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, including returning to work. But the attraction of everyday activities, like tending to their garden and picking food for their children, has faded.
“Why do we need [the garden] without our son?” Larysa Kulyk asked through tears. “What is the purpose?”
Shot On The Stairs
The Kulyks, who have two adult daughters, are among thousands of Ukrainian families across the country who have lost loved ones in Russia’s war, which is grinding on more than five months after the invasion with no end in sight.
Their son and the four other men shot at the post office are among the many victims of Russian soldiers who held sway in parts of northern Ukraine in the weeks after the invasion -- and left a trail of death, destruction, and allegations of rape, torture, and other atrocities when they retreated, having failed to take Kyiv.
Peremoha, which means victory in Ukrainian and is named after the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, is one of the many cities, towns, and villages in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions that Russian forces swept into from the north in the first several days of the invasion.
On the evening of February 28, the day Russian troops entered the village, Serhiy and Ruslan Kulyk made their way to the post office. They were part of a group of Peremoha men communicating via chat about how to defend their village of 1,100 people. Several of the men had agreed to meet that day at the post office, where one of them worked, to discuss what steps to take.
Serhiy Kulyk told Schemes that he thought the Russian column of armored vehicles would pass through Peremoha on its way to Rusaniv, a village 7 kilometers to the west.
He expected the Russian forces to face stiff resistance in Rusaniv -- and reasoned that as they retreated, Peremoha’s volunteer defenders could try to pick off some armored vehicles with Molotov cocktails.
But the column stopped in Peremoha, he said, and the Russian soldiers immediately began looking for individuals -- especially men -- serving in local militias known as territorial defense units or in any way helping the Ukrainian armed forces.
Peremoha resident Olena Palivoda said she told her husband, Oleksandr, not to meet up with the group at the post office, warning him that it was too dangerous.
It was one thing for the villagers to attack a single Russian military vehicle with Molotov cocktails, she told him, and another for them to stare down at an entire armored column.
"We will defend the village," she said he answered in reply.
Palivoda said her husband and the others may have been inspired by videos of Ukrainian acts of heroism during the first four days of the war.
But whatever plans they may have had, they never got a chance to put them into action. Russian troops learned of their meeting, possibly from a collaborator or a villager they interrogated, and made their way to the post office.
Ruslan's Last Text
Serhiy and Ruslan Kulik had nearly reached the building when they saw Russian armored vehicles heading in the same direction, Serhiy said. He said he ran through a fence and called out to his son, who he thought was running behind him, only to realize later that he had decided to hide with others in the cellar of the post office building.
“Mom, they have almost found us,” Ruslan texted that night, at 9:50 p.m. It was the last time his parents heard from him.
Andriy stands in the ruins of the post office building. “Before my eyes, they were simply shot and thrown into the basement,” he said.
Andriy, another member of the group chat, told Schemes he was captured by Russian forces near the village council building and beaten. The soldiers interrogated him, taking his phone away, and frog-marched him to the post office, where they interrogated him again. Two other men were being questioned there as well.
The soldiers ordered the two other men into the cellar, he said, and shot them from behind as they took the first few steps down the stairs.
“Before my eyes, they were simply shot and thrown into the basement,” said Andriy, who did not want his last name published.
He would later learn that the Russian soldiers had already killed three other men inside the post office, their bodies lying out of sight in the cellar.