BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainians marked the anniversary Friday of the liberation of Bucha with calls for remembrance and justice after a brutal Russian occupation that left hundreds of civilians dead in the streets and in mass graves, establishing the town as a symbol of the war’s atrocities.
“We will not let it be forgotten,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at a formal ceremony in Bucha, vowing to punish those who committed outrages there that are still raw. “Human dignity will not let it be forgotten. On the streets of Bucha, the world has seen Russian evil. Evil unmasked.”
Bucha’s name has come to evoke savagery by Moscow’s military since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. Ukrainian troops who retook the town near Kyiv found the bodies of men, women and children on the streets, in yards and homes, and in mass graves. Some showed signs of torture.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, fighting continued Friday: Russia used its long-range arsenal to bombard anew several areas, killing at least two civilians and damaging homes.
And the Kremlin-allied president of neighboring Belarus raised the stakes when he said Russian strategic nuclear weapons might be deployed in his country, along with part of Moscow’s tactical nuclear arsenal. Moscow said earlier this week that it planned to place in Belarus tactical nuclear weapons, which are comparatively short-range and low-yield. Strategic nuclear weapons such as missile-borne warheads would bring a greater threat.
At the official commemoration in Bucha, Zelenskyy was joined by the president of Moldova and the prime ministers of Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia.
The Kremlin’s forces occupied Bucha weeks after they invaded Ukraine and stayed for about a month. When Ukrainian troops retook the town, they encountered horrific scenes. Over weeks and months, hundreds of bodies were uncovered, including children.
Russian soldiers on intercepted phone conversations called it “zachistka” — cleansing, according to an investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline.”
Such organized cruelty, which Russian troops employed in past conflicts as well, notably in Chechnya, was later repeated in Russia-occupied territories across Ukraine.
Zelenskyy handed out medals to soldiers, police officers, doctors, teachers and emergency workers in Bucha, as well as to the families of two soldiers killed during the defense of the Kyiv region.
“Ukrainian people, you have stopped the biggest anti-human force of our times,” he said. “You have stopped the force which has no respect and wants to destroy everything that gives meaning to human life.”
More than 1,400 civilian deaths, including 37 children, were documented in the Bucha district by Ukrainian authorities, Zelenskyy said. More than 175 people were found in mass graves and alleged torture chambers, he said. Ukraine and other countries, including the U.S., have demanded that Russia answer for war crimes.
Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin alleged Friday that many of the dead civilians were tortured. Almost 100 Russian soldiers are suspected of war crimes, he said on his Telegram channel, and indictments have been issued for 35 of them.
Two Russian servicemen have already been sentenced by a Ukrainian court to 12 years in prison for illegally depriving civilians of liberty, and for looting.
“I am convinced that all these crimes are not a coincidence. This is part of Russia’s planned strategy aimed at destroying Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a nation,” Kostin said.
In Geneva, the U.N. human rights chief said his office has so far verified the deaths of more than 8,400 civilians in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion — a count believed to be far short of the true toll. Volker Türk told the U.N. Human Rights Council that “severe violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have become shockingly routine” amid Russia’s invasion.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, along with announcing the possibility of Russian strategic nuclear weapons being put on his country’s soil, at the same time called for a cease-fire in Ukraine. A truce, he said in his state-of-the-nation address in Minsk, must be announced without any preconditions, and all movement of troops and weapons must be halted.
“It’s necessary to stop now before an escalation begins,” Lukashenko said, adding that an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive using Western-supplied weapons would bring “an irreversible escalation of the conflict.”
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded that Russia has to keep fighting, claiming Ukraine has rejected any talks under pressure from its Western allies.
Peskov also dismissed remarks by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s that the European Union was mulling the deployment of peacekeeping troops to Ukraine, calling that “extremely dangerous.”
Russia has maintained its bombardment of Ukraine with the war already into its second year. Along with the two civilians killed Friday, 14 other civilians were wounded early Friday as Russia launched missiles, shells, exploding drones and gliding bombs, the Ukraine presidential office said.
Two Russian missiles hit the city of Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region, damaging eight residential buildings., the office said. Nine Russian missiles struck Kharkiv, damaging residential buildings, roads, gas stations and a prison. And Russian forces shelled the southern city and region of Kherson.
A barrage at Zaporizhzhia and its outskirts caused major fires.