Human Rights Watch has documented several cases of Russian military forces committing laws-of-war violations against civilians in occupied areas of the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv regions of Ukraine. These include a case of repeated rape; two cases of summary execution, one of six men, the other of one man; and other cases of unlawful violence and threats against civilians between February 27 and March 14, 2022. Soldiers were also implicated in looting civilian property, including food, clothing, and firewood. Those who carried out these abuses are responsible for war crimes.
“The cases we documented amount to unspeakable, deliberate cruelty and violence against Ukrainian civilians,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Rape, murder, and other violent acts against people in the Russian forces’ custody should be investigated as war crimes.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 people, including witnesses, victims, and local residents of Russia-occupied territories, in person or by telephone. Some people asked to be identified only by their first names or by pseudonyms for their protection.
On March 4, Russian forces in Bucha, about 30 kilometers northwest of Kyiv, rounded up five men and summarily executed one of them. A witness told Human Rights Watch that soldiers forced the five men to kneel on the side of the road, pulled their T-shirts over their heads, and shot one of the men in the back of the head. “He fell [over],” the witness said, “and the women [present at the scene] screamed.”
Russian forces in the village of Staryi Bykiv, in Chernihiv region, rounded up at least six men on February 27, and later executed them, according to the mother of one of the men, who was nearby when her son and another man were apprehended, and who saw the dead bodies of all six.
A 60-year-old man told Human Rights Watch that on March 4, a Russian soldier threatened to summarily execute him and his son in Zabuchchya, a village northwest of Kyiv, after searching their home and finding a hunting rifle and gasoline in the backyard. Another soldier intervened to prevent the other soldier from killing them, the man said. His daughter corroborated his account in a separate interview.
On March 6, Russian soldiers in the village of Vorzel, about 50 kilometers northwest of Kyiv, threw a smoke grenade into a basement, then shot a woman and a 14-year-old child as they emerged from the basement, where they had been sheltering. A man who was with her in the same basement when she died from her wounds two days later, and heard accounts of the incident from others, provided the information to Human Rights Watch. The child died immediately, he said.
A woman told Human Rights Watch that a Russian soldier had repeatedly raped her in a school in the Kharkiv region where she and her family had been sheltering on March 13. She said that he beat her and cut her face, neck, and hair with a knife. The next day the woman fled to Kharkiv, where she was able to get medical treatment and other services. Human Rights Watch reviewed two photographs, which the woman shared with Human Rights Watch, showing her facial injuries.
Many of the Ukrainian civilians we interviewed described Russian forces taking food, firewood, clothing, and other items such as chainsaws, axes, and gasoline.
All parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, and customary international law. Belligerent armed forces that have effective control of an area are subject to the international law of occupation. International human rights law, which is applicable at all times, also applies.
The laws of war prohibit willful killing, rape and other sexual violence, torture, and inhumane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Pillage and looting are also prohibited. Anyone who orders or deliberately commits such acts, or aids and abets them, is responsible for war crimes. Commanders of forces who knew or had reason to know about such crimes but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible are criminally liable for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.
“Russia has an international legal obligation to impartially investigate alleged war crimes by its soldiers,” Williamson said. “Commanders should recognize that a failure to take action against murder and rape may make them personally responsible for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.”