How the barbaric lessons of Syria afflicted a small Ukrainian village | Ukraine

A Dog sprang up as Oleh Bondarenko walked towards the garden containing the burned-out house where he had been beaten, tortured and left to die. “Hey, friend,” he called, patting her head and explaining the loving greeting. “I spoke to her a lot when I was here.”

He lost several teeth to Russian attacks, his torso is covered in scars and the damage to his spine could be permanent. But his sense of humor somehow emerged unscathed from days of ordeal at the hands of Russian soldiers serving in Syria before bringing some of that war’s horrors to the once idyllic countryside outside of Kyiv.

“My little house,” he said with a wry smile, peering into a concrete pipe embedded in the ground as a water cistern. It’s not deep enough to stand in with the manhole cover on, and not wide enough to sit down; it’s just big enough to hold a man hunched over in some sort of sleeping bag. Bondarenko was held here for two days in March, slowly losing all feeling in his arms and legs and then all ability to move them.

An excavated, empty site of a mass grave in a clearing surrounded by tall trees
The site of the mass grave in the forest where the body of Olga Petrivna, the head of the village council, was found. Photo: Alessio Mamo/The Observer

Russian troops had arrived at Motyzhyn, just south of the main road leading west out of Kyiv, five days into the war. In a small grove on the outskirts, they hid a battery of Grad rocket launchers and other artillery, dug dugouts for dozens of troops, and then set up camp to torture and murder civilians on the compound next to their position.

By the time Bondarenko was taken there — after beatings, mock executions, and other tortures at his home and then blindfolded in a truck at an abandoned farm — the soldiers had developed a somber routine that they performed every day in a drunken bloodlust.

“It was systematic,” he says. The grass next to the large porch of a warehouse was used to torture officers who rested and ate under the canopy. Executions took place in the ruins of the bombed-out house, and shallow mass graves were dug in the nearby woods for the victims.

This nightmare was directed by three men molded in a conflict notoriously abusive. Trapped in his underground chamber, Bondarenko overheard them rejoicing at their transfer to Ukraine. “They said that after Syria it was like a fairy tale for them here,” he said. “It’s a prosperous village and there was a lot to steal.”

From the beginning of the invasion it was clear that many of the troops and officers fighting there were in Syria. But Bondarenko’s testimony now links some of the worst abuses of that war to men thousands of miles away on the ground defending Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Satellite image of Motyzhyn showing the torture and killing sites

Prosecutors from the Kyiv region, having abruptly switched from investigating small-town crime to documenting large-scale atrocities, are investigating the village killing camp.

Oleh Tkalenko, a senior prosecutor for the Kyiv region, told the observer: “We know these commanders. We are on the verge of identifying them and their names will be released soon.” He also said authorities are aware that a number of Russian soldiers who came to the Kyiv region had previously operated in Syria. Bondarenko said the intelligence services had already given him the first name of one of his main tormentors.

Unlike in Syria, the soldiers in Motyzhyn could speak the same language as their victims, but it made no difference. They simply used this connection to interrogate and torment without the need for an interpreter.

“That is Russky Mir – the Russian world,” Bondarenko said with bitter irony as he surveyed the battlefield in his village and referred to the concept that Vladimir Putin has put forward to justify his invasion, which denies Ukraine’s nationality and claims it is only one Greater Russia region.

Bondarenko had been dragged into a local operations center for Moscow’s murderous war simply because of his place of residence — one of the bad luck that has put so many thousands of Ukrainian civilians in the path of abusive soldiers and their weapons.

The leader of the village’s territorial army, perhaps smarter than brave, had fled with his family when the invasion began. But he owned a yard next to a rehabilitation center for drug users, where Bondarenko lives as a manager.

Russians were nervous and angry after a Ukrainian ambush destroyed a munitions convoy passing through the center of the village. “The next day, the Russians came by with two tanks, killing people and shooting at cars and garages,” said Serhii Dovichenko, who works at the village shop, which was looted and burned down. They also destroyed several houses at the scene of the attack.

Convinced that the Ukrainian resistance was operating nearby, on March 23 they stormed Bondarenko’s center and shelled walls, mirrors and windows. They beat him, performed a mock execution, then tied him to an ATV and made him run as it drove away, telling him he would be shot if he fell.

He managed to stay upright until they reached a nearby farm, where they beat him again and faked another execution. Unable to tell them the whereabouts of an army unit to which he did not belong, they then loaded him blindfolded onto a truck and took him to their camp.

Shortly after his arrival, Ukrainian forces began shelling and his captors fled to the basement, leaving him tied up outside. “They told us, ‘Let your own kill you,'” Bondarenko said, and shrapnel grazed his abdomen, causing bleeding and a scar.

A badly damaged brick house, burned, with the roof missing and most of the upper walls but two tall chimneys still standing
The burnt out house where the Russian unit ended up killing the villagers they captured. Photo: Alessio Mamo/The Observer

At this point he had no idea where he was, although the camp was barely two miles from his home. What was happening there, however, he realized when the soldiers informed him that they had just killed the beloved village leader, her husband and son. Known to locals as Olga Petrivna, a name that mixed affection and deference, she had decided to stay and coordinate aid and territorial defense when the Russians arrived. Her family all paid for this with their lives; A large billboard with a photo of them now marks the entrance to the village from the highway with the message: “Eternal respect from the people of Motyzhyn.”

They were subjected to the same sadistic ritual as most of the camp’s victims, locals said. They were badly beaten, their arms twisted and broken, then, as death approached, they were shot in the hands or knees to inflict maximum pain, then shot again in the stomach before finally being killed by a bullet to the back of the head became.

Bondarenko said of a later murder he heard underground: “I could hear them killing him for an hour and a half and I prayed they would catch him quicker.”

There were maybe 60 soldiers at the Motyzhyn site, scattered in dugouts with officers in a house across a small lake. Not all were Syrian veterans: there were also regular recruits – so fresh from Russia that they didn’t realize they were in Ukraine for two weeks – who had to cook and carry water for the commanders and who were clearly appalled by this what they saw.

Perhaps to save their own humanity, they rescued Bondarenko after 48 hours of his ordeal. While the torturers were drunk, the recruits dragged him out and carried him to a room that served as a prison at the back of the house. They warned him to remain calm and cover his face because the commanders would assume he had joined others in the mass grave if they realized he was missing, but if they found him they would surely kill him.

Two days later, the same recruits unlocked the door, said the Russians were leaving, and warned the two men inside not to come out for two hours because of the danger of lingering snipers.

“They asked me to pray for them,” Bondarenko said. “These guys wanted none of it; they were in shock themselves and to this day I pray for them. You saved my life.”

The men had also dug an individual deep grave to bury a woman killed by a sniper after her father – who had been held with Bondarenko simply for coming to the base to ask for medical attention – asked them to don’t throw them into the bulk pit.

The copy of Tales and Fairytales, believed to have been left by a soldier, lies on the camp's grass.
The copy of Tales and Fairytales, believed to have been left by a soldier, lies on the camp’s grass. Photo: Alessio Mamo/The Observer

The Russians burned the forest and fields to deprive the Ukrainian forces of camouflage. Now spring is returning, green shoots are sprouting from the charred ground, and daffodils are blooming just meters from the torture chamber.

Not far from the graves there is an open book next to a shelter. legends and fairy tales looks like it was left mid-chapter by a young soldier in a hurry to leave who hadn’t noticed or didn’t want to know that a real horror had been unfolding meters away and that he had been a part of it .

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