Editor’s note: Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks, reporter Katie McKellar and photojournalist Scott Winterton traveled with Utah’s trade and humanitarian delegation to Ukraine from April 29 to May 7. Note the following story reflects horrors that took place in Bucha, Ukraine, and could be disturbing to readers.

She sat there alone.

Towering behind her, the gleaming white walls of the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints stretched to the heavens. Its golden domes glinted in the sunlight. 

The Ukrainian woman’s curly red hair peaked out from beneath a vibrant head scarf tied neatly beneath her chin. She sat with her hands clasped in her lap, her face somber and weathered, yet somehow still kind and warm.

She had a story to tell. 

We almost didn’t stop. Our group, a delegation from Utah, only had a brief moment to visit this church in Bucha, a suburb less than 20 miles from Ukraine’s capital city that is now known across the world for the gruesome discoveries that were unearthed here in the weeks after Russian forces retreated in late March last year.

St. Andrew’s church is now a de facto memorial for the horrors that took place in this town. Ukraine officials are investigating at least 3,500 alleged war crimes in Bucha alone since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago.

When Ukrainian forces liberated Bucha after about a month of Russian occupation, images of the brutality that happened here shocked the world: civilians shot, some with their hands tied behind their backs, in the streets and in their homes, their bodies left for weeks. Reports of Russian soldiers raping women and girls as young as 14. Bodies mutilated and burned. Reports of torture and point-blank executions.

I shared a glance with our guide, Svitlana Miller, founder of the nonprofit To Ukraine With Love. We were already late to our next stop on this whirlwind, weeklong trade and humanitarian mission, but she had the same thought. We could not leave this place without listening to what the woman outside the church had to say.

Maria Viktorovna Smaltser, 77, a resident of the Bucha, Ukraine, area, talks with Deseret News reporter Katie McKellar, not pictured, with the translation help of To Ukraine with Love founder Svitlana Miller, left, on Thursday, May 4, 2023, while seated on a short wall at the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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We walked over and offered a gentle hello. Miller translated from English to Ukrainian and vice versa.

She told us her name is Maria Viktorovna Smaltser. She is 77 years old and a grandmother. Then she told us what happened when Russian soldiers rolled their tanks through her neighborhood.

***

Her family’s German shepherd’s booming barks sounded the alarm.

A tank rumbled right up to Maria’s daughter’s house. Three armed soldiers forced their way in. Her daughter tried to hush the dog, afraid it would provoke them.

Shortly beforehand, Maria’s son-in-law fled to the next street over, “because they would kill younger men immediately,” Maria said.

Maria, her husband and their daughter stayed.

“As they broke in, we started to shake. And we thought, ‘Well, it will be what it will be.’”

Maria and her family trembled as the soldiers pushed their way inside. “One of them said, ‘Old lady, don’t be scared. We’re not here to kill you. We were ordered to search for weapons.’”

They scanned every room and the three-season deck, where they found a stock of alcohol. “They said, ‘Wow, you really drink quite a bit,’” Maria recalled. She told them it was for her business, a local cafe. ”You guys bombed it,” she said. “Now it’s gone.”

In the backyard, the soldiers gawked at the family’s pigs and chickens. “They said, ‘Oh my gosh, you have pigs in here?’” Maria told them they could take the pigs, “just please don’t hurt us.” The soldiers declined, saying, “we’re not going to take them, we’ve just never seen one, maybe only in a zoo.”

The entire time the soldiers searched their home, Maria prayed under her breath. “Praying they wouldn’t hurt us.”

One soldier asked her, “What are you whispering, old lady?”

She replied, “I’m praying for you to leave my land and go back to your old grandmother, who’s probably my age.”

“They showed kindness. They didn’t touch us. They didn’t shoot us,” Maria said. They left after they found no weapons.

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Maria Viktorovna Smaltser, 77, talks about her experiences over the past year during the war with Russia on Thursday, May 4, 2023, as she visited the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints in the Bucha area of Ukraine. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

But one street over, it was a different story.

“They killed all the neighbors,” Maria said. “They raped everybody.”

She spoke in a soft voice as she told us this. She waited patiently between breaths as Miller translated. Miller’s eyes filled with tears. Her voice strained.

Here on this warm spring day, sitting alone in front of St. Andrew’s church more than a year later, Maria is still trying to make sense of it.

“Somehow,” she said, “the people that were sent to my home kept us alive.”

But when she thinks of the atrocities that were committed on her neighbors, Maria said she weeps.

“I cry. I hurt. The single memory of what took place, and I start to cry. I cry all day. The heartache fills your soul,” she said.

She described seeing rockets flying over her neighborhood, hitting neighbors’ homes indiscriminately. She described seeing one house next door in flames. Same with another across the street.

“And you’re just waiting for your house to light on fire.”

Maria is still asking herself, why were they allowed to live?

“I come to church all the time. I’m a God-fearing person. I think maybe he spared us. But he didn’t spare other good people that were on our street.”

Her words are gut-wrenching. Miller and I choked back tears. I asked permission to share her story.

“Of course,” she said. “Tell the world what’s been done to our people.”

***

The Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints in the Bucha area of Ukraine on Thursday, May 4, 2023. A mass grave of Ukrainians killed in the Russian invasion at the start of the war was discovered here. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In the distance beyond Maria, in the grassy field behind the church, an eerie reminder of images that I’d seen along with the rest of the world when the aftermath of the Bucha massacre was still being uncovered.

There is a sandy scar where the earth has been disturbed, not once but twice. First, when a Bucha coroner, overwhelmed by the bodies that were stacking up and a morgue that had become intolerable without electricity for refrigeration, had arranged for a local backhoe operator to dig a mass grave.

“It was a horror,” the coroner, Serhiy Kaplishny, told The New York Times in April last year, just days after the Russians withdrew from Bucha.

The 45-foot-long trench is visible from satellite imagery. The mass grave, which Bucha officials later exhumed to rebury each victim, contained 116 bodies, according to local officials.

Today, a mass of yellow and blue flowers sits in front of the sandy, disturbed field. Miller said locals plan to erect a larger memorial to honor Bucha’s dead, including those who have not been identified due to mutilation, torture or burning.

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Several Images from an unknown photographer are displayed at the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints in the Bucha area of Ukraine on Thursday, May 4, 2023. The images depict the horrific nature of the war in the region and the bodies exhumed from the mass grave dug behind the church. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Inside the church, neatly lined up along the walls, a dozen easels display large photographs of the savagery committed in Bucha. Sunlight cascaded down from the church’s arched windows, but not enough to eclipse the darkness depicted in the images.

A man lying face down in the street with his hands tied behind his back with a white cloth. A body lying next to a toppled bike. Arms and feet emerging from the sand as the mass grave was exhumed.

Municipal authorities said at least 458 bodies were found in the Bucha area after the 33-day Russian occupation. They included 12 children, in most cases killed with their parents, according to The Associated Press.

When our group gathered in the green grass in the shadow of St. Andrew’s church, Miller and her associates described in their own words what Bucha’s residents experienced. They spoke with a sense of urgency — everyone must know what was done here. Miller called it a definite low point in the war.

Miller grew up not far from here, in Kyiv. Her grandfather lived in Irpin, a neighboring suburb. The horrors in Bucha hit close to home for her. She said she has laid awake at night thinking about the horrors, and it’s taken her months to process it. The violence, she said, goes beyond war. It’s hate.

“Jewish people talk about how they will never forget what took place in World War II,” Miller said, adding she never understood what that hatred must have felt like until the Bucha massacre. “To see that someone targeted my own people and showed such cruelty. ... It’s a horrible feeling. You can’t shake off the hatred you feel.”

The world is still trying to make sense of the brutality, but international reporting provides some insight to what Russian soldiers might have been thinking and feeling in Bucha — and ties certain Russian units to the violence.

Though evidence of civilian killings spans across Bucha, The New York Times recently won a Pulitzer Prize for an eight-month investigation into the deaths, concluding that the perpetrators of the massacre along a specific road in Bucha, Yablunska Street, were Russian paratroopers from the 234th Air Assault Regiment led by Lt. Col. Artyom Gorodilov.

In November, The Associated Press also published a chilling report detailing how Russian soldiers ran a “cleansing” operation in Bucha. The report described how Russian soldiers, on intercepted phone conversations, called the operation “zachistka,” or cleansing.

“The Russians hunted people on lists prepared by their intelligence services and went door to door to identify potential threats,” the AP reported. “Those who didn’t pass this filtration, including volunteer fighters and civilians suspected of assisting Ukrainian troops, were tortured and executed, surveillance video, audio intercepts and interviews show.”

Ukrainian prosecutors have accused soldiers from the 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division for the violence at 44 Yablunska Street, a building complex that Russians turned into a headquarters, AP reported. They are pursuing the commander, Maj. Gen. Sergei Chubarykin, and his boss, Col. Gen. Alexander Chaiko — a man known for his brutality as leader of Russia’s troops in Syria — for the crime of aggression for waging an illegal war.

Both The Associated Press and the Times also published remarkably detailed reports of thousands of recordings of phone calls, intercepted by the Ukrainian government, that Russian soldiers made to their loved ones back home.

The conversations gave insider accounts of not only civilian executions, but also how unprepared many of the young soldiers were for battle. At least one soldier told his wife that he was drunk because alcohol makes it easier to kill civilians. Another told his mother that their offense had stalled in Bucha, and that “Putin is a fool” for thinking he could take Kyiv.

Ukraine has asked the International Criminal Court to investigate what happened in Bucha as part of its ongoing investigation of the invasion of Ukraine and whether Russian forces committed war crimes or crimes against humanity. Countrywide, Russian forces have committed over 86,000 war crimes and crimes of aggression, according to Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office.

A burned-out gas station is just one example of the destruction the conflict with Russia left behind in the Bucha Ukraine area near Kyiv on Thursday, May 4, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Russia’s government officials have repeatedly denied responsibility for the killings, calling it “fake” and “staged.” At the same time, officials from other countries across the world swiftly condemned what happened in Bucha. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in early April 2022 that the U.S. had determined that Russian forces had committed “war crimes” in Ukraine, accusing them of “indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians,” CBS reported.

This February, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for alleged war crimes stemming from accusations that Russia has forcibly taken Ukrainian children.

“As I stated when in Bucha last May, Ukraine is a crime scene that encompasses a complex and broad range of alleged international crimes,” the court’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, said in a prepared statement. “We will not hesitate to submit further applications for warrants of arrest when the evidence requires us to do so.”

It doesn’t matter that a 77-year-old grandmother sitting outside a church in Bucha might not know all this. Maria Viktorovna Smaltser saw what happened on her street.

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