In a report on the occupation of Bucha published in April, Human Rights Watch detailed evidence of summary executions, other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, all of which would amount to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.
Mykytiuk, 37, experienced the cruelty of Russian soldiers while caring for animals at his shelter. When a group of soldiers came to inspect the property and his pet dog ran towards them, they quickly shot the animal. When Mykytiuk protested, the soldier hit her with the butt of her rifle and kicked her in the stomach after she fell to the ground.
“At that moment I understood: these people were sadists,” he says, the anger in his voice rising. “They hated us as a nation, as a people.”
Though it is painful for him to recount his experiences, Mykytiuk wants to make sure Australians don’t forget the plight of Ukraine as the war enters its sixth month with no end in sight.
“It is very important to me that what happened in Bucha is brought to light and that those responsible are punished,” he says.
“After World War II, people got together and said ‘never again.’ Now history repeats itself.”
Mykytiuk says that rape was a constant threat to the women of Bucha after the Russian invasion. She says that if the occupation soldiers saw a woman they wanted to assault while conducting their inspections, they would tie a white ribbon to the front door. They drank alcohol at night and returned to the houses with white ribbons to rape the women.
She says a Chechen soldier in his 30s and 40s tried to sexually assault her during an inspection at her animal shelter (the only one in the area dedicated to wild animals). Fortunately, her fellow soldiers discovered weapons in a nearby building and told him to stop terrorizing her.
“He was so big that I was thinking, ‘If he rapes me, I won’t survive,’” she says. “They came to kill us and rape us, and they knew there would be no punishment. They came as if they were hunting, as if they were on an adventure.
“There were no consequences, they thought they could do whatever they wanted.”
In addition to her late friend’s letter, Mykytiuk brought a piece of shrapnel with her on the trip to Australia to remind her of home. Her memory is a fragment of a cluster bomb that exploded just 100 meters from her on the third day of her occupation. It’s a reminder of how easily she could not be alive today.
Nadia Mencinsky, a spokeswoman for the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations, says many of the estimated 3,800 displaced Ukrainians in Australia are highly traumatized by their experiences. Some lived in their cellars for weeks, only allowed outside once a day to cook in the bitter cold.
While she is grateful to the Australian government for the humanitarian visa that allowed her and her children to escape Ukraine, Mykytiuk feels disoriented by life on the other side of the world. “At home, I was like a flower in a vase,” she said. “I was nurtured, I had parents who loved me and took care of me. I knew all my neighbors. He knew who I was. Now I feel like a plant that has been uprooted and turned over. I don’t really know what I’m doing or who I am anymore.”
On the couch next to her is a pile of pieces of yellow fabric cut into the shapes of petals. To occupy her mind, her son Kyrylo is making a bouquet of fabric sunflowers (the sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine and has become a symbol of resistance). “Her thoughts of him always turn to Ukraine,” says Mykytiuk.
He knows that much of the Bucha he knew and loved has been destroyed, turned to rubble. Still, she plans to return to Ukraine when possible to reunite with her parents and her husband, Evgenii, who fights in the Ukrainian army.
Until then, he wants to use his voice to ensure that governments around the world, including Australia’s, demand a thorough investigation of war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.
“If the world doesn’t hold Russia and its soldiers accountable for what they’ve done, I despair for civilization,” he says.
Get a note directly from our foreigner correspondents about what’s in the headlines around the world. Sign up here for the weekly What in the World newsletter.