The brutal occupation of Berestyanka by the Russians adds to the horrors of Bucha

By Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop and Phil Hemingway in Berestyanka, Ukraine

Warning: This article contains details that readers may find distressing.

When Vira Holubenko returned to her sleepy village near Ukraine’s capital kyiv yesterday, she found condoms and empty liquor bottles in her ransacked home, as well as a shallow grave in her neighbour’s garden.

A teddy bear hangs from a tree in front of a building bombed by the Russian army in Borodyanka – like Berestyanka, it was attacked as part of the Russian army’s push to capture kyiv.
Photo: AFP

Rockets and ammunition littered the fields behind Holubenko’s house in the rural village of Berestyanka, which was looted and burned late last week by Russian soldiers retreating from a brutal month-long occupation.

“They broke everything in my house, they burned down my neighbor’s house,” she said.

“They ate all the potatoes in the cellar, they ate all our food. What are we going to plant? What are we going to eat? How are we going to survive as that in the village?”

the ABC collected accounts of potential war crimes against civilians in the village – rapes, shootings and senseless execution – allegedly carried out by Russian forces when they used Berestyanka as one of their bases in their thwarted attempt to five weeks of taking kyiv by storm.

The alleged atrocities add to growing evidence of widespread war crimes in the kyiv region, including in the town of Bucha, 25 kilometers south of Berestyanka, where the Russians left behind hundreds of bodies of civilians, including in the streets.

An international team of investigators documents the widespread slaughter of civilians in towns en route to the capital, some apparently shot at close range, others with their hands tied or their skin burned.

EDITORS' NOTE: Graphic content / Workers line up bodies for identification by forensic personnel and police at the Bucha cemetery, north of Kyiv, April 6, 2022,

Workers carry a body bag so he can be identified by forensic scientists, at a cemetery in Bucha near kyiv.
Photo: AFP

Civilians forced to flee on all fours

After fleeing the area at the start of the war, Vira Holubenko returned to Berestyanka yesterday to hear harrowing stories of drunken soldiers using machine guns to terrorize her neighbors, who were forced to sneak across fields in the dead of night to find food and caring for pets.

Russian armored vehicles first traveled the dirt roads of the village on February 27, the third day of the invasion, in a 64 km convoy towards the capital.

Six days later, on March 3, they returned to dig trenches around Berestyanka, after troops had dispersed in an attempt to encircle kyiv, some 50 km to the southeast.

Satellite images showed rocket launchers moving towards firing positions in the village.

Soldiers occupied homes, including Holubenko’s, spraying them with the letter “V” – a common Russian military symbol which the country’s Defense Ministry says means “truth is strength” or “the task will be accomplished”.

Less than a week after their installation, the occupation descended into depravity.

‘I am Russian. Are you going to shoot me?

On the night of March 9, a group of armed Russian soldiers walked past the chicken coops of the house that 65-year-old Valentina Cheradnienko shared with her daughter, son-in-law and their child.

According to the testimonies of ABCthey came for his daughter and a friend.

Cheradnienko said her daughter’s husband, Sasha Pistun, a construction worker and father of two, opened the door to soldiers pointing guns.

“They came to take these two women to rape them,” she said.

“Sasha said, ‘I won’t let her go, take me instead.’ He said: “I am Russian. Are you going to shoot me?”

“Then I heard the sound of a click and Sasha fell.”

The friend told the ABC she and a woman were raped by two soldiers in a captured house that night after Pistun’s execution.

She said her rapist was her son’s age: 19. She estimated that the other was in her forties.

Like many victims of this war, there was one final indignity for Sasha Pistun: a shallow, unmarked grave in her garden.

Standing in the doorway where her son-in-law was killed, Cheradnienko told the ABC his family pleaded with Russian forces to help them bury him.

“Two young soldiers came and dug a hole,” she said.

“They could barely drag him out of the house. We couldn’t go to the cemetery because there was shelling all around and the rockets were coming.”

The grave is now surrounded by other additions to the village, destroyed armored vehicles in the nearby forest, and piles of artillery boxes left outside houses.

Women and children used as human shields

As Russian troops approached Berestyanka in February, village women were warned by a nearby occupied community to make themselves as unattractive as possible to the soldiers.

“People from there were calling us to tell us to take off our jewelry, put on our scarves and dress like old women,” Cheradnienko’s neighbor Larysa Fedorets said.

“They also told us that the soldiers would use women and children as human shields.”

Fedorets, 56, spent the month hiding in her neighbour’s basement, sometimes crawling on her hands and knees at night to get home and avoid the soldiers.

“They mistreated us,” she said.

“They were walking with their machine guns pointed at us, and late at night they would show up drunk and shoot people in the legs.”

Before Ukrainian forces liberated the village late last week, she said soldiers ransacked houses, looted them and destroyed her car.

“They were taking clothes, they were breaking windows and doors and taking appliances and electronics from homes. They took gas stoves and televisions,” she said.

“What did they free us from? Let Putin answer this question’

Vira Holubenko returned home yesterday to find a cyclonic mess: shattered windows, destroyed furniture, Russian army clothes, food and supplies strewn across her floors.

The Russian occupation devastated his family.

In the nearby town of Borodyanka, where Ukrainian authorities expect the highest death toll in the Kyiv region, the apartment she and her husband bought for their son with their savings was destroyed in a air strike.

BORODIANKA, UKRAINE - APRIL 06: A woman walks past destroyed buildings after the Ukrainian army regained control of Borodyanka, Ukraine on March 06, 2022.

A woman walks past bombed out buildings in Borodyanka.
Photo: AFP

“Look at these ‘liberators,'” she said of Russian troops, who President Vladimir Putin said were invading Ukraine to liberate its people.

“What did they free us from? A good life, a comfortable home, a stable family.

“Now everyone is shivering and no one can sleep. We have nothing here, no light, no gas, no heat.

“So what did they free us from? Let Putin answer this question.

“I don’t know how we’re going to go on living.”


Michael A. Bynum