Mykola Kulichenko struggles to tell a story he shouldn’t be alive to tell. But this Ukrainian man believes he was allowed to cheat death so he could speak for everyone who can’t.
On the side of a remote road north of Ukraine’s Chernihiv region, Mykola shows off the unmarked grave in which he and his two brothers were buried three weeks after the start of the war, in territory seized by Russian forces. All three were shot, and he was the only one to survive.
“It’s like being resurrected,” Mykola, 33, told CNN .
Until March 18, life for the Kulichenko family had changed little, despite the Russians having occupied their village of Dovzhyk since the beginning of the war. So when a Russian column was bombed, Russian soldiers fanned out looking for those responsible. They arrived at the wooden plank house where Mykola lived with her two brothers, Yevhen and Dmytro, and her sister, Iryna – who still hasn’t forgiven herself for not being home that day.
Three soldiers ordered the brothers to kneel in the garden as they inspected the house for anything that linked them to the bombed convoy. According to Mykola, once they found his grandfather’s military medals and a military backpack belonging to Yevhen, who had been a paratrooper, the soldiers were convinced they had something to hide.
Mykola, Yevhen and Dmytro were taken to a basement, where they were interrogated for three days, he said. Mykola hoped the Russians would release them, but on the fourth day, he said, his mood changed.
“They beat my whole body using a metal staff, and put the barrel of the gun in my mouth,” he said.
Along with his brothers, Mykola was tortured until he lost consciousness. He said they were blindfolded, with their hands and legs bound with duct tape, and were taken in an army vehicle by five Russian soldiers to a deserted terrain. They were forced to kneel, blindfolded, while a grave was dug, Mykola reported.
First, he said, he heard a gunshot behind him, and Dmytro, 36, the oldest among them, toppled over. Then he felt Yevhen, the youngest, fall beside him.
“I was thinking I would be next,” he said. But the bullet entered Mykola’s cheek and came out near her right ear. He knew his only chance to survive was to pretend he was dead.
The soldiers kicked the brothers’ bodies into the pit, covered them with earth, and left, according to Mykola. He cannot say how long he spent buried alive, but only that, with his hands and legs still tied, he managed to climb out from under his older brother’s corpse and return to the world of the living.
“It was hard to breathe as Dima (Dmytro) was on top of me, but using my arms and knees, I was able to push my older brother to the side of the pit, and then climb out.”
In the dark, he ran through the countryside until he found the nearest house, where a woman greeted him and took care of him overnight before he could return to his sister, who had been waiting anxiously for days at her father’s house.
“I came home and there was Mykola. I looked into his eyes and asked where the others were. He said there were no others,” Iryna recalled, crying.
Mykola said it’s a miracle he survived. The scars on her cheek and behind her ear are still visible.
“I was lucky… and now I have to keep living,” he said. “This story needs to be heard by everyone, not just in Ukraine but around the world, because this kind of thing is happening and this is just one in a billion.”
A war crimes investigation has been opened by the Chernihiv region prosecutor’s office. Investigators confirmed to CNN that the brothers’ hands and legs were bound and they were blindfolded. Across Ukraine, more than 11,600 alleged war crimes have been recorded so far, according to local officials. CNN contacted the Russian Ministry of Defense but received no response.
Like so many other alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces, the story of Mykola and her brothers could only be told when the Russians retreated from the Chernihiv region in early April.
It was only then that Mykola was able to start looking for the cave from which, against all odds, he escaped with his life. He knew he must find his brothers to give them the decent burial they deserved.
On April 21, a month after the day Mykola says her brothers were executed, Dmytro and Yevhen were finally buried under a tomb, in a region that was once again in Ukrainian hands.
Source: CNN Brasil