Along a remote road in the Chernihiv region of northern Ukraine, Mykola points to the unmarked grave in which he and his two brothers were buried three and a half weeks after the war began, on land seized by Russian forces. All three had been shot; 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 Russian occupation of their village of Dovzhyk since the start of the war. Then, when a Russian column was shelled, Russian soldiers fanned out to find those responsible. They arrived at the wooden plank house where Mykola lived with her two brothers, Yevhen and Dmytro, and their sister, Iryna – who still hasn’t forgiven herself for not being home that day.
Three soldiers told the brothers to kneel in the front yard as they searched the house for anything that could connect them to the bombed convoy, Mykola said. According to Mykola, once they found the military medals their grandfather had and a military bag belonging to 30-year-old 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 remained hopeful that the Russians would release them, but on the fourth day, he said, their mood changed.
“They beat my whole body with a metal rod and they put a gun barrel in my mouth,” he said.
Together with his brothers, Mykola was tortured until he lost consciousness. He says they were blindfolded, had their hands and legs tied with duct tape and were driven in a military vehicle by five Russian soldiers to a desolate field. They were made to kneel, blindfolded, while a pit was dug, Mykola said.
First, he said, he heard a gunshot behind him and Dmytro, 36, the eldest of the three, fell to the ground. Then he felt Yevhen, the youngest, fall to his side.
“I thought I was next,” he said. But the bullet went into Mykola’s cheek and came out next to his right ear. He knew his only hope of survival was to play dead.
The soldiers threw the bodies of the brothers into the pit, covered them with dirt and left, according to Mykola. He cannot say how long he was buried alive, only that with his hands and legs still bound he managed to fight his way out of his older brother’s corpse and back to the land of the living.
“I had trouble breathing, as Dima (Dmytro) was lying 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 I got out.”
In the darkness, he staggered through the fields to the nearest house, where a woman took him in and cared for him through the night before he could find his sister, who was waiting. anxiously for days at their father’s house.
“I came home and there was Mykola. I looked at his eyes and asked where the others were? He said there were no others,” Iryna recalled in sobbing.
Mykola says it’s a miracle he survived. Scars on his cheek and behind his ear are still visible today.
“I was lucky…and now I have to go on living,” he said. “This story needs to be heard by everyone, not just in Ukraine, but all over the world, because this stuff happens and it’s only one in a billion.”
A war crimes investigation has been opened by the Chernihiv regional prosecutor’s office. Investigators confirmed to CNN that the brothers’ hands and legs were tied and they were blindfolded. Across Ukraine, more than 11,600 alleged war crimes have been recorded so far, according to local authorities. CNN also contacted the Russian Defense Ministry but got no response.
As with so many other alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces, the story of Mykola and his brothers could only be told once the Russian retreat from the Chernihiv region began in early April.
It was only then, too, that Mykola was able to begin searching for the pit from which he had unexpectedly escaped with his life. He knew he had to find his brothers in order to give them the decent burial they deserved.
On April 21, one month to the day after Mykola said his brothers had been executed, Dmytro and Yevhen were finally laid to rest under elaborate headstones in a well-maintained grave, in a country that was once again in Ukrainian hands. .