Two childhood friends lived a few houses apart on Peace Street, a quiet street, nestled behind a small church in a rural village just outside kyiv – until the Russian war bursts.
The bodies of Pavel Kholodenko and Viktor Balai, both 28, were found in early April buried in a shallow grave in the forest.
The two young men, who had attended kindergarten together, studied together at school and briefly served together in the Ukrainian army, were brutally tortured and murdered together by Russian soldiers, their grieving mothers said.
Their past military service may have been the reason they were executed.
Grieving from the pain of their loss, the mothers told Sky News their boys had planned to volunteer to fight the invasion before suddenly losing contact with the couple as Russian tanks rolled into the village from Zdvizhivka on February 25.
It was only after the Russian forces finally withdrew more than a month later that the horror of what had happened to the lifelong friends came to light.
“They were tortured,” said Tetiana Kholodenko, 48, crying at the thought.
“It was such horrible torture that no part of the body escaped – fingers, arms, legs… It’s hard to say but I’ll say it: they killed him (Pavel) From a shot in the mouth. From a gun – his brain was in the hood of his coat. It’s hard. Very hard.
She spoke outside her house – it’s the family’s second home with another property in a nearby town.
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Down the road is Viktor’s house.
He lived there with his mother, Olena Balai, 49, and his grandmother, Olga Dovhoshap, 78.
They are broken without him.
“They tortured him,” the mother said, hanging from a framed photo portrait of her only child, dressed in a military uniform.
“No part of his body was spared. My son didn’t live to see his 29th birthday. The b******ds killed him. The fascists tortured him. For what? What did he do? He’s not guilty, he’s only a boy. My son is dead. My little boy is gone. My baby is gone.
Both men were described as kind and caring.
They had served together in Ukraine’s armed forces, fighting Moscow-backed separatists in the east of the country after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
The two friends ended up deciding to return to civilian life, Pavel working as a taxi driver, while Viktor became a bricklayer.
When Russia invaded, they both signaled to their respective mothers a desire to fight.
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“His last words were: Mom, I love you but I have to go. I have to defend Ukraine. Mom, I love you,” Viktor’s mother said, her voice broken, her eyes wet with tears , head down.
Pavel’s mother described the last time she saw her son.
“He said, ‘I’ll be back,'” she recalls.
“He’s a fighter, an ex-combatant. After that, we didn’t see him again. He came out of our house and said to me: ‘Mom, I’m going to go for a walk and then I’ll come back’.”
He never did.
Neither family knows what happened next or how the two young men ended up being captured.
They also don’t know when exactly the couple died. Their bodies were discovered on April 3, but the battered remains showed signs of having been in the ground for some time.
“We found them on Sunday, identified them and on Tuesday we buried them,” Pavel’s mother said. “I didn’t distinguish night from day at that time – my son… my son.”
They were buried in two different cemeteries in the village.
The mothers said they wanted justice as Ukrainian investigators scramble to build a case against Russia for thousands of war crimes.
“I want revenge – that the Russian soldiers do like my son… But we can’t say that, can we, because then we will be as bad as them,” said Pavel’s mother.
“We can’t behave like them. But I want them to be punished.”