By the side of a remote road in Ukraine’s northern Chernihiv region, Mykola shows the unmarked grave in which he and his two brothers were buried three-and-a-half weeks after the war started, in land that was confiscated taken by Russian troops. All three had been shot; he was the only one to survive.
“It’s like getting excited,” Mykola, 33, told CNN.
Until March 18, the life of the Kulichenko family had changed little, despite the fact that the Russians occupied their village Dovzhyk since the beginning of the war. When a Russian column was bombed, Russian soldiers fanned out in search of those responsible. They arrived at the wooden house where Mykola lived with his two brothers, Yevhen and Dmytro, along with their sister, Iryna – who still has not 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 might connect them to the bombed convoy, Mykola said. According to Mykola, the soldiers were convinced they had something to hide once they found the military medals their grandfather owned and a military bag belonging to 30-year-old Yevhen, who had been a paratrooper.
Mykola, Yevhen and Dmytro were driven to a cellar where they were interrogated for three days, he said. Mykola kept hoping 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 put the barrel of a gun in my mouth,” he said.
Mykola was tortured with his brothers until he lost consciousness. He says they were blindfolded, hands and legs tied with tape, and were driven by five Russian soldiers in a military vehicle to a desolate piece of land. They had to kneel, blindfolded, while a pit was being dug, Mykola said.
First, he said, he heard a shot behind him and 36-year-old Dmytro, the eldest of the three, fell to the ground. Then he felt Yevhen, the youngest, fall beside him.
“I thought I was next,” he said. But the bullet entered Mykola’s cheek and went out next to his right ear. He knew his only hope for survival was to play 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 was buried alive, only that, with his hands and legs still tied, he somehow managed to maneuver himself out from under his older brother’s corpse and back to the land of the living. .
“It was hard for me to breathe as Dima (Dmytro) was on top of me, but with my arms and knees I was able to push my older brother to the side of the well, and then I climbed out.”
In the dark, he staggered through the fields to the nearest house, where a woman took him in and looked after him overnight before he could return to his sister, who had waited anxiously for days at their father’s house.
“I came home and there was Mykola. I looked into his eyes and asked where the others were? He said there are no others,” Iryna recalls, sobbing.
Mykola says it’s a miracle he survived. Scars on his cheek and behind his ear are still visible.
“I was lucky… and now I just have to live on,” he said. “This story needs to be heard by everyone, not just in Ukraine, but all over the world, because things like this happen and this is only one in a billion.”
The Chernihiv region’s prosecutor’s office has now opened a war crimes investigation. Investigators confirmed to CNN that the brothers’ hands and legs were tied and blindfolded. More than 11,600 alleged war crimes have been registered across Ukraine so far, according to local authorities. CNN also contacted the Russian Defense Ministry but received no response.
As with so many of the other alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops, the story of Mykola and his brothers could not be told until the Russian withdrawal from the Chernihiv region began in early April.
It was only then, too, that Mykola could set out in search of the well from which, against all odds, he had escaped with his life. He knew he had to find his brothers to give them the proper burial they deserved.
On April 21, a month to the day after Mykola said his brothers were being executed, Dmytro and Yevhen were finally buried under elaborate headstones in a well-maintained grave, in land that was back in Ukrainian hands.