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IAN BIRRELL: Putin’s Executioners Left These Three Brothers in a Well to Die

When Mykola Kulichenko stumbled out of the Russian military jeep, his body ached from another beating after three days of torture and his eyes blindfolded, he realized he was about to be executed.

Beside him were his older brother Dmytro, 37, and Evheniy, the youngest in their close-knit family at age 30. Like him, their legs were tied, their hands tied, their bodies battered and bruised.

And they could hear the sound of their grave being dug under the poplars near Vyshneve, a usually peaceful part of northern Ukraine, close to the border with Belarus.

The Russian soldiers said nothing as the three terrified brothers stood there. There was a shot – and Mykola realized that Evheniy had fallen to the ground.

When Mykola Kulichenko stumbled out of the Russian military jeep, aching to his body from another beating after three days of torture and with a blindfold over his eyes, he realized he was about to be executed.

“I just heard the sound of a click, as if their pistols had silencers,” he recalled. “Then they started making jokes and saying, ‘Oh, your younger one is ready,’ as he lay there.

“Then they shot Dmytro, who was standing next to me. There was another click and he fell. And then they shot me.’

There have been many sordid revelations of atrocities, barbarity and heartless war crimes over the past 11 weeks following Vladimir Putin’s decision to send his forces to Ukraine.

But the story this 33-year-old man tells me sounds like something out of a horror movie. He survived his own execution — then pushed his brother’s body and the covering ground aside to crawl out of his shallow grave and stagger his way to rescue.

Incredibly, the bullet made only superficial wounds as it went through his head. It entered through his right cheek and exited into soft tissue next to his ear, leaving only a small hole in his flesh.

“It was scary, of course, but I didn’t feel anything,” says Mykola, a farm worker. “It didn’t hurt. I was shocked. I felt the blood drip from my cheek.’

His story is remarkable. Not only did he survive the firing squad that was supposed to kill him, but he also evaded the heavy Russian military presence in occupied Ukrainian territory to make his way to the home of an elderly Good Samaritan.

“I just heard the sound of a click, as if their pistols had silencers,” he recalled. “Then they started making jokes and saying, ‘Oh, your younger one is ready,’ as he lay there. “Then they shot Dmytro, who was standing next to me. There was another click and he fell

“I saw that he was badly beaten and he was blue. He was covered with earth. I took him inside and gave him breakfast and to wash his face,’ said Valentina. “Every time we meet, we hug – he’s like family to me now.”

Still, Mykola has to cope with the terrible loss of his real family members due to the inhumanity of some Russian troops who took over the sleepy village of Dovzhyk where he lived with his two brothers and sister Iryna.

Their nightmare began with loud explosions near their home in the early morning of March 18, followed by rumors swirling through their village that some Russian military equipment nearby had been destroyed.

Still, the day seemed normal. They ate lunch, then Dmytro and Evheniy gave each other a haircut while Iryna went to visit a neighbor. She hid from the Russian soldiers strolling through the village “because they shot at all the civilians they saw in the street.”

Suddenly, Mykola saw a Tigr – a 4×4 Russian military vehicle used by infantry – parked in front of their house. Soldiers demanded their documents, then two of them entered the house and found a packed military bag by the living room sofa.

It belonged to Evheniy, who served as a military medic for six years. He had watched the Donbas front line fight against Russian-backed separatists and hoped to serve again in the latest Ukrainian struggle to save their country.

Next to him were his older brother Dmytro, 37, and Evheniy, pictured, the youngest in their close-knit family at age 30.  Like him, their legs were tied, their hands tied, their bodies battered and bruised

Next to him were his older brother Dmytro, 37, and Evheniy, pictured, the youngest in their close-knit family at age 30. Like him, their legs were tied, their hands tied, their bodies battered and bruised

The Russians forced the youngest brother to his knees and began to beat him with a chair leg that had been transformed into a bat that he found in his bag. Mykola said, ‘They asked, ‘why did you kill our boys?’ They threatened to kill us by firing bullets into the air.”

The soldiers also found medals awarded to their grandfather during World War II. “They told him these are your medals for killing our boys,” Mykola said.

Finally, they packed all three men into their vehicle, placed a neighbor’s packed bags over their heads, transferred them to an armored car and took them to a lumber yard 40 miles away in Vyshneve.

The brothers were held for three days in a workshop next to wounded Ukrainian soldiers. They were hooded, beaten regularly and fed once a day.

At night they were freezing cold, with only thin blankets thrown over their bound bodies by the guards. Mykola was miserable, separated from his brothers and lonely because ‘if anyone tried to chat, they would get beaten’.

In the early evening of March 20, they received a particularly brutal beating. “They didn’t warn us what would happen if they took us. I almost passed out.’

He was confused when he was loaded into an army jeep. ‘I didn’t quite understand what was happening. I didn’t know where we were going or why.’

But when they stopped, he realized the end of his life was approaching. After the shooting, he was kicked into the newly dug grave next to a wheat field and landed on top of Evheniy’s body. His older brother’s corpse was then thrown on top before a thin layer of earth was spread over it.

“I fell face down and that saved me. I was able to push myself and after a few minutes I started pushing. I was scared, but I didn’t think. I started to choke in the well.’

After escaping, he felt Dmytro’s body slide into the vacant space. “When I crawled out, the soldiers weren’t there. I tried to come to my senses again. I took off the blindfold. I couldn’t untie the string on my wrist that cut into my skin. But I loosened my legs and started walking with my hands still tied. I walked and walked until I saw an empty house which I entered and rested there for the night.’

He started walking again before sunrise the next morning and reached Valentina’s house. She gave him warm clothes and, helped by other Ukrainians, he walked back to Dovzhyk to meet his distraught sister. Iryna was startled when she saw her brother. “He got beat up, he had a wound on his cheek, he could barely walk — and he told me he came out of a grave after being shot,” she said. “I asked about the other boys and he said they’re gone.”

She cries when she thinks about this moment. ‘I couldn’t believe they were dead. I don’t understand why the Russians would kill them – they’re just simple village boys.’

The couple decided to find the grave. It took them a month, aided by Ukrainian intelligence, to find the site. The bodies were found on April 18, Evheniy’s birthday, and buried three days later on Dmytro’s birthday. “I looked for it until I saw it with my own eyes,” Iryna said. “I hoped they were alive until I saw their bodies.”

Ukraine’s public prosecutor has launched a war crimes investigation after confirming that the two bodies had been tied up and shot in the head. Investigators are also investigating claims that an employee in their village of 700 people tipped off Russian troops about Evheniy’s military service.

While Mykola’s facial wound has healed, the psychological scars are deep. “The Russians were our neighbors. Evheniy worked in Russia. Many other people from here went there to work on construction sites. Now there is only hate,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kate Baklitskaya

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