Photojournalist describes what Russia left behind in Bucha: 'It's apocalyptic'

·10 min read

Photojournalist Carol Guzy has witnessed her fair share of death and destruction over the past four decades. The four-time Pulitzer Prize winner has documented the humanitarian toll of some of the world’s most horrific wars and natural disasters, from Haiti to Kosovo.

But from the beginning, there was something different about the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. For one thing, Guzy told Yahoo News, like many Ukrainians, she never expected that Russia would actually invade its neighbor this time around.

Destroyed homes, burnt-out tanks and bodies in the streets of Bucha, Ukraine.
The wreckage of war: destroyed homes, burnt-out tanks and bodies in the streets of Bucha, Ukraine, on April 3. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

For the “first time in 40 years, I’ve had this unbelievable feeling of dread that I couldn’t shake, and I still have it,” Guzy said. “I’m not sure if the dread is like a warning to me [for] my personal safety or it’s just been this overwhelming evil that’s happening.”

Rather than head for the frontlines, Guzy decided she would cover the war from the fringes, focusing primarily on stories about refugees. But as she watched the civilian casualties mount, she found staying on the sidelines in this conflict more difficult than she had expected.

A wrecked vehicle and dead body on a street in Bucha, Ukraine.
Wreckage of war and bodies, including some that appear to be Russian soldiers, in the streets of Bucha on April 3. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

“This is such a weird war. It’s like there’s no place that’s really safe for anyone,” Guzy said, referring to the blatant attacks on civilian sites that have come to define Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As of Monday, 4,890 civilian casualties had been recorded in Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion on Feb. 24, according to the United Nations, with 2,072 killed and 2,818 injured — though the actual figures are likely much higher.

Ukrainian soldiers stand near dead bodies on a highway in Bucha.
Ukrainian soldiers stand near dead bodies on a highway in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

“It’s one thing — soldiers on a battlefield having a war,” said Guzy. “These are civilians that are getting targeted. I’m sorry; that’s just over the line.”

The extent to which Russia has crossed that line became disturbingly clear earlier this month when Ukrainian forces liberated the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin. Guzy was among the journalists who traveled to Bucha to document the horror left behind when Russian troops retreated.

“It was quite a scene,” Guzy said. “It was just horrendous. Its apocalyptic, you know; it’s like you’re walking in a movie set.”

A Ukrainian soldier takes pictures with a cellphone of the wreckage of war in Bucha.
A Ukrainian soldier takes pictures with a cellphone of the wreckage of war in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

Footage from that scene, showing corpses scattered in the streets, along with reports that the bodies of roughly 300 local residents had been found buried in mass graves, quickly spread, prompting widespread condemnation and calls for investigations of possible war crimes. Many of the dead had reportedly been bound and shot in the back of the head, and survivors have described instances of rape and torture by Russian soldiers.

During a visit to Bucha last week, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, which began investigating possible Russian war crimes in March, called Ukraine a “crime scene.”

A War Crimes prosecutor looks at bodies in black plastic bags pulled from a mass grave behind a church in Bucha on April 11
A War Crimes prosecutor looks at bodies in black plastic bags pulled from a mass grave behind a church in Bucha on April 11. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

Guzy said Bucha has remained largely open to journalists and photographers as police and war crimes prosecutors wade through the devastation to collect evidence of alleged Russian atrocities.

“I think most people here know how important this is for history to be documented,” she said.

Such documentation has already proven critical in the face of the Russian government’s attempts to rewrite history. The Russian Defense Ministry has denied responsibility for any violence against the residents of Bucha during its occupation of the city, suggesting that footage circulated after the departure of Russian troops was staged.

A body of a person wearing black clothing and boots lies in the street in Bucha.
A body lies in the street in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

“It’s mind-boggling,” Guzy said, calling the statements put out by the Russian government “blatant lies.”

“That’s why people … want us to photograph it because, you know, the photograph is pretty hard evidence of a lot of things over and over and over again,” she added.

For Guzy, documenting the truth of what happened in places like Bucha and Irpin is about more than just taking photographs of dead bodies — though that’s a big part of it. It’s also about shining a light on the lives that have been lost to war by documenting the things — and people — they’ve left behind.

A distraught woman in a purple coat and wool headscarf carries food aid, including crackers, handed out in Bucha.
A distraught woman carries food aid handed out in Bucha on April 4. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

“They’re not just bodies. They had a life; they had family,” she said. “It’s not just 300 dead bodies in a mass grave. It’s … all these lives and hopes and dreams that were, you know, snuffed out.”

Though the power of these horrific images is undeniable, Guzy, who spent the bulk of her career as a staff photographer, first at the Miami Herald and then the Washington Post, knows editors face a tough choice when deciding whether or how to publish them.

The hand of a corpse in a mass grave in Bucha.
The hand of a corpse buried in a mass grave in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

“The problem as a photographer is trying to document this tastefully,” she said. “There’s a lot of pictures I don’t even transmit because they are too gruesome.” Still, Guzy said, you “can’t sugarcoat reality.”

“This is the reality of the situation here,” she said. “War’s ugly. It’s ugly, and harsh, and awful, and horrible and terrible.”

As difficult as it may be for someone to look at these images, she added, “It’s worse to be here. It’s worse for these people.”

Charred bodies, including those of women and children, lie in a pile in Bucha on April 3.
Charred bodies, including those of women and children, lie in a pile in Bucha on April 3. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

Witnessing such horrors firsthand is traumatic, even for the most experienced photojournalist, and Guzy’s years in the field have taught her not to suppress her emotions.

“We’re not walking cameras, you know. We’re not robots,” she said.

But it’s not the sight of dead bodies that gets to her, Guzy clarified, her voice quavering. “It’s the suffering of the people that are left behind that really… brings me to my knees.”

An arm and shoe are revealed at a mass grave in Bucha.
Remains of the dead in a mass grave in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

Guzy choked back tears as she described the warmth and kindness she’s received from people in Ukraine, like the “babushkas” who’ve welcomed her into what is left of their damaged homes and offered her tea or a hug.

“It makes it harder to see what they’re going through because everyone here has been so kind, and they’re such good people,” she said. “I wish Putin would know the people that he’s doing this to.”

The bodies of Sergei Guryanova and his brother-in-law Roman, who had both been shot in the head, lie in a courtyard as Irina, the wife of Sergei and sister of Roman, quietly weeps.
The bodies of Sergei Guryanova and his brother-in-law Roman, who had both been shot in the head, lie in a courtyard as Irina, the wife of Sergei and sister of Roman, quietly weeps. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

Ultimately, the stories that are the most emotional for Guzy are the ones that she hopes can offer people hope amid all the pain and suffering.

“I still look for hope. Look for the angels. Look for the people who are here doing the good work and trying to save these people,” she said. “Or the woman who hands me the little vial of tea from her totally destroyed, bombed-out building because she wants to give the stranger a gift. That’s what keeps me sane.”

More of Guzy’s documentation of the horrors found in Bucha and Irpin

A dog stands near a wheelbarrow containing a family dog that was shot dead in Bucha.
A dog stands near a family dog shot dead in a home in Bucha where three people, including Sergei Guryanova, were found executed. Neighbors said he had remained in Bucha to care for his dogs. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
The bodies of two men lie near a damaged home in Bucha as a soldier stands nearby.
The bodies of two men lie near a damaged home in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
A dog follows the bodies of its family in a collection truck in Bucha on April 5.
A dog follows the bodies of its slain family members in a collection truck in Bucha on April 5. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
A corpse lies in a body bag as investigators begin chronicling civilian deaths in Bucha.
A corpse lies in a body bag as investigators begin assessing evidence of suspected war crimes in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
A clothed corpse lies exposed in a body bag in Bucha, Ukraine.
Investigators and volunteers begin the grim work of chronicling civilian deaths in Bucha on April. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
A wallet containing a photo of a young girl lies on top of a corpse in Bucha on April 6.
A wallet containing a photo of a young girl lies on top of a corpse in Bucha on April 6. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
A corpse lies exposed as investigators and volunteers tally civilian deaths in Bucha after Russian troops withdrew.
A corpse lies exposed as investigators and volunteers tally civilian deaths in Bucha after Russian troops withdrew. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
A couple comfort each other next to a man's grave in the shadow of the Church of St. Andrew and All Saints in Bucha.
A couple comfort each other next to a man's grave in the shadow of the Church of St. Andrew and All Saints in Bucha on April 8. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
Investigators pull bodies from a mass grave near the Church of St. Andrew and All Saints in Bucha.
Investigators pull bodies from a mass grave near the Church of St. Andrew and All Saints in Bucha on April 8. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
A worker holds a victim's hand with red painted fingernails as the body is carefully placed into a black body bag on April 8 in Bucha.
A worker holds a victim's hand as the body is carefully placed into a black body bag on April 8 in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
A man comforts an elderly woman in a headscarf as families search for missing loved ones in Bucha.
A man comforts an elderly woman as families search for missing loved ones in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
Numbers identify more than eight bodies pulled from a mass grave behind a church in Bucha.
War crimes investigators tally bodies pulled from a mass grave behind the Church of St. Andrew and All Saints in Bucha on April 8. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
Families gather to identify their loved ones as war crimes investigators photograph corpses found in a mass grave in Bucha.
Families gather to identify their loved ones as war crimes investigators photograph corpses found in a mass grave in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
Dozens of body bags of people recovered from a mass grave and throughout the town of Bucha are lined up at a cemetery for transport to the morgue
Body bags of people recovered from throughout the town of Bucha are lined up at a cemetery for transport to the morgue on April 9. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
The body of a man is hoisted on a wooden door being used as a makeshift stretcher as investigators recover the bodies of more than 400 civilians slain in Bucha.
A body is hoisted on a wooden door on April 11 as investigators recover the bodies of more than 400 civilians slain in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
The body of a woman holding a cross and covered in butterfly-print sheets is recovered in Bucha.
The body of a woman with bound wrists and holding a cross is recovered in Bucha on April 11. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
A woman stands over the body of her son as collectors move bodies to the city morgue in Bucha on April 12.
A woman stands over the body of her son as collectors move bodies to the city morgue in Bucha on April 12. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
The body of Marina Naumec, 32, was exhumed by her husband from a makeshift grave in the backyard of a home in Bucha.
The body of Marina Naumec, 32, was exhumed by her husband from a makeshift grave in the backyard of a home in Bucha. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
The body of Marina Naumec lies on a blanket after being exhumed from a backyard in Bucha.
The body of Marina Naumec was exhumed in Bucha on April 12. There were three others buried in this yard, all shot in the eye. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
Military dogtags, a medal and a small cross lie on the body of a Russian soldier killed by Ukrainian forces in Irpin, Ukraine.
Military dog tags, a medal and a small cross lie on the body of a Russian soldier killed by Ukrainian forces in Irpin, Ukraine. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
Blood-stained sheets are inspected in a home in Irpin, Ukraine, where the bodies of two men killed in an airstrike were found.

Blood-stained sheets are inspected in a home in Irpin, Ukraine, where the bodies of two men killed in an airstrike were found. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
Three inspectors work with volunteer body collectors at an improvised burial site in Irpin on April 14.
Police work with volunteer body collectors at an improvised burial site in Irpin on April 14. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
The body of a man covered in a
The body of a man covered in a "USA" T-shirt is exhumed from a home in Irpin that was hit by an airstrike. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)
A police officer inspects a passport found in Irpin on April 14 after Russian forces withdrew.
A police officer inspects a passport found in Irpin on April 14 after Russian forces withdrew. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press)

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