Suspected Russian army killers of Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Vakulenko identified
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General two men from the Russian occupying forces who are suspected of having murdered writer Volodymyr Vakulenko and three other Ukrainians during Russia’s occupation of part of the Kharkiv oblast. Vakulenko is one of the many writers and artists killed since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine who are remembered this week in PEN Ukraine’s #EmptyChairWeek. So too is Victoria Amelina, who had managed to dig up Vakulenko’s war diary and ensure its publication before she too was killed by the Russian invaders.
The two suspects have been informed that they are suspected of war crimes (violating the laws and practice of war) under Article 438 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code Both were part of the Russian invading forces who seized parts of Kharkiv oblast in February – March 2022, though both were born in Luhansk and were probably mobilized from the Russian proxy ‘Luhansk people’s republic’. Photos of both men are provided on the official website, but only their position and nom de guerre, one being the commander of a unit, known as ‘Lev’ and his subordinate, ‘Udod’. In fact, their names are known and Stanislav Aseyev, Ukrainian writer, journalist and former hostage, that the Justice Initiative Fund (an NGO dependent on donations) is offering a reward for current information about their current whereabouts. The two are (the commander of the unit, i.e. Lev) and . Both are accused of abductions, torture and killing of civilians, with the charges also under Articles 27 and 28 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code since the crimes were carried out as part of a criminal gang. The investigators are currently working to identify the other individuals involved.
The suspects were in the village of Kapytolivka (Izium district) and found out, probably from a local informer, about Vakulenko who had openly expressed his opposition to the Russian invasion and occupation. They first burst into his home and carried out a ‘search’ on 22 March 2022, taking both Vakulenko and his 14-year-old son, who has special needs, away. They took them to where they were stationed and tried, unsuccessfully, to get Vakulenko to agree to collaborate with what they called “the new regime”. They further demanded that he strip in order to check his body for tattooed Ukrainian symbols, which he also refused to do.
It seems likely that Vakulenko was freed that time because he was with his son. The invaders arrived again on 24 March 2022, this time taking only Vakulenko away. The investigators suspect the commander ‘ ‘Lev’ – of having issued the order to shoot and kill Vakulenko, with this criminal command carried out by ‘Udod’.
The other three Ukrainian civilians whose murder the suspects are accused of involvement in included a veteran of the first phase of the war in Donbas [‘ATO’]. All three men were held in a cellar in unsanitary conditions, without light and were systematically beaten over their entire body. The three civilians were then taken to a forest where ‘Lev’ is believed to have ordered his subordinate to kill two of the men, with the third beaten to death.
49-year-old Volodymyr Vakulenko was a well-known Kharkiv oblast poet, children’s writer; volunteer and patriot of Ukraine. , 13 of his books had been published, and he had received several Ukrainian or international awards. He had taken part in the Revolution of Dignity (the Euromaidan protests during the winter of 2013/14) and had helped Ukraine’s Armed Forces from the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
It seems clear that Vakulenko understood after the invaders came for him on 22 March 2022, that it was only a question of time before they returned. He therefore buried his war diary under a cherry tree in his garden, which Viktoria Amelina managed, on 23 September, to recover and scan, sending each page to the Kharkiv Literary Museum to ensure that the manuscript was saved.
Izium and the surrounding district were first under Russian attack, then occupation, from 24 February 2022 until early September. Soon afterwards, the mass graves were found in a forest outside Izium of over 440 Ukrainians, most of them civilians. Virtually all had died a violent death, either from Russian bombing or, like Vakulenko, tortured and murdered. As reported, employees of funeral services in Izium continued to work under occupation, despite threats from the Russians, and tried as far as was possible to ensure that the identity of the victims was recorded. It was, therefore, known that they had attributed Grave No. 319 to Volodymyr Vakulenko, however, it was only after DNA tests confirmed this on 28 November that his family lost all hope that the Russians were holding him hostage, like so many other civilians.
Neither Vakulenko nor his family were in any doubt that he was in grave danger from the Russians. From the first day of the full-scale invasion, his ex-wife Iryna Novitska had tried to persuade him to leave Kapytolivka, together with their younger son. He had refused, and not only because he needed to care for his father who was recovering from a stroke. He had constantly replied that he couldn’t abandon “the lads” [defending Ukraine on the battlefield] and that “this is my country”.
Victoria Amelina It was then that I felt a little easier: Volodymyr’s message was saved, even if the next day I [stepped] on some anti-infantry mine. As long as a writer is read, he’s alive.” just days after she presented the publication of Vakulenko’s diary and war poetry in Kyiv. In her foreword, she wrote of the relief that she felt after she managed to get Volodymyr’s war diary to the Kharkiv Literary Museum. “
Victoria was accompanying Colombian civic activists in the restaurant in Kramatorsk targeted by a Russian missile on 27 June 2023. She died on 1 July 2023, the day Volodymyr Vakulenko should have turned 51. Victoria was just 37 and left a son, aged 12. As well as her writing, she had devoted all her time and energy after Russia’s full-scale invasion to investigating Russia’s war crimes as part of the Truth Hounds Initiative.
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