On March 23, Kyiv resident Olena Sukhenko got the most terrifying phone call of her life.
“Russians came to our house,” her younger brother told her. “They took our mother. Our father went with her.”
She felt the ground slipping out from beneath her feet.
Olena asked her brother to leave the house immediately and hide in a safer place but he refused. Hours after Russian troops kidnapped her parents from their home in the then-occupied village of Motyzhyn in Kyiv Oblast, they returned and took her brother as well.
All three had stayed in Motyzhyn to help fellow residents survive the occupation. They provided fellow villagers with food and medicine and helped them flee. Olena's mother Olha also served as Motyzhyn's mayor.
Their work was cut short when the family was abducted. Olena lost the ability to talk to her loved ones but she didn't lose hope. Day after day, she sent supportive messages to her family, hoping to rescue them from Russian captivity.
But her faith broke after Ukrainian forces liberated Kyiv Oblast. A grave with four dead bodies was found in the forest around Motyzhyn on April 2.
Three of them were her family members, found shot dead, with their hands tied behind their backs and signs of torture on their bodies.
“And for what?” Olena asks, trying to hold back tears. “For being Ukrainians.”
In Kyiv Oblast alone, Russian forces killed at least 1,200 civilians during a month of occupation. After the region was liberated, the extent of Russian soldiers' violence against civilians was laid bare. New graves are still being discovered.
“Not only (Russian dictator Vladimir) Putin’s hands are covered with their blood,” says Olena. “But everyone who is silent, everyone who stands aside.”
Olena said her family was full of love, understanding, mutual support and care for one another. They also cared deeply about their fellow residents of Motyzhyn.
Her mother has been Motyzhyn's mayor since 2006. Olena says she was deeply loved and respected in the village.
According to Olena, thanks to her mother, Motyzhyn had paved roads, street lights, and other improvements. She was also praised for arranging village celebrations and supporting local war veterans and the elderly. For that, Olena says, she was called the "soul of the village."
“Everybody loved her,” Olena said. “The elderly would come to her office just to chat."
“She has been helping everyone and never refused.”
Her father, Ihor, owned two grocery stores in the village and did a lot of electrical work for the locals. Olena says they jokingly called him a “husband of the village's council” since he helped his wife a great deal.
They had a wonderful life together, Olena said.
Olena's family house in Motyzhyn was filled with joy and laughter every time the family got together. Along with her husband and their little daughter, Olena visited almost every weekend. So did her younger brother Oleksandr, who was 25 at the time he was killed.
Olena said she was beyond close with her brother and spoke to him every day. They both lived in Kyiv, Olena with her family and Oleksandr with his girlfriend.
“He was a part of me,” she says. “I loved him very much.”
Oleksandr worked as a manager at a local construction company. He was also a local football star, having played with several Ukrainian football clubs. Olena said he was a true patriot of Ukraine and was very much in love with his girlfriend Daria, whom he had dated for seven years.
“They were delaying getting married, expecting to have a long life together,” Olena says.
Shortly before the war, she recalled him saying that he had only now started living his life to the fullest, having a “good job, friends and many plans for the future.”
It didn't last long.
Until the end
The possibility of Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine had been discussed in Olena's family for months.
They even came up with an eventuality: Olena and Oleksandr, with their loved ones, would come to Motyzhyn in case something happened in Kyiv.
“We believed that it would be safer to stay in a smaller town,” Olena said.
They came to Motyzhyn the day Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24. They were not the only ones who fled Kyiv to the neighboring villages: Olena says Motyzhyn’s population of 1,000 residents increased fourfold at the beginning of the war.
Her mother immediately took an active role in coordinating the village's life during the war. Olena’s father and brother soon joined the local Territorial Defense unit.
Even though they heard explosions nearby, they never expected something so horrible would take place in their hometown.
On Feb. 27, however, Russian tanks entered the village.
“I saw them from the balcony of our house,” she says. “I can’t even describe the feeling... The earth was buzzing.”
Then she heard about the village's first victim. A man, who was crossing the road in front of Russian occupiers, was shot and wounded. A local doctor volunteered to take him to the hospital outside Motyzhyn. But Russian soldiers shelled the car, killing both men.
“Then I realized I had to save my baby,” Olena says.
Although she did not want to leave her parents behind, the stories of slain civilians made her flee the village on March 4. Olena’s father drove in front of her car to give her a chance to save herself in case of shelling. He escorted her to the nearest Ukrainian-controlled village.
“I pressed my hand to the window to say goodbye to him, and that was it,” Olena recalls.
Her family members haven’t even considered leaving Motyzhyn because there were so many people depending on them, says Olena.
At the very start of the war, Olena’s father gave away all the goods from his stores to the locals, while her mother delivered milk from a local plant to women with children. Risking their lives, they visited Motyzhyn residents every day, trying to provide people in need with food, medicine and other support.
They also helped people escape the village by car and hosted the family of a local Territorial Defense commander, whose house was destroyed by a missile.
“They decided that they would stay in the village with their people until the end,” she says.
Abduction, torture, murder
On the morning of March 23, Olena called her mother as usual. Her brother picked up.
“He told me that Russian soldiers came to their house and searched it,” she says. “They took his car and left.”
Terrified, Olena asked her family to leave the house and find a safe place.
“He told me ‘why would they come back here if they had already taken the car,’” she recalls. “It was so stupid but hopeful to believe that they would not come back.”
But they did. Several hours after the search, Russian forces returned and took Olha. Her husband did not want to leave his wife and went together with her.
Olena called her brother and again urged him to leave the house. In response, Oleksandr told her he would wait for their parents at home since he “reached an agreement with Russians that they will bring them back alive.’”
“He decided that those… beasts could be trusted,” Olena says.
She would soon receive a message from him saying that “everything was fine with them, but he has to turn the phone off.” Even though Olena wanted to believe him, she knew they were not fine.
“He couldn't go anywhere because he thought they would do something to our parents if he left,” Olena says. "I think that if I stayed there, I would sit and wait for my parents just like he did."
Eventually, Russian occupiers returned and abducted Oleksandr.
Olena and Oleksandr’s girlfriend spent the next few days searching for Olena's family, reaching out to locals and authorities, as well as spreading information about them on social media.
Olena says she texted them every day, hoping they would read her messages. More than anything, she wanted to save them.
On April 2, after Kyiv Oblast was liberated from Russian occupiers, Ukrainian troops found freshly disturbed ground in a forest around Motyzhyn.
There they were, the people she loved, buried in a shallow grave in the woods.
Her mother had been shot in the head several times. Her brother and father had been violently tortured: Oleksandr had some punctures on his neck and her father’s face was heavily damaged. Both were also shot multiple times and had their hands tied behind their backs.
“Humans can’t do what they did to my family,” she says.
Other details of the abduction and murder are yet to be established. Though Olena wants the case to be investigated in the European Court of Human Rights, she knows nothing would ever bring her family back or ease her pain.
“In one moment, I became not a daughter and sister, but just an adult without a family.”
They were buried in Motyzhyn on April 7. Olena says, up to 400 people came to say goodbye to them.
Now, she doesn't know how to enter that empty house that only weeks earlier was filled with the laughter of the people she loved most.
“Maybe, our nation is built on such people. Our history is written thanks to such people, and wars end in victories for us thanks to such people,” Olena says. “Heroes...”
"I will remember them as heroes."