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There have been 50,000 alleged war crimes in Ukraine. We worked to solve one

Oleksandr Breus, a Ukrainian and onetime French legionnaire, was killed next to his car during the Russian invasion. Oleksandr Holod, who says he witnessed it from his window, describes events as he rides his bike past the charred remains of the vehicle near Nova Basan, Chernihiv Oblast, Ukraine on June 28.
Carol Guzy for NPR
Oleksandr Breus, a Ukrainian and onetime French legionnaire, was killed next to his car during the Russian invasion. Oleksandr Holod, who says he witnessed it from his window, describes events as he rides his bike past the charred remains of the vehicle near Nova Basan, Chernihiv Oblast, Ukraine on June 28.

When I first heard about the dead man in the street, I didn't know his name.

It was just a story, about a possible war crime, committed in the first days of the Russian invasion into Ukraine. The victim was a Ukrainian man, allegedly murdered by Russian soldiers and left dead in the street next to his blown-up car, near a place called Nova Basan.

At first the story about this man stood out because it was different. He'd apparently been a member of the French Foreign Legion at some point. And perhaps, I'd thought, that could mean clues and investigations — maybe even consequences — far beyond the tiny village where he died, 50 miles northeast of Kyiv.

But as I spoke with investigators and human rights advocates about this case and many others, I came to see, as they have, just how elusive justice could be for any of the 50,000 alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

Giorgi Gogia, a Human Rights Watch investigator who first told me about the case, said he'd been documenting so many crimes he didn't have time to investigate this case any more.

And Oleksandra Matviichuk, who heads the Center for Civil Liberties, one of the recipients of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, said she had started thinking of war crimes as mere statistics.

"I started to use numbers instead of names," she said.

I wanted to focus on a name instead of a number, to put a face to all the apparent crimes but also to gauge whether justice is possible. If I could solve even one murder — learn about the victim, what happened, who was responsible — maybe it would reveal how likely accountability is for all of them.

To understand that story, I decided again to focus on just one — the story of the dead man in the street, near Nova Basan.

The villages of Nova Basan and Bobrovytsia

Members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces walk through Nova Basan after retaking the village from the Russian army on April 1.
Narciso Contreras / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces walk through Nova Basan after retaking the village from the Russian army on April 1.

I first visited Nova Basan in May, about a month after Ukrainian forces liberated the village from Russian control. It was a small community, surrounded by farmland, with a population of fewer than 3,000.

Before the war, families would leave their homes in Kyiv to spend their summers there.

Now, the burned-out hulls of Russian tanks lined the road.

It wasn't hard to find the scene of the killing: Everyone in the village knew where it was. Two men standing near an abandoned tank gestured down the road to where the man's car still sat along the highway, like a memorial to the violence inflicted by the Russian invasion in late February.

The car, a French-made Citroen, was a sickly white color, badly burned, with incinerated parts lying haphazardly around. Much of the front of the car was gone, torn away by an apparent explosion. Rust had begun to set in.

And the man's body was no longer there.

We headed into the center of the village, past the destroyed local café and a looted supermarket, to the town hall to see local administrator Mykola Dyachenko. In his office, where the window still had a bullet hole from the fighting, he told me what he knew.

It wasn't much. The man was killed as Russian forces entered the village on Feb. 28, Dyachenko said. He had, indeed, been a French legionnaire at one point, but he'd served his contract and returned home to Ukraine before the war began.

Dyachenko didn't know the dead man's name, but he knew his mother, Oksana Breus. She lived in another village, Bobrovytsia, about a 30-minute drive away. She invited us over to discuss her son.

Oksana Breus holds a photo of her son, Oleksandr, at her home in Bobrovytsia.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Oksana Breus holds a photo of her son, Oleksandr, at her home in Bobrovytsia.

When we arrived, she welcomed us into her home and put a photograph of her son on the table between us as we sat in the kitchen.

Her son's name was Oleksandr, she said. Oleksandr Breus. He had been killed in the first week of the war at the age of 28.

"He was going to Kyiv to pick up his sister and his fiancé. He wanted to take them to France," Oksana told us. She didn't know the details about how he died, and said she didn't want to know. But she had a video of the scene, taken the day of Oleksandr's death, which had circulated on social media.

She played it for us, then started to cry.

The video showed the same burned-out car we'd seen earlier, with a large hole in the back door on the driver's side. The camera pans right to show a man's body on the ground by the car, his right arm curled across what remains of his head. It looks like an execution.

"The Russians drove through, damn it," said the man recording the video. "Poor thing."

Oksana was too distraught to continue talking and suggested that we talk to Oleksandr's sister for more details. As she showed us out, walking into the yard, she stopped to show us one more thing.

It's a German shepherd with sad eyes, sitting inside an enclosure — Oleksandr's dog, Clifford.

"Such a handsome dog," she said. "Do you see how much he misses him?"

Investigating a war crime

As we watched the video Oksana showed us — the apparent explosion, the violence inflicted on Oleksandr — it seemed clear he was killed by military weaponry. Given what else we knew, that would make Oleksandr's killing almost certainly a war crime committed by Russian forces.

In the video, Oleksandr is dressed in civilian clothing: a brown jacket. There is no evidence that he was armed, and his family said he had no weapons.

His car was facing west, toward Kyiv. That suggests that when it was destroyed, it was facing away from the direction Russian forces were advancing.

And if he had died Feb. 28, as his mother, the town administrator and others had all told us, there was little chance that his killing had been the result of actions by Ukrainian forces. Every person we talked to in Nova Basan told us that the Ukrainian military, caught off guard by the initial invasion, was not present in or around Nova Basan when Oleksandr was killed.

War crimes are governed by a number of international laws and treaties. But there are local laws as well. In Ukraine's criminal code, there is a specific statute that addresses war crimes, something that falls to people like Vadym Prymachok to investigate.

"We're looking at murder. We're looking at torture. We're looking at looting. We're looking at harm to civilians," said Prymachok, a senior official in Ukraine's State Bureau of Investigation.

We showed Prymachok the video of Oleksandr and the car.

"To give you my opinion, this is a very clear case of a war crime ... in the sense that they saw who he was. They had a chance to not fire," Prymachok told us. "There was no threat that he was posing against any of the Russians that were in his vicinity."

Prymachok told us that he was not in charge of investigating the Oleksandr Breus case. So we traveled to the city of Chernihiv, the capital of the region where Oleksandr was killed. Serhiy Vasylyna is the head of the regional prosecutor's office there.

When we visited him, not far from the Belarusian border, he listed the challenges he faced as an investigator and prosecutor in a time of war.

He didn't have enough investigators or medical experts. The ones he had couldn't access the sites of alleged crimes because of continued fighting. And most people in his office had spent their careers as civilians, with little experience with the intricacies of investigating and prosecuting war crimes.

And then there was the issue of the sheer size of the caseload.

"My prosecutors, we are spending 24/7 on these 1,300 cases," Vasylyna told us in July.

Oleksandr's case was just one that overwhelmed investigators were juggling. Vasylyna said they were doing their best to learn more and would be in touch if they had more information.

Who was Oleksandr Breus?

Oleksandr's sister Anya Breus comforts their mother, Oksana, as she cries.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Oleksandr's sister Anya Breus comforts their mother, Oksana, as she cries.

I first met Oleksandr's sister, Anya Breus, in the conference room of a hotel in downtown Kyiv. She was eager to tell us of her warm memories, classic stories of mischievous siblings.

Like the time she broke the ceiling lamp in their home.

"I told him, do not [tell] mom. ... He said, 'I will not tell her if you will wash dishes for two weeks,'" Anya recalled, laughing. "Yes, it's a funny story."

Oleksandr Breus was also a fierce Ukrainian patriot, others said. Though he could speak Russian, he often refused to in order to prove a point.

"For him, it was important to separate us from them," said close friend Sasha Hrushko.

Oleksandr would go online to the website Chatroulette to debate Russians about history and to point out what he saw as the differences between Ukrainians and Russians.

"He always watched videos about Ukrainian history. He told us all the time that Russians are awful people," Anya recalled.

Those who knew him best say Oleksandr was also somewhat restless. His hobbies were varied: He was the captain of his college basketball team; he loved photography and the art of capturing memories; and he spent long days out on the road riding his bicycle.

He even had a brief stint as an amateur rapper.

He had an agriculture degree, but no clear path for the future. There were a lot of grand ideas — with one friend, he discussed setting up a thrift store; with another, the prospect of opening up a bar.

In 2018, he joined the French Foreign Legion to find discipline and a stable job.

Oksana holds a photo of Oleksandr in his French Foreign Legion uniform.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Oksana holds a photo of Oleksandr in his French Foreign Legion uniform.

"He was looking for himself," Hrushko said. "He was looking for some realization. That's why he just found ... himself in the French Legion."

A career in the military suited Oleksandr well — he thrived in stressful situations.

Borys, a French Foreign Legion colleague who requested that his last name be withheld since he is still in the legion, called him calm and collected. "He was able to deal very easily with tough situations," he said. "He was very levelheaded, coolheaded."

Oleksandr was in the legion for four years. But Borys said that after Oleksandr aggravated an old injury during an obstacle course, he was forced to work an administrative job.

Ultimately, Oleksandr left the French military in late 2021 after getting permanent residency status in France.

Borys also told us about Oleksandr's girlfriend, Yulia Pohyba.

Oleksandr and Yulia had tried to have a long-distance relationship while he was in France, but it wasn't easy. Living in Ukraine, she interpreted his application for French permanent residency as a sign he wasn't serious about her.

Oleksandr decided to return to Ukraine, about a month before the Russian invasion began, in an attempt to repair the relationship. They began to reconcile, and Oleksandr began seriously talking to his friends about marriage.

"I am sure that he wanted to propose," Borys said.

Trapped in Bobrovytsia

Firefighters respond to a fire in a building after Russian forces bombed the eastern Ukrainian town of Chuguiv on Feb. 24.
Aris Messinis / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Firefighters respond to a fire in a building after Russian forces bombed the eastern Ukrainian town of Chuguiv on Feb. 24.

On Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.

With his girlfriend safe in the suburbs of Kyiv, Oleksandr left for his childhood home in Bobrovytsia, along with his dog, Clifford. The dog didn't get along with Yulia's dog, so his plan was to drop him off and head back to the capital city — a two-hour drive — to evacuate his girlfriend and sister to western Ukraine and, eventually, out of the country.

But the Ukrainian government suddenly instituted a multiday curfew in Kyiv, essentially trapping him in place and preventing him from driving back. The uncertain, anxious situation brought him to tears.

"He was disappointed because he wanted to [get] to Yulia as soon as possible. And he stayed at Bobrovytsia for two days," his sister Anya said. "That was the first time I heard him cry on the phone."

All the while, a long line of Russian armored vehicles and troops rolled down the same highway that Oleksandr would eventually need to take to Kyiv.

Ukrainian forces, outnumbered and caught off guard, tried whatever they could to slow Russian progress. One local Ukrainian official said that in a neighboring town to Nova Basan, the Ukrainian military blew up a bridge to halt the Russian advance. He also said Russian soldiers killed six civilians as they passed through the town.

Other civilians told us the same thing, describing senseless executions of unarmed locals who just happened to be walking by.

Then, on the morning of Feb. 28, four days into the invasion, Ukrainian officials lifted the curfew in Kyiv.

Satellite imagery of the northern end of the Russian convoy southeast of Ivankiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 28.
Maxar Technologies / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Satellite imagery of the northern end of the Russian convoy southeast of Ivankiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 28.

Oleksandr began his journey to the capital.

And so did the Russian forces.

Russian troops enter Nova Basan

Yulia Gozhak, a resident of Nova Basan, told us she went out that morning to get some groceries with her adult son. She had heard that the bakery had fresh bread that morning.

But as she shopped, her son burst into the store.

"Mom, forget about the bread!" he said. "Let's go! I can hear tanks shooting near the brick plant!"

The two jumped into her car, with her son at the wheel. As they raced out of the village, they arrived at an intersection: the road to Bobrovytsia, the direction Oleksandr was traveling from.

Chaos erupted as she drove through the intersection. Russian armored vehicles were stationed on the far side, and when they saw the car, they opened fire.

"I didn't see any tanks. I just heard shots and saw the smoke," she said.

The front window shattered as bullets penetrated the inside of her car. Gozhak covered her face with her hands, and a bullet struck the phone she was carrying and ricocheted into her hand.

Gozhak managed to make it up the road to her home.

Traveling the other way, Oleksandr was about to drive through the same intersection.

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The killing of Oleksandr Breus

Oleksandr had left his childhood home around 8 a.m., shortly after the curfew in Kyiv was lifted. His mother said she saw him off — he was wearing a pair of white Nikes and loose-fitting green pants. While he was driving, his father, Mykola, called to check on him.

"I asked, 'Where are you?' [Oleksandr] said, 'I am at a checkpoint and see a [Russian armored] column,'" Mykola later recalled.

He urged Oleksandr to turn around.

"That's the only thing we talked about and that's the last time we spoke," Oleksandr's father said.

Somewhere between 9 and 10 that morning, a number of people in the village say they heard an explosion.

Tetiana Baryshovets works at a local supermarket that closed early as Russian forces pressed deeper into the village. Locals hid in their homes, sometimes their basements, as troops entered Nova Basan, but Baryshovets says she decided to make a dash home on her bicycle.

Pedaling home she saw a car on fire, with a body lying next to it, in the middle of the road.

"I stopped. I wanted to check if he was alive," she said. "But it was obvious that he wasn't. I didn't see the head, but the hand and legs were twisted unnaturally."

Pictures would later confirm that Oleksandr's green pants were partially burned off, exposing blackened flesh below the knee. His white Nike sneakers were gone — the fire had apparently burned them off.

"I started trembling, thinking, 'Why would they kill a person like that?'" Baryshovets recalled. "I started crying."

She also came to the stark realization that she could have shared Oleksandr's fate. It was all timing: Had Oleksandr arrived a short while earlier he might have been able to pass through before Russian troops arrived. Had he come later, he might have been prevented from passing through at all.

That evening, Anya Breus launched a search for her brother. No one had heard from him all day. She began posting on social media.

When Hrushko saw the post, he expected the worst.

"At that moment, I really understand for myself that he's probably dead," said Hrushko, "because [it only takes] 2 hours [to get] from Nova Basan to Kyiv."

A stranger passed Anya Breus the video of the crime scene, which had been circulating on social media. She forwarded it to Hrushko, who had no doubt that it was Oleksandr in the video.

"Just seeing his body, it's enough," Hrushko said. "I mean, there is nothing to be discussed. You just — just feel it."

It took us months to piece together what had happened to Oleksandr, and we knew much more than when we started. We knew who he was, why he was on the road, and roughly when he died. We found his home, his family — and had even heard recordings of his voice.

But still, we knew almost nothing about the essential question for war crimes prosecutors: How, precisely, was he killed?

For that, we needed an eyewitness.

A single eyewitness emerges

Nova Basan local administrator Mykola Dyachenko doubted that anyone had seen the killing.

"I don't know about eyewitnesses. Probably there weren't any," he said. "When the Russians entered our village, people were not coming outside."

Many locals said they deleted messages, photos and social media posts as the Russians rumbled into the village, worried their phones would be confiscated by the occupying force.

The owner of the gas station across the street from where Oleksandr died turned off his surveillance cameras before Russian troops invaded the town, town officials told us. The cameras at the nearby supermarket were no help either, because Russian forces took the hard drives when they occupied the town.

In many cases, we learned, Russian troops allegedly destroyed evidence that would show who was there. We canvassed houses in Nova Basan for potential eyewitnesses, but many homes weren't occupied.

It felt like a dead end — until, one day, a man approached us to say: "I hear you've been looking for me?"

The man's name was Oleksandr Holod. We'd knocked on his door before, but he hadn't been home.

This time, he invited us in. His place, which stood across the street from the wreckage of Oleksandr's vehicle, was dusty and dark inside. No electronics, no carpeting. After the war began, Holod had moved out.

Holod said he was an eyewitness to the killing and started describing what he saw on the morning of Feb. 28, the column of Russian armored vehicles descending on his village.

"I simply heard the noise, the increasing noise, they're coming ..." he began.

Oleksandr Holod says he witnessed Oleksandr Breus' death from his window in Nova Basan.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Oleksandr Holod says he witnessed Oleksandr Breus' death from his window in Nova Basan.

But before he could finish the story, the door flew open and a woman burst into the home. Laryssa Anatolievna, a shopkeeper we'd interviewed the previous day, was incensed that we were talking to Holod.

"I came here to tell the truth to the people, to tell the truth that you collaborated with the [Russians]," she said. "You drank with them; you were freely moving around on your bicycle. Tell me! Didn't it happen?" she shouted.

Holod defended himself, saying he was one of the few from the area who actually stayed during the occupation. Anatolievna didn't stay, he said.

"I saw everything with my own eyes here," Holod said, adding that he only cooked for Russian soldiers during the occupation, and only because they forced him to.

I asked Holod to continue. Dashing from window to window, he described what he saw on the day Oleksandr was killed.

Soldiers left their armored vehicles, known as BTRs, and spread out through the neighborhood as Russian forces moved in, he said.

"The first column that I saw [had] five BTRs," he said.

He saw a car coming from the direction of Bobrovytsia. Oleksandr's car. The same burned-out Citroen that remained outside his home.

Three BTRs were ahead of the car on the road, and Oleksandr pulled alongside the fourth.

Holod said he saw Oleksandr stop and get out of the car.

"He started to quarrel with them about something," Holod said. "He started to say to them something like 'What are you doing here?' and 'Why are you doing this?'"

As Oleksandr talked, two soldiers positioned themselves behind him down the road. One had a machine gun, Holod said. The other one — the tall one — had an assault rifle.

Without warning, the tall one opened fire from about 50 meters away.

Holod said he saw a flash of blood from Oleksandr's head as he fell to the road. Then the closest BTR turned its turret toward Oleksandr's car and fired a round from its main gun.

The charred remains of Oleksandr Breus' vehicle are parked on the side of the road in Nova Basan.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
The charred remains of Oleksandr Breus' vehicle are parked on the side of the road in Nova Basan.

Holod's description of what happened on the morning of Feb. 28 matches other evidence we gathered. The hole in the side of Oleksandr's car could have been where the Russian armored vehicle fired into it. The direction of blood splatter indicated the shooting started from the approximate direction Holod described.

And Holod's version of events matched the details shown in videos of the scene taken on the day of the killing — videos Holod says he'd never seen. This last claim also seemed plausible. Holod didn't have a smartphone.

Holod's testimony became the centerpiece of our understanding of Oleksandr's death, because it fit with all of the other details we learned.

Details like what happened to Oleksandr's body.

Oleksandr's body lies in the street

Two days after Oleksandr was killed, Tetiana Baryshovets, the woman on the bicycle, returned to the scene. She couldn't bear the thought of Oleksandr's body lying in the road.

But someone — she didn't know who — had gotten there first. There was a light cloth over Oleksandr's body, she said, and some bricks to hold it in place. She's haunted by the memory.

"I can't get it out of my mind because ... I see it every time I go to and from work," she said.

Russian forces fully occupied the village of Nova Basan during this time. Residents say there were no Ukrainian forces nearby. And they describe Russian soldiers committing atrocities without resistance.

Nina Nahorna, a teacher in Nova Basan, said that shortly after they entered the village, dozens of Russian soldiers were in her yard, acting like they owned the place.

"One of them ... told us that he had already killed six civilians," she said. "And then we realized that they didn't care if we were civilians or not. We realized that these people have lost touch with reality."

Villagers report a number of civilians killed in Nova Basan besides Oleksandr.

Mykola Dyachenko, the local administrator, was detained and subject to a mock execution.

It was a grinding and brutal period for the villagers.

"They are not humans, do you understand? They are monsters," said 86-year-old Oleksandra Lyska, whose chickens were killed, provisions were taken away and home was destroyed. "They are terrible people. Terrible."

Oleksandr's body remained on the street for a month during the period of Russian occupation. Family members say it was just too dangerous to retrieve him.

"We were told that Russian soldiers did not allow anyone to be buried," said Anya, Oleksandr's sister. "My mother told me that there was also one 14-year-old boy who was killed. His mother went to them, kneeling, and was asking them for permission. But they were shooting over her head and sending her back."

Still, Oleksandr's mother contacted the Nova Basan town council every day to see if they were allowed to retrieve the body. But the Russians imposed strict restrictions on movement and were prone to opening fire to clear vehicles and civilians off the road.

Then, in early April, Ukrainian forces made their way back into Nova Basan after a ferocious battle. It was finally possible to retrieve Oleksandr's body.

Serhii Tsyba said that recovering bodies was the way he contributed to the war effort.

"I have no fear," Tsyba said. "My father always taught me that you don't need to be afraid of the dead. Be afraid of the living ... I cannot help the soldiers. I will be helping people so that ... they have everything to go on their last trip."

On the 4th of April, Tsyba's assignment was to go to the recently liberated village of Nova Basan.

His hands began shaking as he replayed the memory. This time, he knew who he and his colleague were picking up. It was his friend Oleksandr, whom he called by his nickname, Sasha. They had grown up together in nearby Bobrovytsia.

"[My colleague] told me who we were picking up when we were driving down. I told him that I really knew Sasha, and that's why I took it so hard," he recalled.

Tsyba was responsible for taking photos of the scene. Wild animals had torn at Oleksandr's body. Tsyba then helped lift the body into a coffin.

There's a photo of Oleksandr's mother, Oksana, arriving on the scene, wracked with grief.

Oksana Breus cries as she arrives to pick up her son's body amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Nova Basan in April.
Serhii Nuzhnenko / Reuters
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Reuters
Oksana Breus cries as she arrives to pick up her son's body amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Nova Basan in April.

Oleksandr Breus was brought to a small cemetery, down the road from his childhood home, and was buried on April 6, 2022. The sight of his dead friend's body, lying out in the cold for a month, triggered something in Tsyba that would last much longer.

"Anger," said Tsyba. "I've never felt anything like it. Fear turned into anger, and hate. Because we never attacked anyone; we just lived our lives."

The perpetrators

While searching for more witnesses to the events in Nova Basan, we found one more video that showed Russian forces moving through the village on the day Oleksandr was killed. We reached out to the person who posted it on Facebook, who told us her mother took the video.

And that's how we found ourselves walking into a furniture store in Kyiv, where Olena Bondarenko works as a manager.

After the war started, Bondarenko fled the capital city for the home her family owned in Nova Basan, hoping there would be less fighting in the small village. On the morning of Oleksandr's death, she stood outside in a state of shock as armored vehicles rolled by.

She showed us another video that she took of passing Russian troops. An armed soldier appears in the frame and aims a rifle at her — causing her to gasp — before firing off shots in her direction. Bondarenko drops to the floor and her father pulls her away.

But later, she noticed something unusual about the vehicles on the video.

"They were new tanks with the letter 'O,'" she explained. "On TV, they were only talking about 'Z' and 'V.' I told the Ukrainian military about these vehicles with the letter 'O.' They were totally different. It was a different type of armored vehicle and they wore a different colored uniform."

We didn't know it then, but Olena Bondarenko's videos were crucial to understanding which Russian units were on the ground.

The first clue was those "O" markings.

We developed sources in Ukrainian intelligence agencies, police, and their prosecutorial offices — and showed them what we'd found.

They couldn't tell us conclusively which units were in Nova Basan that day. But they told us the letter "O" meant the vehicles were units from Russia's Central Military District.

They also provided us with a list of Russian units that might have been in Nova Basan when Oleksandr was killed.

We turned to people who track military equipment by scouring all the information that's publicly available: Tom Bullock, a now-former analyst at Janes, a company that monitors militaries all around the world; and George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Witnesses said the Russian troops in Nova Basan were not wearing insignia or patches that would identify who they were or where they came from.

But both Bullock and Barros said Bondarenko's video showed a specific kind of armored vehicle called a BTR-82A.

This model of armored vehicle was a crucial clue. Among the list of units our sources had provided, only a small number had this equipment.

"The fact that we can identify that that's a BTR-82 Type A is significant because there's only two brigades [in Russia's Central Military District] that actually field that equipment," Barros said. "And those are the 15th Brigade and the 30th Brigade."

Russian military doctrine suggests that these BTRs, and these brigades — the 15th and 30th — would have been used for clearing operations.

A damaged Russian BTR-82 is seen in the village of Nova Basan, Ukraine, on April 1.
Serhii Nuzhnenko / Reuters
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Reuters
A damaged Russian BTR-82 is seen in the village of Nova Basan, Ukraine, on April 1.

Clearing is a task that militaries do when they're going into a contested area to ensure that it's safe," Barros explained. And he sees evidence of that mission in Bondarenko's videos.

"They're walking down the main stretch of the village, what it looks like, and they're checking, you know, house to house. They're peeking over fences. And what they're probably doing is a clearing operation," he said.

By identifying the two units that were most likely in Nova Basan, we dramatically narrowed down the number of suspects. The Russian military deployed a ground force of about 120,000 people to Ukraine during its initial invasion.

The two units we had identified, the 15th and 30th brigades, had far fewer soldiers: about 4,000, Barros said.

Our eyewitness Holod said he saw five BTRs in the immediate vicinity when Oleksandr was killed. Each vehicle has a capacity of 10 soldiers.

So if our reporting bears out, the killer was among a group of about 50 people, from the 15th or 30th brigade, who passed through the intersection in Nova Basan between 9 and 10 a.m. on Feb. 28. He was tall and carried an assault rifle.

But we'd reached our limit. We couldn't get the actual names of those 50 men, much less the tall one with the rifle.

We could name one potential defendant in a war crimes case, though: the Russian military officer responsible for the units that were there.

A mortar shell is seen next to a destroyed military vehicle in Nova Basan on April 1.
Serhii Nuzhnenko / Reuters
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Reuters
A mortar shell is seen next to a destroyed military vehicle in Nova Basan on April 1.

"It's very clear that at that point in time in Nova Basan we saw significant elements in that area likely commanded by Russian Colonel General Alexander Lapin," Barros said, relying on open-source information.

Alexander Lapin was in command of the men who seem to have killed Oleksandr and blown up his car.

Knowing his name could be significant: If all of the killings and shootings around Nova Basan are compiled, and if investigators could argue that the atrocities were systematic and widespread, they could pin responsibility for those crimes on the commander. They could prosecute him for war crimes.

There are other pieces of evidence still to be uncovered. For instance: A few months ago, we met with the investigators in charge of Oleksandr's case, who said they were looking at cellphone records for both his phones and the phones of Russian soldiers who were in the area.

And there could be other records of who was at the intersection. Roman Avramenko heads the Ukrainian nongovernmental organization Truth Hounds, which documents and investigates war crimes.

"Maybe in a year or in 10 years, Russia will break down and the Ukraine investigators would be obtaining a full list of soldiers being deployed to different areas," Avramenko said.

As for Oleksandr's status as a French permanent resident, we asked a top human rights lawyer if the French government would investigate the case. She told us Oleksandr doesn't qualify for a war crimes investigation in France because he was not a citizen. The French Foreign Legion ignored my request to meet and discuss the case, except to say that he left the legion in 2021.

We looked into the possibility of the International Criminal Court taking on the case. International law clearly outlaws killing unarmed civilians. But we quickly found that the ICC doesn't usually pursue cases like Oleksandr's.

"Normally they focus on the high-level commanders and functioneers who issue orders, and they focus on the cases with [prominent or large numbers of] victims ... or with mass destruction. So most probably the ICC would not take this case," Avramenko explained.

It falls to Ukrainian investigators to show that individual war crimes are part of a larger pattern.

That's the goal of Ukrainians like Vadym Prymachok, the senior official at the Ukrainian State Bureau of Investigations, who named the Russian minister of defense, president and generals as officials he'd like to eventually bring to justice by showing "systemic war crimes," he said.

But the Ukrainian system is swamped.

We'd spent months conducting close to 100 interviews and developing sources throughout Nova Basan and the Ukrainian government. And, at least for now, we couldn't narrow it down any further.

Oleksandr's death was just one alleged war crime. There are some 50,000 under investigation across Ukraine.

Even those who have been working on investigating war crimes for years are pessimistic about finding any full measure of justice.

"Frankly speaking, I think it's not possible to establish justice for all the cases of war crimes committed in the course of full-scale invasion," Avramenko said.

Four months after Oleksandr was killed, we went with his sister and mother to visit his grave. There were violets around the dirt mound where his body lay at rest.

Oksana and Anya Breus visit Oleksandr's grave four months after he was killed.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Oksana and Anya Breus visit Oleksandr's grave four months after he was killed.

That day, Oleksandr's mother told us one more thing about her son: that last year, while flying home to Ukraine, he had a layover in the Netherlands.

"He knows that I love flowers. He had some spare time and bought me tulip seeds," she explained. "I planted them last autumn, and this year 10 out of 10 — all of them bloomed."

They bloomed precisely on Mother's Day, she said, about two months after Oleksandr's death.

The audio for this story was produced by Monika Evstatieva; edited by Barrie Hardymon and Robert Little; digital production by Meg Anderson; research by Barbara Van Woerkom; photo editing by Emily Bogle; visuals and graphic editing by Nick McMillan and Nick Underwood. Luka Oleksyshyn, Ross Pelekh, Ievgen Afanasiev, Mark Raczkiewycz, and Julian Hayda contributed reporting, translation and research help.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.