These drone operators were making “beautiful” YouTube videos. Now they are registering alleged Russian war crimes
Editor’s note: This story contains graphic images.
A gray car drives on a highway near kyiv, heading for the Ukrainian capital. As he approaches a Russian position, he makes a sharp U-turn, stopping soon after.
A man then opens the door. A second later, he is on the ground.
“He raised his hands above his head – and then he was shot,” Oleksandr Radzikhovskiy of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces told CNN.
Radzikhovskiy is a member of the Bugatti Company, a special intelligence-gathering unit operating in the outskirts of kyiv.
The unit filmed the March 7 incident on the E-40 – a key highway linking the western city of Lviv to Kyiv – with a drone, as Russian forces held the area.
In the footage, Russian tanks are seen facing east towards kyiv – the direction Russian forces were pushing in early March – as civilians tried to flee a nearby town.
“A group of cars was fleeing a small town, just outside Irpin, where they had been sitting for about 10 days without food, water or warm clothes,” Radzikhovskiy said. “They didn’t know what was happening, they didn’t know that Russian forces had advanced and taken that position.”
“There was an ambush by a Russian tank and Russian personnel,” Radzikhovskiy said. “They opened fire.”
In the video, after the man falls to the ground, Russian troops approach the vehicle.
Two people – who CNN later confirmed with their families to be six-year-old Gordey Iovenko and a family friend – get out of the car.
The woman wraps her arm around Iovenko, trying to shield him from the death that surrounds them.
Iovenko had just lost his parents, Maksim, 32, motionless on the ground, and his mother, Ksenia, 37, killed by Russian gunfire inside the car.
Iovenko and the woman are then driven into a wooded area by Russian forces. Meanwhile, other soldiers search the car and inspect Maksim Iovenko’s body before dragging it to the side of the road.
The BBC first reported Iovenko’s death.
Radzikhovskiy’s drone unit, which was just 500 meters (0.3 miles) away, filmed the entire scene.
“…We captured everything, every moment and every detail of this murder,” he said. “Since then, we have had to live with that image in our heads,” he added.
Nearly a month after the incident, CNN visited the scene on the E-40 highway near Myla, where the destruction left behind by Russian forces as they retreated was on full display.
Decomposing corpses were strewn along the road, charred bodies were still leaning against the vehicles they were driving and the same car seen in the drone footage – which was burnt to the ground – was in the same spot where it s was arrested on March 7.
“You can see it’s like a shooting range… Cars are lined up,” said Radzikhovskiy, who showed CNN the site of the incident.
“There are no cars (beyond a certain point) because they didn’t let them come. They just fired as soon as they got close,” he added.
The Kremlin has dismissed accusations that it targeted civilians or civilian infrastructure in what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine. He also downplayed allegations of murders in towns like Bucha, Irpin or Borodianka as fake news and announced his own investigation into them.
However, CNN saw the remains of a camp used by the Russian military in the wooded area where Iovenko and the woman were taken. It was littered with Russian military rations, currency and abandoned equipment – some with “V” symbols painted on them – proof that their soldiers held this position for around three weeks.
Iovenko and the family friend were later freed by the Russians, his family members told CNN.
Radzikhovskiy’s team sent footage of the incident to the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office for investigation and also submitted it to the UK Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit, which compiled evidence of war crimes in Ukraine for a possible future trial.
Ukraine’s Attorney General Iryna Venediktova told CNN: “When we see such cases where our cars are set on fire and people inside the cars have been shot and burned, and we see that it is systemic, these are not only war crimes, they are crimes against humanity and we will do everything to prove it.
The somber episode further prompted Radzikhovskiy’s unit to continue helping the Ukrainian army with its drones.
Radzikhovskiy, a senior Ukrainian software engineer who lived in St. Albans, England, before the war, said he couldn’t sit idle while his country was under attack. He returned to Ukraine to try to help fight off the Russian invasion as best he could.
“In normal life, before the war, we were civilians who liked to fly drones casually and make nice YouTube videos,” he said. “But when the war started, we actually became a vital part of the resistance.”
His unit regularly flies its drones, documenting Russian positions and communicating them to the Ukrainian military.
“They call us eyes, because we are eyes, we can see. And if you can see and report, you can conduct artillery strikes,” he said, adding, “In good times, it’s a matter of minutes from spotting to hitting.
Radzikhovskiy’s unit shared hours of drone footage showing Russian tanks operating in the woods around kyiv. In one video, moments after the tanks were seen being hit by Ukrainian artillery.
The unit is a grassroots operation, using store-bought civilian drones, but their method is how Radzikhovskiy feels most comfortable. And he is obliged to continue the work.
“There’s no other way, we can’t retreat – because if we did, Ukraine wouldn’t exist.”