Mykola Kulichenko, 33, was buried in a grave on the side of a remote road in the northern Chernihiv region of Ukraine in mid-March, just three weeks into the war launched on February 24. He and his two brothers — Dmytro and Yevhen — were shot by Russian troops but Mr Kulichenko managed to manoeuvre his way out of the pit, leaving his siblings’ corpses behind.
He said: “It was hard for me to breathe, since Dima (Dmytro) was lying on top of me, but using my arms and knees, I was able to push my older brother off to the side of the pit, and then I climbed out.”
A Russian column was bombed on March 18 in the once-occupied village Mr Kulichenko calls home.
Soldiers, looking for those responsible for the attack, found the house in which the three brothers lived. Their sister Iryna wasn’t home that day.
The encounter between the Russians and the family led to three days of hell.
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Mr Kulichenko said: “They beat my whole body with a metal rod, and they put the barrel of a gun inside my mouth.”
Speaking to CNN, the survivor told brutal accounts of torture that lasted until they lost consciousness.
He claims they were blindfolded, had their hands and legs tied with tape and were driven in a military vehicle by five Russian fighters to a desolate plot of land.
There, Mr Kulichenko said, they were made to kneel while a pit was dug.
He then heard two shots, each of which killed one of his brothers.
He said: “I was thinking that I was next.”
However, the bullet entered his cheek and exited next to his right ear – so he decided his best option to survive was to pretend the Russians had killed him, too.
How long he spent alongside his brothers’ corpses in the pit, covered with earth, he doesn’t know.
Once he managed to somehow make his way out, he wobbled through fields to the nearest house, where a woman cared for him overnight before he was able to get back to his sister, who’d been waiting for news for days at their father’s home.
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He said: “I was lucky… and now I have to just go on living.
“This story needs to be heard by everyone, not just in Ukraine, but around the world because these kind of things are happening and this is just one in a billion.”
In early April, the Russians began to retreat from the Chernihiv region.
This allowed for a war crimes investigation to be launched by the Chernihiv region prosecutor’s office, whose investigators confirmed to CNN the brothers’ hands and legs had been tied and they had been blindfolded.
On April 21, a month after Mr Kulichenko says his brothers were executed, the two Ukrainian men were finally laid to rest in a well-tended grave, in once-again Ukrainian land.
More than 11,600 alleged war crimes have been recorded so far across Ukraine, as per local authorities.
Moscow denies committing war crimes in Ukraine or targeting civilians during a war that has killed thousands, devastated many cities and towns and sparked a massive exodus of nearly six million Ukrainians, many of whom bear accounts of torture, sexual violence and indiscriminate destruction.