BUCHA, Ukraine — With machine guns trained on it, Natalia Kulakivska had just seconds to say goodbye to Yevhen Hurianov, her husband of 16 years.
She plopped down on the patio of the family home and they locked eyes as nearly 20 Russian soldiers forced her to kneel.
“I hugged him, I touched his cheek,” she told NBC News as she tried to hold back disobedient tears.
That was the last time she saw Hurianov, nicknamed “Zhenia”, she said about four weeks after his abduction.
The soldiers had accused him of being in the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, a volunteer military unit of the country’s army. Kulakivska denies this. According to her, he is an ordinary civilian – an auto mechanic who runs a family business with his brother and stepfather from their backyard garage.
Watch “Unbreakable: Taken by Russia – The Search for Zhenia” on NBC News NOW September 14 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Although NBC News could not independently verify all of the details of Kulakivska’s account, it matches widespread stories of Russia’s so-called “filtration” operations.
The State Department said Sept. 7 that the United States had evidence that “hundreds of thousands” of Ukrainian citizens were forcibly deported to Russia in “a series of horrors” overseen by state officials. Russian presidency – a charge that Russia immediately rejected.
Bucha, a leafy Kyiv suburb where the couple shared a brownstone house, has become synonymous with Russian atrocities. Moscow’s withdrawal from the region in early April after five weeks of occupation revealed a shocking scene of destruction and brutality: destroyed buildings, burnt cars and bodies littering the streets. Investigators search the city’s mass graves for evidence of war crimes.
Moscow denies committing atrocities in Bucha, accusing Kyiv of orchestrating them to discredit the Russian military. In an email to NBC News, he called the “accusations” of forced deportation “baseless” aimed at “discrediting Russia”.
Amidst the death surrounding her, Kulakivska is firmly convinced that Hurianov is alive. Looking for it and waiting for it is a daily quest.
But she’s not just looking for her husband.
Around the time Hurianov was abducted, she says, her sister’s husband, Serhii Liubych, 37, and his 20-year-old son Vlad Bondarenko, who lived in the nearby town of Hostomel, were also captured by Russian soldiers.
During the occupation, her sister, Snizhana Liubych, fled to Poland, taking her remaining children and Kulakivska’s children, Yevhen, 16, and Nazar, 10.
Kulakivska stayed in search of the three missing men, keeping a mental image of them returning home, walking through the front door.
“I believe it will be like this,” she said.
On April 21, a man walked through her door. But instead of his relatives, he was a former policeman from the nearby town of Hostomel, who had also been detained by the Russians.
The man, Oleh, later said in an interview that on March 20 he was forced into a dark basement in an undisclosed location with other men. (NBC News is not publishing Oleh’s last name out of concern for his safety.)
There he met Hurianov, who offered him a place on the mattress lying on the floor.
“Zhenia turned out to be a great human,” Oleh said.
They spent what Oleh thinks will be the next two nights in this cold, dark space. He said they were given porridge twice a day which in the absence of spoons they had to eat with their hands. They were only allowed one visit to the toilet a day and “only if you couldn’t take it anymore,” Oleh said.
The two men made a pact: the first to return alive would find the other’s family and tell them what had happened.
After two days, Oleh said they were moved from the basement, blindfolded and handcuffed, and put in a truck with other captives to be taken to Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus, near ally of Russia. Eventually, they realized Kulakivska’s nephew, Bondarenko, was also in the truck with them, Oleh said.
On March 23, in Belarus, Oleh and Hurianov were separated.
Oleh said he spent the next three weeks in a prison in Kursk, a city in western Russia close to Ukraine’s eastern border, before being exchanged for Russian prisoners held by Ukraine. The day after his return home, he finds himself at Hurianov’s.
Oleh told Kulakivska that her husband was alive, at least on March 23, while they were together in Belarus. He also believed that Bondarenko managed to escape. He jumped out of the truck they were transported in near what Oleh thought was the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl, near the Belarusian border.
For days after learning this from Hordiychuk, Kulakivska held out hope that Bondarenko was alive. But then, on April 26, a post on the Telegram messaging app, spotted by her sister from Poland, once again turned life upside down for the family.
Kulakivska said she later learned that her nephew’s bullet-riddled body had been found by locals. Then, after the withdrawal of Russian forces, his body was exhumed.
Kulakivska had to face her sister in Poland from the morgue to help identify Bondarenko’s body, an experience she described as painful “beyond words”.
“The hardest part is waiting”
There are many like Kulakivska in Ukraine – those whom the war has forced to wait for loved ones who may never return. The forcible transfer of civilians is a serious violation of the laws of war amounting to a war crime and could be a crime against humanity, according to the United Nations. In June, the country’s government said 1.2 million Ukrainians had been thus expelled to Russian territory.
In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russian authorities had “interrogated, detained and forcibly removed between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, from their homes to Russia.”
The Geneva Conventions, which set out international rules intended to protect combatants and civilians in armed conflict, stipulate that “individual or collective forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, whatever their motive”.
Russia denies targeting or abusing civilians.