Mykola Honchar lives in a crumbling stone house in what is left of a tiny hamlet of eastern Ukraine. The town was attacked by Russian forces in June of last year, as the Wagner mercenary forces were spearheading a renewed offensive.
Even before the Kremlin set Wagner loose to wreak havoc in Ukraine, the Russian campaign was notable for its brutality. But from the moment Wagner forces entered the war in April 2022, they earned a special reputation for bloodlust from civilians and soldiers alike.
To Mr. Honchar, the death this week of Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, responsible for so much carnage in the war, would be fitting — a violent end to a violent life.
“He has blood on his hands,” said Mr. Honchar, 58. “If there is a god, god will figure out what to do with him.”
Even in a war in which civilians were shot dead in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, and the town of Mariupol was bombed into oblivion, Wagner and Mr. Prigozhin cultivated an image of brutality.
A video was promoted across Wagner-affiliated social media of the execution of one of Mr. Prigozhin’s own soldiers with a sledgehammer after he was captured and then released by the Ukrainians in a prisoner swap. While in custody, the prisoner had taped an interview saying he did not believe in Russia’s war.
“A dog receives a dog’s death,” Mr. Prigozhin said in the video.
By the time Ukraine regained Mr. Honchar’s village of Bohorodychne, Mr. Honchar was one of only two people left living in the village, once home to around 800 people.
The other person was Nina Honchar, his 92-year-old mother. He had stayed there despite the danger to take care of her. She died earlier this month.
He does not know if Wagner fighters were among the occupiers. “I did not ask for their documents,” he said. But he recalls seeing Russian fighters, who appeared to be on drugs, wandering around town in their underwear, their bodies covered with prison tattoos.
Wagner amplified its force by recruiting prisoners. After Wagner left the battlefield in June of this year, the Russian military continued the use of convicts as part of newly formed “Storm Z” units along the most dangerous front line positions.
To Mr. Honchar, it hardly matters under what banner the soldiers fought. The legacy of Wagner and Russian forces, he said, are one and the same: death, destruction and ruin.
“My brother and his wife were torn apart by shells,” Mr. Honchar said. Before he could bury them, he had to collect their body parts. “There was no skull, his hands were scattered,” he said of his brother.
Once he collected what he could find, he wanted to bury them in the local cemetery but it was under constant attack and too dangerous. He laid their remains in a trench and covered them with dirt.
When his 80-year-old neighbor died, he buried her in the crater of the shell that killed her.
Looming over the village is the Church of the Holy Mother of God, ‘Joy of All Who Sorrow.’ With its sky blue walls visible for miles around and majestic golden domes, it was once a draw for tourists and pilgrims.
Now its walls are blasted apart, one dome has tumbled to the ground and the gold leafing blasted away from another.
When the Russians first came, Mr. Honchar said, they tied his hands and took him to the basement of the local school to interrogate him. They pointed a gun at him.
“I told them: ‘First kill my mother, and then me,” he recalled, not wanting her to be left alone and watch her son die.
They said he was brave, he said, and asked where the Ukrainian soldiers were located. He told them to look in the woods, and that was the end of the interrogation.
After that, he said, they mostly left him alone as they took up positions in the village.
More disciplined soldiers occupied the church, he said, but everywhere else a motley crew of soldiers from different units seemed more interested in scoring drugs than what he was doing.
“The Russians just walked around and drank alcohol,” he said. Most of the drug addicts and drunks hung out at the school, he said.
The wreckage of the war litters the school building, as do the reminders of what Ukraine once was.
On the blackboard of one classroom remains a date written in chalk: February 22, 2022. It was the last lesson before the Russian invasion two days later.
There is not a single undamaged home in Bohorodychne. The general store remains shattered and shuttered. The village government center is gutted, its walls pockmarked with bullet holes, the roof caved in and a rusted hulk of an armored vehicle standing guard outside. Throughout the village, weeds grow wild and the ruins of homes are camouflaged by vegetation.
It is like a miniature version of Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that it took Wagner fighters more than a year to capture, leveling the city in the process.
Ukrainian officials say there are hundreds of ruined villages like Bohorodychne spread across Ukraine, many leveled by Wagner forces before the group pulled its fighters out of Ukraine.
While the destruction of Bakhmut is shocking for its scale, the devastation of Bohorodychne is heartbreaking for its intimacy.
Mr. Honchar recalled how when he was growing up in the village, there were dozens of children. They would swim in the river and run through forests filled with wild pigs and roe deers.
Sometimes, he said, they would sneak off for a smoke and get a rap on the ear or worse if they got caught. The first girl he ever kissed lived just on the other side of a bridge in a neighboring town.
That bridge was blown up by Ukrainians to slow the Russian advance. There are no children living in the village now.
He is thinking about preparing for winter and said he needed to go to the forest to collect wood to burn to keep warm.
But Ukrainian soldiers have told him that expedition is too dangerous. Mines still litter the land.
Mr. Honchar does not really believe Mr. Prigozhin is dead. But he knows his village is gone. Still, he hopes life will return one day.