BUCHA, Ukraine — With machine guns trained on them, Natalia Kulakivska had just a few seconds to say goodbye to Yevhen Hurianov, her husband of 16 years.
She dropped down on the patio of the family house and they locked eyes as almost 20 Russian soldiers forced him to his knees.
“I hugged him, touched his cheek,” she told NBC News as she tried to hold back disobedient tears.
It was the last time she saw Hurianov, who went by the nickname “Zhenia,” she said around four weeks after he was taken away.
The soldiers had accused him of being in Ukraine’s territorial defense, a volunteer military unit of the country’s army. Kulakivska denies that. According to her, he is an ordinary civilian — a car mechanic who runs a family business with his brother and his stepfather from the garage in their backyard.
While NBC News could not independently verify all the details of Kulakivska’s account, it squares with widespread stories of Russia's so-called "filtration" operations.
The State Department said on Sept. 7, the U.S. had evidence that “hundreds of thousands” of Ukrainian citizens have been forcibly deported to Russia in “a series of horrors” overseen by officials from Russia’s presidency — a charge Russia immediately dismissed.
Bucha, a leafy suburb of Kyiv where the couple shared a house made of brownstone, has become a byword for Russian atrocities. Moscow’s retreat from the area in early April after five weeks of occupation revealed a shocking scene of destruction and brutality: shattered buildings, burned-out cars and bodies strewn on streets. Investigators are examining the town’s mass graves for evidence of war crimes.
Moscow denies committing atrocities in Bucha, accusing Kyiv of orchestrating them to discredit the Russian army. In an email to NBC News, it called “accusations” of forced deportation “groundless” aimed at “discrediting Russia.”
In the midst of the death that has surrounded her, Kulakivska is steadfast in her conviction that Hurianov is alive. Searching, and waiting, for him is an everyday quest.
But she isn’t just looking for her husband.
Around the time Hurianov was taken, she said, her sister’s husband, Serhii Liubych, 37, and 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 behind to look for the three missing men, keeping a mental image of them coming home, walking through the front gate.
“I believe this is how it will be,” she said.
On April 21, a man did walk through her gate. But instead of her loved ones, it was a former police officer from the neighboring town of Hostomel, who had also been detained by the Russians.
The man, Oleh, later said in an interview that on March 20, he had been forced into a dark basement in an unknown location with other men. (NBC News is not publishing Oleh’s last name out of concerns 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 believes to be the next two nights in this pitch-black, cold space. He said they were given porridge twice a day that, in the absence of spoons, they were forced to eat with their hands. They were only allowed one toilet visit a day and “only if you couldn’t endure it anymore,” Oleh said.
The two men made a pact: The first to come back 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 on a truck along with other captives to be taken to Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus, Russia’s close ally. Eventually, they realized that Kulakivska’s nephew, Bondarenko, was also on 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 western Russian city close to Ukraine’s eastern border, before being exchanged for Russian prisoners whom Ukraine was holding. The day after returning home, he found himself at Hurianov’s home.
Oleh told Kulakivska her husband was alive, at least as of March 23 when they were in Belarus together. He also believed that Bondarenko had managed to escape. He jumped off the truck they were transported in close to what Oleh thought was the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl, near the Belarusian border.
For days after learning this from Oleh, Kulakivska was holding onto the 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 the family’s life upside down.
Kulakivska said she later learned that her nephew’s bullet-ridden body was found by the locals. Then after the Russian forces retreated, his body was exhumed.
Kulakivska had to FaceTime her sister in Poland from the morgue to help identify Bondarenko’s body, an experience she said was painful “beyond words.”
‘Hardest thing is to wait’
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 that 1.2 million Ukrainians had been deported to Russian territory in this way.
In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Russian authorities have “interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, from their homes to Russia.”
The Geneva Conventions, which spell out international rules intended to protect combatants and civilians in armed conflicts, state that “individual or mass 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, regardless of their motive.”
Russia denies targeting or mistreating civilians.
“The accusations against our country of ‘forced deportation of Ukrainian citizens’ to the territory of the Russian Federation are groundless and are conjectures aimed at discrediting Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry said in an emailed statement.
More than six months into the war, many Ukrainians whose loved ones have been taken away have little to no information, from either the Russian or the Ukrainian side, about whether they are alive or where they are being kept.
Local prosecutors in Bucha said they are too overwhelmed with requests like Kulakivska’s to be of any help.
Ukraine’s Security Service, which is handling cases of Ukrainians who are believed to have been forcibly disappeared from Russian-occupied areas, has not responded to a request for comment on Hurianov.
“The hardest thing is to wait,” Kulakivska said. “To wait and understand that there is nothing I can do.”
By tracking down and talking to two other men who have been in Russian custody with Hurianov, Kulakivska now knows her husband is being held in correctional facility #2 in the town of Novozybkov in Russia’s Bryansk region, some 160 miles northeast of Bucha. She tried calling the prison but was told there were no Ukrainian citizens held there.
After multiple phone calls by Kulakivska, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which tracks information on the war missing, both military and civilians, confirmed in July that her husband is being held in Russian custody. It didn’t provide any more details to Kulakivska or to NBC News.
And late last month, she received a letter in Hurianov’s writing via the Red Cross. It said only: “I’m alive and in good health.”
Desperate for help from inside Russia, Kulikavska called on her husband’s relatives in Russia, with whom he has been close since childhood. They did not respond to her plea.
For her, their silence has tipped the scales, cementing a rift that can never be undone.
“If Zhenia returns alive, will he be able to forgive everything he’s been through?” the text message to his relatives read. “If I find his body, will I be able to forgive?”
For now, she still waits for her husband to stride through the black gates in front of their brownstone house.
Shira Pinson, Molly Hunter and Mariia Ulianovska reported from Bucha. Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.