BORODYANKA, Ukraine — Andreiy Ziuzko stood near the flattened apartment complex in Borodyanka that was once his home, his belongings in plastic bags on the sidewalk beside a few blackened cooking pots on Tuesday.
The building had lain in ruins for weeks, struck just after fighting had driven him and his family to flee. It was only after a while that he explained something even worse had happened. His mother lived a few doors down, and her apartment had also been bombed.
“Mom’s home was hit on the same day,” Ziuzko said. “I can’t find her.”
Russian troops recently withdrew from the area around Borodyanka, a Ukrainian commuter town near Kyiv, the capital, that was among the first places to be hit by Russian airstrikes after the invasion. Now, dozens of people who were sheltering in bases or apartments are missing and presumed dead under the rubble, the acting mayor said Tuesday.
“We think over 200 people died,” said Georgiy Yerko, the acting mayor of Borodyanka. “But it is an assumption.”
On Tuesday, New York Times journalists reached the town for the first time after Russian troops withdrew. The scars left behind were shocking, with great gashes sliced through multistory complexes along the main street. Four apartment buildings had collapsed in the bombing, residents said, their floors crushed down to ground level like concertinas. Heavy fighting left more destruction for 2 miles along the main street.
Russia’s pullout from areas around Kyiv in recent days has unveiled evidence of abuses that have galvanized the world’s attention. In places like Bucha, a closer-in suburb of the capital just a few miles from Borodyanka, the focus has been on evidence that Ukrainian civilians were killed by Russian forces, including bodies whose hands had been bound and who had been shot at close range .
In Borodyanka, and other places, the focus has been on evidence that civilian buildings were indiscriminately targeted. The topic was central in discussions at the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday.
Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN chief for political and peace-building affairs, told the Security Council that explosive weapons had caused death and destruction in many populated areas, wrecking infrastructure that included residential buildings, hospitals, schools, water stations and electricity systems.
The UN received credible allegations that Russia had used cluster munitions — banned weapons that spew small explosive mines across a wide space — in populated areas at least 24 times, DiCarlo said. She added that there were accusations that Ukrainian forces had also used cluster munitions.
“Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes,” DiCarlo told the council.
Borodyanka used to have about 13,000 residents, and the town — a simple, modest place, as one resident described it — was built along a highway crossroads. That convergence was a selling point for people who worked in Kyiv, just a short drive away to the southeast, and for Russian troops as well as their convoys that began piling into the country’s north to try to seal off the capital in the last days of February.
Residents said that the Russian forces began filing through the town around Feb. 27, and that volunteers with the Ukrainian territorial defense forces then attacked one of the convoys. After that, Russian soldiers started shooting at cars and buildings as they drove through town, said Valeriy Vishnyak, a resident. “It was just lawlessness,” he said.
Then, late on March 1, Russian jets came screaming overhead. “We were sitting in the cellar,” said Tamara Vishnyak, Vishnyak’s mother. “The plane flew very low. I counted three seconds and the bomb fell.” The bomb crashed through the building across the street.
Ziuzko, 43, said that the only reason he and his family escaped the airstrikes was because they had fled their nearby building when the fighting set it on fire.
He said he did not know where his mother, Svetlana Ziuzko, 66, had been at the time the bombs hit, whether in her apartment or in the bomb shelter. His voice catching, he said he could not remember what day it was the last time he saw her.
“The back of the building is gone; just the balcony is there,” he said, pointing to the sixth-floor balcony hanging above a vacuum.
Behind the building, two women stood watch while their husbands climbed down into the basement next to the destroyed section. Tanya Hachnikova, 36, said her husband was trying to find his parents, who lived in the apartment building. The second woman, Oksana Dikan, 43, was looking for a colleague who lived there and was also missing.
They said they thought up to 20 people had been living in the building when it was hit, but the two men climbed back out saying they could not get through to the basement that lay under the rubble. “We need help, and we need equipment,” Dikan said later by telephone.
Many people fled the town to escape the fighting that raged there for days, until a sustained Ukrainian counterattack led Russian troops to pull out last week. Yerko said that digging for bodies would have to wait. The first task, he said, was to reconnect the electricity and remove unexploded ordinance and then clear the rubble.
Yaroslav, an information technology specialist who asked that only his first name be published to avoid being identified, was climbing onto a bench to look into a gutted apartment he said belonged to his parents. They had left, with just their documents and their cat, the day before the bomb fell on the building, he said. Almost certainly there were people still living in their apartments and hiding in the shelter when the airstrike hit, he said.
Asked if the Ukrainian military had been using the building, he said no. “What army? My parents were living there.”