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Ukraine war: Heartbroken mothers mourn two lifelong friends ‘tortured by Russian soldiers’

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Two childhood friends lived a few houses apart on Peace Street, a quiet road, tucked behind a small church in a rural village just outside Kyiv – until Russia’s war came.

The bodies of Pavel Kholodenko and Viktor Balai, both 28, were found in early April buried in a shallow grave in forestland.

The two young men, who had gone to nursery together, studied at school together and briefly served in Ukraine’s military together, were brutally tortured and murdered together by Russian soldiers, their grieving mothers said.

Their past military service was possibly why they were executed.

Aching with the pain of their loss, the mothers told Sky News their boys had been planning to volunteer to fight against the invasion before they suddenly lost contact with the pair around the time that Russian tanks rolled into the village of Zdvizhivka on 25 February.

It was only after Russia’s forces finally retreated more than a month later that the horror of what had happened to the lifelong friends emerged.

“They were tortured,” said Tetiana Kholodenko, 48, weeping at the thought.

“It was such horrific torture that no part of the body escaped – fingers, arms, legs… It is hard to say but I will say it: They killed him (Pavel) with a gunshot to the mouth. From a rifle – his brain was in the hood of his coat. It is hard. Very hard.”

She spoke standing outside her house – it’s the family’s second home with another property in a nearby town.

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Tetiana Kholodenko said her son was tortured by Russian forces
Image:
Tetiana Kholodenko said her son was tortured by Russian forces
Pavel told his mother he would return before he went off to fight
Image:
Pavel told his mother he would return before he went off to fight

Down the road is Viktor’s house.

He lived there with his mother, Olena Balai, 49, and grandmother, Olga Dovhoshap, 78.

They are broken without him.

“They tortured him,” the mother said, clinging to a framed portrait photograph of her only child, who was dressed in military uniform.

“There were not any parts of his body spared. My son didn’t live to see his 29th birthday. The b******ds killed him. The fascists tortured him. For what? What did he do? He’s not guilty, he is just a boy. My son is dead. My little boy is gone. My baby is gone.”

Viktor lived with his mother Olena Balai, left, and grandmother, Olga Dovhoshap, right
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Viktor lived with his mother Olena Balai, right, and grandmother, Olga Dovhoshap, left

Both men were described as kind and thoughtful.

They had served together in the Ukrainian armed forces, fighting Moscow-backed separatists in the east of the country following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The two friends ended up deciding to return to civilian life, with Pavel working as a taxi driver, while Viktor became a builder.

When Russia invaded, they both signalled to their respective mothers a desire to fight.

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“His last words were: Mum, I love you but I need to go. I need to defend Ukraine. Mummy I love you’,” said Viktor’s mother, her voice cracking, eyes wet with tears, head bowed.

Pavel’s mother described the last time she saw her son.

“He said: ‘I will be back’,” she recalled.

“He is a fighter, an ex-combatant. After that, we didn’t see him. He went from our home and told me: ‘Mum, I will go and walk for a bit and then I will come back’.”

He never did.

Pavel has been laid to rest close to Peace Street
Image:
Pavel has been laid to rest close to Peace Street
Pavel and Viktor grew up on Peace Street in a rural village outside Kyiv
Image:
Pavel and Viktor grew up on Peace Street in a rural village outside Kyiv

Neither family is sure what happened next or how the two young men ended up captured.

They also do not know when exactly the pair died. Their bodies were discovered on 3 April, but the brutalised remains showed signs of having been in the ground for a while.

“We found them on the Sunday, identified them and on the Tuesday we buried them,” said Pavel’s mother. “I did not know night from day during that time – my son… my son.”

They were laid to rest in two different cemeteries in the village.

The mothers said they want justice, as Ukrainian investigators work to build a case against Russia for thousands of war crimes.

“I want revenge – for Russian soldiers to go the way my son did… But we cannot say this, right, because then we will be as bad as them,” said Pavel’s mother.

“We can’t behave like them. But I want them punished.”

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