Ukraine: Saved by a Drone

Woman led through minefields by a Ukrainian army quadcopter bearing a hand-written banner reading, “Follow me.”

Ukraine: Saved by a Drone

Woman led through minefields by a Ukrainian army quadcopter bearing a hand-written banner reading, “Follow me.”

Drone shot of Andriy Bohomaz and Valeriia Ponomaryova after their car came under fire near the village of Velyka Komyshuvakha.
Drone shot of Andriy Bohomaz and Valeriia Ponomaryova after their car came under fire near the village of Velyka Komyshuvakha. © Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor's Office
Tuesday, 22 August, 2023

A Russian soldier has been indicted for ordering an attack on a car carrying civilians attempting to flee the occupation of Izyum district, Kharkiv region, in June last year.

The case became well-known - inspiring a documentary film - after one of the passengers was led to safety through minefields by a Ukrainian army drone bearing a hand-written banner reading, “Follow me.”

Klim Kerzhaev, 26, is accused of the war crime of cruel treatment of the civilian population in combination with a completed attempt to intentionally kill two civilians, committed by a group of persons based on a prior conspiracy (Part 2 of Article 15, Part 2 of Article 28, Part 2 of Article 438 of the criminal code concerning the violation of the laws and customs of war).

Kerzhaev, originally from Moscow, is the commander of a motorised rifle company and has the rank of senior lieutenant. According to the investigation, Kerzhaev’s current army contract will conclude in October 2024.

On March 7, 2022, the Izyum district of Kharkiv region was occupied by Russian troops. The motorised rifle company commanded by Kerzhaev was stationed in the village of Velyka Komyshuvakha.

On June 23, 2023, married couple 36-year-old Andriy Bohomaz and Valeriia Ponomaryova, 38, were driving their black Mazda to Bakhmut, with the intention of evacuating his elderly parents to safety. 

Their car came under fire near the village of Velyka Komyshuvakha. The investigation concluded that Kerzhaev was responsible, as he was near the village on that day and commanded a unit that included an infantry fighting vehicle with a 30 mm machine gun designed to be used against personnel, lightly armoured vehicles and low-altitude air targets.

The Mazda was at the intersection of the roads connecting the villages of Velyka Komyshuvaha, Hrushevaha and Barvinkove when it was hit. Bohomaz was forced to stop the car and abandon it on the road, before he and his wife fled and attempted to find a safe place to hide from the shelling. After running between 50-60 metres and failing to find cover they decided to return to the car. 

According to the investigation, Kerzhaev and his accomplices then opened fire on them again. Bohomaz and Ponomaryova fell to the ground: the man suffered gunshot wounds, while his wife was unharmed.

Valery tried to provide her husband with emergency medical care, but was unable to move him to safety. 

Ukrainian military aerial reconnaissance observed the shooting but was unable to dispatch a rescue team due to enemy positions 30 metres from the scene of the incident. 

Instead, a quadcopter drone was sent in an attempt to direct Ponomaryova to safety and avoid the mined areas that lay between her and the Ukrainian forces. Ponomaryova begged for help but did not understand that the intention was for her to follow the drone.

The Ukrainian soldiers then attached a makeshift banner to the drone when they brought it back to recharge. 

Using a piece of paper and a marker from a first aid kit, they attached a sign reading “Follow me” to the drone and sent it back to her. 

Ponomaryova then followed the drone, leaving her husband unconscious on the ground. She shouted to him that she was going for help and would return. 

The quadcopter directed the woman to the location of the Ukrainian military, leading her safely through the minefields.

Meanwhile, three of Kerzhaev's subordinates approached the Mazda and assuming that the wounded Bohomaz was dead, dumped him in a ditch on the side of the road. A Ukrainian drone recorded this on video. 

Bohomaz had suffered serious injuries including a blind penetrating wound to the chest and some 30 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body. According to expert medical opinion, he had little chance of surviving. However, when he regained consciousness after more than 30 hours, Andriy made his own way to the Ukrainian Armed Forces base and was reunited with his wife. He subsequently underwent six complex operations.

As a result of radio interception, Ukrainian investigators subsequently identified the soldier, one of Kerzhaev’s subordinates, who fired at the couple. During a phone conversation, the accused told his wife, laughing, that “I killed a person today”.

Kerzhaev was informed in absentia about the suspicion on March 21, 2023 and was declared wanted in April. According to the investigation, Kerzhaev is hiding in Russia. On June 22, the Kyiv district court of Kharkiv gave permission for a special pre-tria investigation.

Serhii Bolvinov, the head of the investigative department of the National Security Service in the Kharkiv region, announced that the case had been sent to court on August 7. 

He said that defence intelligence had helped identify a prisoner of war who served in the same military unit as Kerzhaev.

Bolvinov added that “[we] questioned him, conducted photo examinations, conducted voice recognition, which confirmed that it was this person speaking. The prisoner-of-war witness confirmed that it was Klim, and we then began to carry out secret investigative actions to identify this person”.

If found guilty, Kerzhaev faces ten to 15 years in prison or life imprisonment.

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