MYKULYCHI, UKRAINE – On a quiet street lined with walnut trees lies a cemetery with four bodies that have yet to be found.
All were victims of Russian soldiers in this village on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Their makeshift caskets lie in the same grave. Volunteers dug out one by one on Sunday – two weeks after the soldiers disappeared.
This spring has been a harsh season of planting and replanting in the towns and villages around Kyiv. Bodies that were hastily buried during the Russian occupation are now being recovered for possible war crimes investigations. More than 900 civilian victims have been found so far.
All four bodies here were killed on the same street, on the same day. That’s according to the local man who provided them with the casket. He bent down and kissed the cemetery’s wrought-iron crosses as he approached the makeshift tomb.
Volunteers tried digging with a shovel, then gave up and called an excavator. In the meantime, they recounted the secret work of burying bodies during the months-long Russian occupation, then retrieving them. One young man recounted being spotted by soldiers pointing guns at him and telling him “Don’t look up” as he dug a grave.
The excavator arrived, roaring through the cemetery’s log cabin. Soon there was the smell of fresh earth, and a whisper, “There they are.”
A woman appeared, crying. Ira Slepchenko is the wife of a man who is buried here. No one told her he was being dug up now. Another victim’s wife arrives. Valya Naumenko looked at the grave, then hugged Ira. “Don’t fall,” she said. “I need you okay.”
The couple live next to each other. On the last day before the Russians left the village, the soldiers knocked on doors. Valya’s husband, Pavlo Ivanyuk, opened the door. The soldiers took him to the garage and shot him in the head, seemingly without any explanation.
Then the soldiers shouted, “Is anyone else here?”
Ira’s husband, Sasha Nedolezhko, heard gunshots. But he thought the soldiers would search the houses if no one answered. He opened the door and the soldiers also shot him.
The male caskets were lifted with the others, then pry open. Four bodies, wrapped in blankets, were placed in body bags. The lace-lined white lining of each coffin was dyed red where the head was placed.
Ira watched from afar, smoking, but standing by the empty coffins as the others left. “All this land is blood, and it will take years to recover,” she said.
She knew her husband was here. Nine days after his temporary burial, she arrives at the cemetery dotted with picnic tables, according to the local custom of spending time with the dead. She brought coffee and cookies.
“I want this war to end as soon as possible,” she said.
The other bodies were a teacher and a local man who lived alone. No one came for them on Sunday.
In the house next to the cemetery, 66-year-old Valya Voronets cooks home potatoes in a wood-warmed room, still without water, electricity or gas. A small radio station played, but not for long because the news was so sad. A plate of freshly cut beets is placed near the window.
A Russian soldier once ran up and pointed a gun at her husband after spotting him climbing onto the roof to get a cell phone signal. “Are you going to kill the old man?” Myhailo Scherbakov, 65 years old answered.
Not all Russians are like that. Voronets said she cried along with another soldier, barely 21 years old, “You’re too young,” she told him. Another soldier told her they didn’t want to fight.
However, she was afraid of it all. But she gave them milk from her only cow.
“I feel sorry for them under these conditions,” she said. “And if you’re nice to them, they probably won’t kill you.”
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