Natalia Lukyanenko watches as authorities excavate a mass grave in the grounds of the Church of Andrew the Holy Apostle in Bucha.
Sometimes the dead have more to say than the living. Those lying beneath the soft, yellow earth in the grounds of the church of Andrew the Apostle, in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, have many terrible stories to tell.
In a deep mass grave, a forearm and hand, the fingertips turning black, lay under a foot at a sickening angle; another man’s arm looked like it was clawing its way out of the disturbed soil in an attempt to escape his fate.
On Friday morning a team of forensic investigators from Kyiv arrived at the site to begin documenting the terror inflicted on civilians by Russian troops during Moscow’s six-week-old invasion. They strapped a door to a municipal digger to create a makeshift gurney, and got to work.
All of the people they uncovered had died violently. One man was missing a large chunk of his skull; another body was so badly burned only his head and half of his torso remained, the whites of his eyes subsumed by charred flesh. One person appeared to have been beheaded.
As each new cadaver was laid in front of him, the lead investigator knelt over it and softly murmured an inventory while a colleague wrote it down: leather jacket, mobile phone, no ID. He checked inside decaying mouths, the range of motion of broken limbs, and documented burns, bullet wounds and injuries caused by shrapnel, before volunteers from the town helped put each corpse into a fresh body bag.
Residents of Bucha looking for their loved ones wait as the mass graves are investigated. Photograph: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/The Observer
Their pink and blue plastic gloves were soon slick with blood. Between bodies, the workers plunged their hands into the metre-high pile of dirt taken out of the grave so far, rubbing clumps of it between their palms to restore their grip.
Heavy rain stopped work. At the end of the day, the team had exhumed 18 corpses. But many more missing people of Bucha are waiting to be found.
A wealthy northwest Kyiv commuter town before the conflict began, the name of Bucha is now synonymous with Russian war crimes. After a month of fighting, its soldiers embrangled at positions about 40km northeast and northwest of the capital and unable to advance, Bucha was one of the first places that Moscow pulled back from to reconcentrate its forces on Ukraine’s east. The scale of the violence against civilians which took place here – murders, rapes, torture, looting – is horrifying.
“The morgue had no electricity and it quickly became full. There were still so many bodies on the streets,” said Serhiy Kaplychnyy, who oversees funerals and death registrations for the Bucha municipality.
“We had to beg the Russians to let us bury them. They told us it was still cold, so it didn’t matter, they could lie there. But the dogs were starting to eat them. In the end we convinced them it was a sanitary issue and they let us dig the grave at the church of Andrew the Apostle since it was near both their military position and the morgue and hospital.”
Destroyed Russian military vehicles in a heavily damaged neighbourhood of Bucha. Photograph: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/The Observer
The first tranche of bodies numbered around 70, several locals said. Then there was a second mass burial of another 33 people. In total, around 150 civilians are believed to be lying in the church site.
A group of two dozen Bucha residents were waiting on the other side of the church on Friday for the bodies of their loved ones to be unearthed.
Ludmyla Skakalova, a paramedic with a drawn, exhausted face, said she was one of only four people left working at the town’s hospital after their last doctor was injured, and that they had opened the doors to wounded Russians, too.
“The soldiers also targeted us,” she said. “Once the Russians called and said there was an emergency, to lure out one of the ambulance drivers and someone from the territorial defence. Then a sniper shot them. The driver died.” Snipers shot civilians in the legs as they tried to get water at a well, killing at least one woman, said Tatyana Lipinska, a volunteer at the Bucha city council helpline, and soldiers abducted at least one volunteer delivering medicine to elderly people.
Kukharenko Vyacheslav, a large man of 47 with a gentle voice and bright blue eyes, spent most of the day crying quietly next to the grave. He was not looking for a loved one. He felt guilty, he said, tortured by what he described as his own “cowardice” in the face of the invasion, and felt the need to bear witness.
“Volunteers from a nearby village tried to come help us, and the Russians shot them in the street. Then my neighbour went out to help, and they killed him too,” he said. “We were 11 children and 10 adults all hiding in a basement, and I was so afraid the youngest baby would cry and let the Russians know where we were.”
A few days later, Vyacheslav talked to a group of soldiers for an hour when they came to check the household’s passports. “I asked them, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and they replied that it was just orders. They knew that other units were killing civilians, but said it wasn’t them,” he said.
“They said we are brothers. What kind of brother arrives at your home on a tank and shoots your neighbour?” he said. “I think they were even afraid of each other.”
Haylena Fiaktistava, 70, was among those hoping to find answers in the mass grave. She spent the occupation sheltering at home with her two sons, Dmitro and Andrei, but one day Dmitro left the house to find bread, and never came back. During a respite in the shelling three days later, Haylena and Andrei went out and found him lying face down in the middle of the road a few streets away, bullet holes in his back.
Another relative helped Andrei to take Dmitro’s body to the morgue, but it was full. Not sure what else to do, they left him under the small white building’s awning. Later, they heard that all of the bodies at the morgue had been buried in the church grounds.
“We wrote his name and address on a piece of paper and put it inside one of his socks so we can find him again,” she said. “I just want to give him a proper funeral.”
When satellite pictures of the mass grave at the church of Andrew the Apostle emerged earlier this week, before Ukrainian troops reentered the town, Russia was quick to deny the atrocities committed here. Footage and photographs of dead civilians had been “ordered” by the US to sully Moscow’s reputation, Russia’s foreign ministry said.
Natalia Lukyanenko and her daughter Anna Stefaniuk. The body of Stefaniuk’s brother-in-law was found in this grave later that day. Photograph: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/The Observer
Bucha residents wait for investigators to exhume bodies from the mass grave Photograph: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/The Observer
Events at the Bucha church on Friday gave an irrefutable truth to the Kremlin’s lies.
A military chaplain arrived soon after the exhumation of the mass grave began. He put a stole on over his fatigues and held a wooden cross while he blessed the pit with holy water and sang an Orthodox memorial service.
Anna Stefaniuk, along with her husband Volodymyr and mother Natalia Lukyanenko, silently watched the investigators work. Stefaniuk was missing her brother, Lukyanenko’s son; Volodymyr was also missing a brother. The family were simultaneously desperate for answers, and afraid of what the grave might tell them.
As the fourth body bag was unzipped and shown to the mourners, Volodymyr let out a harrowing cry and collapsed on the ground. The grave had given up one of its many secrets: his brother’s remains were among the tangle of tortured limbs and bloodied faces.
A biting wind blew as he covered his face and sobbed. Anna leaned over him, touching her head to his.
Springtime birdsong echoed down from the church’s tall arches. Not far from the church gate, blue and yellow crocus buds were beginning to force their way up through the soil, the first blooms of a Ukrainian spring like no other.
(c) 2022, Guardian News