‘We Do Not Want Unknown Graves’: The Struggle to Identify Bucha’s Victims

BUCHA, Ukraine — It was supposed to be the bright spot in a grim day. Of a dozen unclaimed bodies set for burial recently at Bucha City Cemetery, one had just been identified. The dead man’s family was present and would be able to bury him with full ceremony. His grave would be marked with his name instead of just a number.

But there was a hitch. No one could find the body.

In a macabre drama, as the family wilted at the gravesite in the August heat, gravediggers climbed over stinking body bags in the back of a truck, checking the tags for the missing body. As they heaved bodies aside, the deputy mayor, clutching a sheaf of papers, looked on in silence.

“We stepped over him somehow,” Vladyslav Minchenko, 44, a volunteer gravedigger, said, shaking his head.

Workers delivering the unclaimed bodies of victims for a mass burial and funeral last month at Bucha City Cemetery. Later, they would have trouble finding body No. 153.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

When Russian troops retreated at the end of March from the region around Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, they left behind a trail of more than 1,200 bodies. At least 458 dead were in and around the suburban town of Bucha, lying on the streets, in buildings and gardens, in cellars and in makeshift graves.

In the five months since then, cemetery workers and City Council officials in Bucha have been carrying out the grimmest of tasks: collecting and burying the dead from one of the worst massacres of the war. Dozens of the bodies remain unidentified or unclaimed.

The scale of the atrocities discovered in Bucha brought a deluge of international attention and assistance. International war crimes experts arrived to help document the killings, and new uniforms appeared, among them white hazmat suits and jackets emblazoned with “war crimes prosecutor” in English.

Yet for all of the outside help, the hard work of collecting and buryingthe bodies was left to the morgue and cemetery workers and a handful of volunteers. The country was still at war, and everyone was working under air-raid sirens and nighttime curfews, and with minimal equipment, after the destruction and looting by Russian troops.

When Russian troops withdrew from the region around Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, at least 458 bodies were discovered in Bucha and the surrounding area, often found lying on the streets and in buildings, gardens, cellars and makeshift graves.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

There was no electricity or running water for weeks in the suburbs, so Bucha’s morgue was not working. As bodies were collected, they were distributed to five morgues around Kyiv. With no working computers on the ground, data was compiled by hand, on paper.

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The job has not become any easier.

More than 50 unburied bodies were in a terrible state of decay, Mr. Minchenko said in an interview in early August. He complained that after the last load, he could not get the stench out of the white van marked “Cargo 200,” which he used to collect bodies.

“They should just bury them,” he said.

The Bucha City Council finally did that in mid-August, persuading investigators to release more than 47 unclaimed or unidentified bodies from the massacre. They were buried over the course of several days, in three lines at the far end of the city cemetery.

On the second day of the burials, morgue workers in white protective suits hauled 11 body bags out of a refrigerated truck and eased them into flimsy, government-issued coffins. Gravediggers swung the coffins on ropes, and with little ceremony yet practiced respect, lowered them into the graves.

An Orthodox priest blessed the graves with incense, as the gravediggers bent over a fence, coughing and spitting, heads hanging. Then they closed the truck and drove off.

The Rev. Andrii Halavin blessing unidentified bodies last month in a cemetery in Bucha.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Each body was given a number. Investigators had photographed each one and taken DNA samples, the deputy mayor of Bucha, Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska, said, so that the families would still be able to reclaim their loved ones.

“Every number is a person,” she said. “We want to memorialize everyone. We do not want unknown graves.”

Ms. Skoryk-Shkarivska is one of the main keepers of Bucha’s list of the dead. As deputy mayor, and also as a war widow — her husband was killed in 2014 in the war against Russia-backed separatists — she has been determined to help families, journalists and war crimes investigators find the information they need.

It was her team that matched the family of Oleksandr Khmaruk, 37, with one of the unclaimed bodies, No. 153. Her office arranged to have the morgue place the body aside and for the family to arrive for a burial in the section of the cemetery dedicated to the victims of the war.

But as the family waited on a bench in the graveyard, flowers in hand, the gravediggers could not find body bag No. 153.

Svitlana Khmaruk, a frail, gray-haired woman in a head scarf, said that she had known since March her son had been killed. For five months, his body had lain unidentified in a morgue, the details of his death recorded incorrectly.

The hard work of burying the bodies in Bucha has been handled by morgue and cemetery workers and a handful of volunteers.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

She said she last spoke to him on March 11, when he said there was such heavy shelling that he was lying on the floor most of the time. She begged him to leave but, as a former soldier, he refused. By that time, she said, it was almost impossible anyway.

When they could not reach him again, she started calling friends for news. “They said, ‘Sasha is gone,’” she said. “There were witnesses who saw how he was killed, and the next day who covered his body.”

Her son was killed by Russian troops on March 20 in the center of town. Sometime later his body was dumped near the forest, she said. That much the family had pieced together on its own.

The search for his body took much longer. Family members did one DNA test, and then a second. Eventually Ms. Khmaruk was sent photographs of his body to her cellphone and was told he was in a morgue just north of Kyiv.

The morgue told her that Mr. Khmaruk had died of a heart attack and that he was found in Vorsel, a suburb west of Bucha. That was not correct, she said. “He died in Bucha. He was shot in the head,” she said firmly. “I found people who were there, who closed his eyes after he died.”

The errors were not unusual, Ms. Skoryk-Shkarivska said. A former journalist, she knows from experience the agonies of struggling with Ukrainian officialdom. Her own husband’s death certificate had been inaccurately recorded, she said.

She put the mistakes down to the fog of war and the inexperience of some morgue technicians with handling battlefield casualties.

Svitlana Khmaruk on Friday in Bucha. She last spoke to her son, Oleksandr Khmaruk, on March 11. He was killed by Russian troops nine days later in the center of town.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Despite the mistakes, Ms. Skoryk-Shkarivska said she was confident of Ukraine’s ability to gather evidence and build cases for war crimes prosecutions. But there was an urgent need to build a national database of the war dead and do away with paper lists.

“My dream is to digitalize all this process,” she said, waving the sheaf of papers listing the day’s burials. “If we have more computers and iPads to scan and fact check, it will speed it up.”

By now the morgue workers had reopened the truck and lowered a bag with no tag. Ms. Khmaruk said she wanted to see the body before the coffin was sealed.

The driver of the truck turned up. He said he had set the bag aside that morning and was sure the one with no tag was 153. The deputy mayor, her arm around Ms. Khmaruk, said she supported her request to see the body. The gravediggers were adamant in their refusal.

Out of her sight, behind the van, they unzipped the bag. “One hundred fifty-three, the tag is inside,” they called out in relief. “Glory to God.”

The process moved swiftly after that. The coffin was loaded into a van. As the family and friends reassembled at the gravesite, still holding their flowers, the men pulled off their caps and the women crossed themselves.

“Shall we pray?” the priest asked.

Mr. Khmaruk’s grave in the Bucha City Cemetery.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.

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