In the aftermath of Bucha’s liberation, Nadia Pavlenko combed the city desperately for news of her missing ex-husband and his brother.
She finally found them on Monday – in the ruined city’s morgue. The pair’s bodies had been found near their homes, stuffed into a manhole alongside piles of rubbish. On one of the bodies were signs of torture.
“My legs refuse to go on,” Pavlenko says.
“I wake up every morning at 3 a.m. and Victor and Yuriy are in front of my eyes. I have heart palpitations. It is simply impossible to survive (this).”
Located about 30 kilometres northwest of Kyiv, the city of 40,000 was the centre of intense fighting as the Russian army attempted to advance on the capital.
When Russian troops retreated on March 31 after a month-long occupation of Bucha and the surrounding towns of Irpin and Hostomel, they left indescribable tragedy and destruction in their wake. Bucha became a symbol of the atrocities of the war when images of dead civilians lying strewn on roadsides travelled around the world, prompting accusations of war crimes.
Some of the bodies had gunshot wounds to the head and had their hands bound. Others showed signs of torture, rape and burning. Bucha was also the site of a mass grave of 117 bodies, in the shadows of the gold domes of the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints.
On Thursday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited Bucha, where he called for a “thorough investigation and accountability” on alleged war crimes. Guterres toured the Kyiv region before holding a press conference in the city with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Guterres was still in the city when missile strikes struck the capital later that evening.
Since the Russian forces retreated four weeks ago, life of some description has resumed in the city, despite the critically damaged infrastructure and the lingering reminders of what happened here.
Entering Bucha, the main bridge must be carefully navigated, due to the huge, crumbling hole that remains through its centre. Cyclists ride past collapsed houses, peering into their exposed interiors.
The burned-out tanks and machinery that once cluttered the roadsides have been moved to a makeshift “car graveyard,” where young Ukrainians come to pose for photos. Patches of scorched earth, pockmarked roads and footpath craters bear the marks of war.
Outside the walls of the City Cemetery, dozens of new graves have appeared on the roadside dirt from the hurried digging still strewn across the road. Delicate white cherry blossoms have sprouted on the trees that hang over them as spring arrives – a cruel contrast to the horrors that took place here.
Even now, workers at Bucha’s morgue remain completely overwhelmed with the task of identifying the corpses that continue to stream through its doors. The small morgue only has two tables and two teams able to work to identify the dead. Their refrigerators are full, as are their three refrigerator trucks – one of which was previously used for dead animals. Most of the rest of the overflow has been outsourced to other morgues in the district.
“Never in Bucha, never in Ukraine or here in Kyiv region, have we dealt with such a big amount of bodies,” spokeswoman for the mayor’s office Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska tells Global News.
Morgue completely overwhelmed
Skoryk-Shkarivska says the morgue would usually handle seven bodies per month. It’s now dealing with that number per day, as bodies are found by residents returning to their homes after fleeing or those exhumed from makeshift backyard graves.
The scene outside the morgue is one of despair. Bodies wrapped in plastic lie on stretchers outside its back door due to the overflow. Bullet-ridden cars have been abandoned in the carpark. Plastic tents set up outside are frequented by men in hazmat suits. A smouldering pile of ash nearby one of the buildings fills the air with an acrid stench.
Crows caw loudly overhead. Dogs wander the streets nearby. Ambulances with a “200” sign taped in their windows, identifying that the person inside is dead, arrive at the front door of the morgue to deposit bodies or coffins non-stop – when one leaves, another arrives. Across the road, children play in a playground, unaware of what is unfolding across the road.
Skoryk-Shkarivska says 412 bodies have been collected from the city so far, meaning one-third of the 1,123 bodies uncovered in the Kyiv region to date were killed in Bucha. However, the final death toll is likely to be much higher, as teams demining the town and searching through the rubble, as well as returnees, are likely to find more, she says.
Many of the Ukrainian dead were Bucha residents, but some were simply driving through as they evacuated from nearby towns.
Of the 117 exhumed from the St. Andrew’s mass grave, there were 30 women and two children. Some bodies were found lying near the morgue – acts of desperation by residents attempting to honour the deceased while being shot at and forced to flee the shelling.
“Russians didn’t allow all of the doctors to go to the cemeteries and to bury them in the proper way,” Skoryk-Shkarivska says.
Forensic investigations have shown that the majority of those who died in Bucha were killed by automatic gunfire, others from tanks fired from the street, she says.
“A person on a bicycle or just a pensioner or just a young lady are not dangerous civilians, and they will shoot (them),” she says.
The city has found several bodies of Russian soldiers and medical personnel, which were handed over to Ukrainian military prosecutors.
Skoryk-Shkarivska is one of the main points of contact for bereaved families trying to ascertain the whereabouts of loved ones. Her phone rings constantly as we speak, sometimes hundreds of times per day, she says, as her team uses “a pen and speaking to each other” to try and figure out if one of the dozens of unidentified bodies inside belongs to the family on the other end of the line. There is still no Wi-Fi connection in Bucha, so there is no Google Document to fill out or any online system to make things easier.
'We think they tortured and questioned them'
Families descend on the morgue throughout the day to search for loved ones, or to pay final respects to those who have been found. An elderly woman weeps beside the vehicle holding the body of her 15-year-old grandson. Others come to pick up documentation for a deceased family member’s funeral. The tiny white building is a hive of activity.
Nadia Pavlenko, her son Sergei, and Valentyna Chmut are here to take the bodies of Pavlenko’s ex-husband and Sergei’s father Yuriy, 61, and his brother Victor, 67, to the cemetery to bury them.
Pavlenko says she spent four weeks calling the police, city council hotline and emergency services to find the pair before locating them. She says the bodies had been taken to four separate morgues, which made it difficult to find them.
Neighbours said the men were killed by Russians and thrown into a sewer. Yuriy was shot in the head and Victor in the chest. Yuriy’s body was burnt.
“We think they tortured and questioned them,” Pavlenko says.
The men’s homes were burnt and their possessions robbed, she says. Their cars were mowed down by a tank.
Chmut says Russian soldiers also destroyed her business – she sold items at a nearby market, which was destroyed and pillaged.
Random streets in the town have been completely devastated, while others nearby remain untouched. Cleanup efforts have been impressive. Residents and city workers are out in force, gathering belongings from apartments with their fronts blown off, and restoring electricity and water to the city. Skoryk-Shkarivska says electricity has been restored to half of the town, while water has been returned to all of it. They’re now working on getting gas to residential homes.
'People were hiding in the sewers'
The recently opened Epicentr mall on Bucha’s main thoroughfare is a mangled mess of warped metal and rubble – the target of a direct attack by Russian tanks, a security guard at the mall, Grygory Kruvosheev, says.
Kruvosheev is back on site at the mall to help in cleanup efforts. Most of the work has thus far gone into demining, he says, as the retreating Russians left mines scattered all over the carpark. An unexploded rocket had to be carefully disposed of from a field nearby.
Kruvosheev says he lived underground for the majority of the Russian occupation, in a basement, after his home was destroyed by Russian shelling on March 6. He and his 78-year-old mother were having tea in a room of their home when there was a “large explosion and a lot of dust.”
When they rushed outside to see what happened, they saw their neighbour’s home completely destroyed and the man inside severely injured, his fingers missing. He was tended to by a veterinarian who lived nearby. Another neighbour died in the blast and Kruvosheev buried her in her backyard. His mother was evacuated to another city.
During the occupation, Kruvosheev says Russians were shooting civilians at random. He recalls a desperate attempt to take water to a neighbour, hiding behind fences to avoid being seen. He refers to Russian soldiers as “orcs” and insists they’re “not human.”
“People were hiding in the sewers. Russians were looking around the city to see what happened, looking in sewers even, and if they found someone they just shot them and killed them immediately,” Kruvosheev says, echoing the fate that befell Pavlenko’s ex-husband and brother.
Kruvosheev did not see the Russian retreat, but says after a period of heavy shelling “everything became quiet.” Residents emerged from their shelters warily.
Though he doesn’t feel entirely safe, saying that the shelling could begin again at any time, Kruvosheev is adamant Bucha will rebuild swiftly.
He and other mall staff are working to help set up a mobile shop for construction supplies at the front of the mall, which previously housed mostly homewares and furniture stores, to help people rebuild.
Traumatized residents leave for good
But for some, the ghosts of the past two months are too much to bear. The sounds of broken glass being swept from floors and metal being thrown in dumpsters rang through the air on Wednesday in nearby Irpin, about five kilometres from Bucha.
Irpin was the site of some of the region’s most intense shelling. In a district near the Irpin River, huge, multi-storey apartment blocks sit blackened, their top floors blown open. People recline on chairs and chat outside seemingly untouched residential buildings, which upon closer look, are destroyed in various places.
Shops sit empty, their windows blown out. Cars creep slowly over a bridge, mere centimetres separating tires from a giant, gaping hole, revealing twisted metal and rubble below.
Some residents have returned to gather belongings from destroyed apartments. One of them, Anastasia, who did not want her last name used, is packing up and leaving Irpin for good. Her apartment block was heavily damaged by Russian shelling, though her home remains largely intact. She and her husband bought the apartment just a year ago.
Anastasia was asleep the night the buildings were targeted.
“It was 2 a.m. and we were sleeping and we could hear the shelling start and we went to the shelter. When we were there, we could hear a huge explosion.”
When she saw the aftermath of the attacks, she says she felt horrified. She’s now going to settle in another city, but admits that she won’t feel safe there either, as “it’s not safe in any city in Ukraine now.”
But for others in the region, life must go on.
For Skoryk-Shkarivska, that means that support for the beleaguered city and its surrounds must continue for years, not months.
“Bucha needs longtime support. The destruction has taken us back 30 or 40 years to Soviet times,” she says.
It means cleaning the streets with street cleaners borrowed from Kyiv, as theirs were all destroyed in the war. It means encouraging people to return, reconstruct the town and fill it once more with signs of life.
“Before the war, Bucha was a very green and very beautiful suburb and it’s my dream to see that again,” she says.
“So we are encouraging business to come back because that will help us (build) a proper place for living. And that means that people could come back and kids will come back – because Bucha was the city of young families and the city of kids.
“And after that, we could say that, yes, we recovered from these awful days.”