As Bucha emerges from the horror of the Russian occupation, the townspeople are desperate to learn the fate of their loved ones. Some know how their story ends. Others are still waiting to find out, hoping against hope that it won’t end in tragedy.
Tetiana Ustymenko knows the conclusion of her story. Her son and two friends were shot in the street outside and she buried them in the garden of the family home.
Oleh Onyshchenko is looking for two family members. He arrives on a windswept plain where 50 body bags lie on the ground.
His loved ones are burned beyond recognition, he believes, though a wedding ring may prove a clue to ending the mystery of their final moments.
Oleksandr Kovtun still has hope. His son is missing but maybe, he reasons, the Russians abducted them as they retreated.
Bucha – a suburban town on the outskirts of kyiv – was occupied by Russian forces at the start of the invasion.
The horrors left after their removal last week are slowly being uncovered.
There is a black sash draped over a doorway on Kyiv-Myrotska Street. Up front, a car riddled with gunfire has a pool of clotted blood in the passenger seat. There are three bodies in the back garden.
Ustymenko, 65, says she put her son Serhii and her friends Nastya and Maksym here on March 4.
Serhii, 25, offered to evacuate her but she was reluctant – it was too dangerous. Unbeknownst to him, he came anyway.
“I heard gunshots but I was sure he wasn’t there,” she said.
“Then the phone went on. I said, ‘Son, son?’, and a neighbor told me a car had been shot in front of him. He said my son had left.”
Maksym was shot in the forehead by a sniper through the windshield, she said. Nastya was shot in the legs. Serhii was shot in the back.
They lay in the open for three days before Tetiana’s husband, Valerii, washed and dressed the bodies and digged a simple grave with the help of neighbors.
It’s at the bottom of the garden past the daffodils. There is a mound in the sandy earth, but each body is marked by a sprig of evergreen. On top is the metal blade of a broken snow shovel.
The year before, Serhii broke it, causing a quarrel with his mother. “I put this here to say ‘Forgive me my son,'” she said. “I want him to forgive me for arguing with him over nothing.”
“How can I live now?”
Finding body bags
Onyshchenko arrives to inspect the bodies of Bucha’s war dead at the cemetery. There are about 50 of them, some stacked on top of each other, others lying side by side on the ground in crumpled black body bags.
A group of policemen poring over the paperwork, writing preliminary reports to identify the dead bodies.
Every few minutes they unzip a new bag. In one, a woman’s arms are tangled over her lifeless face. In another, rigor mortis gives the impression of a man standing at attention.
Some contain only body parts, burned and cut.
Onyshchenko, 49, stays behind. In his pocket are photocopies of his sister-in-law Tamila’s identity card and the birth certificate of Anna, his 14-year-old daughter.
They left Bucha in a borrowed car, but the owner later saw a video of her on fire in the street.
He came looking for distinctive jewelry, to identify what remains of mother and daughter.
A policeman slips a handwritten note into a gaping body bag. “Bucha, man, around 30,” it read. “Eyes open. Bodily injuries to left side of abdomen, neck and hands.”
“A month ago, no one could imagine that such a thing was possible,” says Onyshchenko.
Kovtun’s 19-year-old son Oleksii is missing. “He entered the city and did not return.”
The 58-year-old now clings to the hope of having been abducted by the Russians.
Another young man from their street was reportedly taken prisoner in Russia. Maybe that was his son’s fate too.
“My son knew him,” he says. “There is no other hope for us.”
On Saturday, the bodies of 20 people dressed in civilian clothes were found strewn across a single street in Bucha.
On Sunday, a city official said 57 civilians were buried in a mass grave by their neighbors.
The register of the dead is growing day by day.
“We asked about him, spoke with a woman who deals with such cases,” Kovtun said.
“We hope he’s not on those lists.”