The grieving of Bucha begins today, for those who can bear to face it
There are bodies in mass graves yet to be claimed, bodies in the street waiting to be collected, bodies everywhere in the ruined Kyiv suburb left by Russian forces which retreated earlier this week.
Liuba, 62, leads her neighbour to the lip of a trench in the sodden clay behind a gold-domed church. But he cannot bring himself to peer inside the grave and search for his missing brother rumoured to lie inside.
57 people are here at this mass burial site, a city worker told AFP. But only a fraction of those are visible.
Some are heaped in black zipped body bags. Others in civilian clothing are only partly buried — a pale hand, a booted foot or the cusp of a forehead exposed to snow falling on the harrowed commuter town.
One body is bundled in a red and white bedsheet near a single pink women’s sandal.
Hands and feet reach out from the earth in improbable poses, suggesting a tangle of remains beneath the surface.
Liuba’s neighbour retreats to a fallen tree and collapses. Though he is held in comfort by a female companion, his anguish prevents him from coming closer.
“This wound will never heal,” says Liuba. “I would not wish it even on my worst enemy.”
– A necessary task –
Nearby, along a thin grey road framed by shattered homes, four men pilot a white van from corpse to corpse.
AFP counted 20 along this single stretch. Some lie with legs tangled in bikes, others near a ruined car blemished with countless bullet marks.
All are in civilian clothing and one has his hands bound behind his back with a strip of white fabric, his hooded head in a crimson puddle.
Vitalii Shreka, 27, tries to cut the cloth but his pen knife fails. He unknots it instead and hauls the cadaver into a body bag the team zips tight.
One by one, the men inspect the dead for ID cards then stack them in the cargo bay. Shreka holds them steady with blue surgical gloves smeared in days-old blood.
One corpse is wearing a blue and yellow armband, a signal of solidarity with Ukraine.
A worker throws a bike at two lumbering dogs stalking too close.
The team drive up the road but are forced to reverse. They have missed one more person: a black hooded figure, totally still, lost in the devastated scenery.
It is added to the growing pile in the van.
“It needs to be done,” says 44-year-old Vladyslav Minchenko, standing over a body next to a scattering of potatoes wrinkled by rain — relics from a final shopping trip.
“I did not understand this myself before, when I didn’t have to, but it’s necessary.”
Minchenko and his three colleagues estimate there are “more than 10” dead bodies already inside the van.
But still there is more work to do.
– ‘Let them lie there’ –
Municipal worker Serhii Kaplychnyi says his team struggled to bury the dead during Russia’s short-lived occupation of Bucha, the focus of growing war crimes allegations against President Vladimir Putin.
“There are many people who died from their bullets and shrapnel,” he told AFP. “They would not allow us to bury them.”
“They said while it was cold to let them lie there.”
Eventually, he says, the Russians allowed his team to collect the bodies from the morgue. “We dug a mass grave with a tractor and buried everyone,” he recalls.
Outside the Bucha mayor’s office Kaplychnyi now coordinates a recovery effort in the town.
There is a thin sheen of triumph. Military men give each other hard-gripping hugs, miniature Ukrainian flags are being handed out, aid convoys are creeping in.
But Kaplychnyi’s mind travels to the trauma of the past weeks. On one day his team recovered 10 people shot in the head: “Apparently a sniper was ‘having fun’.”
Civilians also made efforts to bury their neighbours as best they could, in gardens and factories, too fearful to risk a proper funeral.
“There is an old disused sewer pit and they put them there too — covered them up so they’re still lying there,” he said.
“Now we will go and collect them.