Exhuming Ukraine’s dead for war crimes investigations

Oleksandr Bugeruk covers his mouth in horror as five men lift his mother’s body from a grave using two straps of taught cloth.

The men then stumble over the wet, uneven ground as they carry the body away from the grave. One of them begins to retch from the smell as they place the remains on the ground.

Forty-nine-year-old Bugeruk says he buried his mother, Lydia Chichko, on March 13 as heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces raged around Kyiv’s suburbs. He recalls the heavy thud of shelling that lit up the night sky as he dug her makeshift grave.

He says his 70-year-old mother, a woman with short auburn hair and a fair complexion, had been preparing lunch earlier in the afternoon when the area came under heavy shelling. He believes she must have heard explosions around her house and run towards the makeshift bomb shelter at the bottom of her garden.

She never made it. A mortar landed nearby, blowing out several windows and sending shrapnel 150 metres (492 feet) in all directions. Chichko died after being struck by a large shard of glass.

A month later, at Bugeruk’s request, her body is being exhumed as the Kyiv district authorities investigate possible war crimes perpetrated by Russian troops in which they allege civilians and infrastructure vital to their survival were deliberately attacked.

After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, its troops occupied the area north of Kyiv as they attempted to storm the capital city.

Fierce Ukrainian resistance stalled the Russians’ progress, eventually forcing them to withdraw in early April, revealing in their wake the brutality of life under occupation.

More than 4,000 civilians, including 200 children, have been killed in the entire country since the invasion began, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR). With satellite imagery appearing to show mass graves in occupied territory, the number of civilians killed is likely to be higher.

Since April, France has deployed an on-the-ground forensic team with expertise in DNA to support the Kyiv police in war crimes investigations.

Irina Pryanishnikova, spokeswoman for the Kyiv police, says more than 10 mass graves have been uncovered in that region. To the northwest of the city, more than 1,000 corpses were found in the district that includes the town of Bucha, where Ukraine accuses Russian forces of carrying out one of the most notorious massacres.

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