‘This land is in the blood’: Ukrainian village digs up the dead

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MYKULYCHI, Ukraine (AP) — On a quiet street lined with walnut trees was a cemetery with four bodies that had yet to find a home.

All were victims of Russian soldiers in this village outside the Ukrainian capital, kyiv. Their temporary coffins were together in a grave. Volunteers dug them up one by one on Sunday, two weeks after the soldiers disappeared.

This spring is a gloomy season for planting and replanting in towns and villages around Kyiv. Bodies hastily buried amid the Russian occupation are now being recovered for investigations into possible war crimes. More than 900 civilian victims have been found to date.

The four bodies here were killed on the same street, same day. That’s according to the local man who provided their coffins. He leaned over and kissed the wrought-iron crosses in the cemetery as he made his way to the makeshift grave.

The volunteers tried to dig with shovels, then gave up and called for an excavator. As they waited, they recounted their work secretly burying bodies during the month-long Russian occupation and then recovering them. A young man recalled being discovered by soldiers who pointed guns at him and told him “don’t look up” as he was digging a grave.

The excavator arrived, rumbling past the cemetery’s wooden outhouse. Soon there was the smell of fresh earth and the whisper, “Here they come.”

A woman appeared crying. Ira Slepchenko was the wife of a man buried here. No one told him he was dug up now. Another victim’s wife has arrived. Valya Naumenko looked into the grave, then hugged Ira. “Don’t crumble,” she said. “I need you to be okay.”

The two couples lived next to each other. On the last day before the Russians left the village, soldiers knocked on a house. Valya’s husband, Pavlo Ivanyuk, opened the door. The soldiers took him to the garage and shot him in the head, apparently without any explanation.

So the soldiers shouted, “Is there anyone else here?”

Ira’s husband, Sasha Nedolezhko, heard the shot. But he thought the soldiers would search the houses if no one answered. He opened the door and the soldiers shot him too.

The coffins of the men were lifted with the others and then searched. The four bodies, wrapped in blankets, were placed in body bags. The lace-edged white lining of each coffin was stained red where the head was.

Ira watched from afar, smoking, but stood by the empty coffins as the others left. “This whole land is in the blood and it will take years to recover from it,” she said.

She knew her husband was there. Nine days after her provisional burial, she came to the cemetery dotted with picnic tables, following the local custom of spending time with the dead. She brought coffee and cookies.

“I want this war to end as soon as possible,” she said.

The other bodies were a teacher and a local man who lived alone. No one came to pick them up on Sunday.

In the house next to the cemetery, Valya Voronets, 66, cooked homemade potatoes in a wood-heated room, still getting by without water, electricity or gas. A small radio played, but not for long as the news gets too depressing. A plate of freshly cut radishes sat by the window.

Once, a Russian soldier came running in and pointed his gun at her husband after seeing him climb onto the roof to get a cellphone signal. “Are you going to kill an old man? Myhailo Scherbakov, 65, responded.

Not all Russians were like that. Voronets said she cried with another soldier, just 21 years old. “You’re too young,” she told him. Another soldier told him they didn’t want to fight.

Yet she feared them all. But she offered them milk from her only cow.

“I felt sorry for them under those conditions,” she said. “And if you’re nice to them, maybe they won’t kill you.”

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Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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