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Vitaliy Lobas, Bucha’s police chief, is sitting at a desk in an abandoned school, compiling the details of the bodies.
Every few minutes, Lobas, who has broad shoulders and short dark hair, receives a call on her mobile phone.
The brief conversations are the same: a location, some details, a phone number of a family member or friend.
Before the Russians arrived, Lobas he was an ordinary local police chiefwho spent his days dealing with common crime and occasional murders.
Since Bucha’s release, he has spent his days in this abandoned classroom, where school posters still hang on the walls, coordinating the massive operation to find the dead.
In front of Lobas on the school desk is a map of Bucha, a once peaceful and little-known suburb of kyiv that is now a sprawling crime scene.
The area was occupied by Russian forces for a month as they attempted to storm kyiv, and their liberation just over a week ago has started a slow and painful process of uncovering the horrors left here.
Every time the phone rings, Lobas consults the map in front of her and writes down the necessary information in neat handwriting, one line per body.
Earlier, he had filled out one side of an A4 sheet and now moved on to the back.
The day before there were 64 bodies, he says. The day before that, 37.
He doesn’t know how many there will be this day, but he thinks the number will be closer to 40 because a mass grave is being dug nearby.
Lobas is only in charge of part of this region, and many more bodies are being found outside her jurisdiction.
The policeman stops from time to time to go to the schoolyard for a cigarette, but even those moments are interrupted by calls about dead bodies or problems related to the collection of dead bodies.
It’s raining in Bucha and one of the trucks that transported corpses to the morgue has gotten stuck in the mud.
It is necessary to find a tractor quickly, because there are a limited number of vans and a large number of bodies.
The story of Vitaly Brezhnev
Lobas generally delegates the field work to his deputies, but in some particularly serious cases he goes himself.
“When people have been shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs, for example,” he says.
“Or when the bodies have been burned, I also go,” he adds.
Around mid-morning, he receives a call from Dmytro Kushnir, a 24-year-old police officer, who is going to search a body found behind an apartment building on the outskirts of Bucha.
When Kushnir arrives at the building, he finds two men.
They are wearing blue surgical gloves and are standing over the partially decomposed body of a man who appears to have been shot in the back of the head.
The body lies on a stained white comforter and is surrounded by empty beer and spirits bottles.
The two men in blue surgical gloves introduce themselves as Volodymyr and Serhiy Brezhnev, the father and brother of the deceased.
Lying on the blanket is Vitaliy Brezhnev, a 30-year-old former cook who, until the Russians arrived, lived a peaceful life with his girlfriend on the sixth floor of the apartment building that now stands over his corpse.
Volodymyr and Serhiy had lost contact with Vitaliy a month earlier, when the Russians took control of Bucha and communications were cut off.
It was impossible to enter the suburb to check his building, so he they searched for a month on the internetsearching social media in vain for evidence that he was alive.
When the Russians finally withdrew a little over a week ago, Serhiy received a call from Vitaliy’s girlfriend who told him what had happened.
The Russians stormed the building, shooting their way into all the apartments.
Vitaly’s girlfriend said that they demanded that people hand over their SIM cards and keys.
They interrogated her and Vitaliy in separate rooms, beat them and shot their dog, according to her testimony.
They then took her to the basement with a group of other residents and closed the door, but Vitaliy was taken away separately and told that he would not see him again. And did not do it.
As soon as the Ukrainian army declared Bucha safe to re-enter, Volodymyr and Serhiy set off for the building.
Inside, they found dried blood on the floor of the stairs and scattered personal photographs.
In all the doors you could see the shotgun blast holessometimes one, sometimes four or five.
The steel plate doors had been forced open. At a wooden door, where the lock had not given way to repeated gunfire, the Russian soldiers seemed to have become frustrated and punched a hole right in the middle of the door into the apartment.
Behind another door, it was clear that the owners had pushed a heavy table against the frame in a failed attempt to keep invaders out.
When Volodymyr and Serhiy reached the sixth floor, they saw that the shotgun had been used on the door of apartment 83.
There was a musty smell coming from inside. The Russians had trashed the apartment. They had broken the vents and even the bathroom drain… “for money”, Serhiy guessed.
When he entered Vitaliy’s room, he suffered the first of several blows to his hopes of finding his brother alive.
There was a deep bloodstain on the pillow and the blood spattered on the walls behind the bed.
Among the clutter, on the floor, were two 7.62mm bullet casings, the caliber that the Russian army uses in its rifles.
“You could see that a man had been killed here,” says Serhiy. “But there was no body.”
So Volodymyr and Serhiy began to search for Vitaliy, knowing that their search was now likely to be for a dead body. and not of a living son and brother that they could hold again in their arms.
Serhiy is carrying a passport photograph of Vitaliy. “We searched and searched,” he says, “and at first we were looking for his face.”
Behind the building, by the woods, they found what appeared to be a shallow grave and began to dig.
It took time to exhume the remains there.
First they saw a flower print quilt they didn’t recognize and their hearts found some hope.
But when they brought the body up they saw that inside the duvet was a curtain from Vitaliy’s apartment.
Then they saw the dead man’s shoes and thought they recognized them. The light was fading at that point and they had to be home before curfew, so they covered the body with the sheet. Some hope remained.
“Today was the final check,” says Serhiy, looking at the body. “Today we took off his shoes and saw his feet.”
Because Vitaliy’s feet had been inside socks and shoes, they are better preserved than the rest of his body after a month on earth.
“We saw the shape of his feet,” says Volodymyr.
“Then we looked at the shape of the nose and hands,” adds Serhiy. “And we knew it was our relative”.
Volodymyr had bought the small apartment in Bucha two years earlier, an investment in his son’s future.
Vitaliy had been a cook in a restaurant in kyiv, until the pandemic hit and he was fired. He worked in construction and was looking for something more stable, but he had a girlfriend he loved and a dog, and now an apartment in a nice neighborhood.
He loved to fish and hunt, forage for mushrooms in his spare time, and cook.
“He was living a peaceful life here,” says Serhiy. “He was a normal guy, that’s all, a man with a good heart.”
“He was a good son and a good brother,” says Volodymyr, trying to hold back tears.
At the front of the building, Officer Kushnir is completing his police report.
Volodymyr walks to his car and takes two small pieces of cardboard and writes his name and phone number and Vitaliy’s name and address on each.
Then he asks some neighbors for transparent tape to cover the ink, because the rain begins to fall harder on Bucha, and he returns to the body, this time without surgical gloves, to tie a piece of cardboard to Vitaliy’s ankle and another to his wrist. .
“I don’t want my son’s body to be lost“, He says.
The Kushnir officer finishes his report and calls Lobas. The chief will arrange for the body pick-up truck to pass by.
Volodymyr and Serhiy take shelter from the rain and wait for the truck to arrive.
As the day progresses, Lobas’s command post in the classroom gets busier.
Officers come and go, filing reports of deaths. The list on the desk got longer and her phone keeps ringing.
A dead woman has been found in a well next to a destroyed column of Russian tanks.
There is another body on the ninth floor of a building. A driver of one of the trucks called to say that he couldn’t find the body he had been sent to collect.
A woman personally walks into the classroom to report that her neighbor has died.
Two of the Bucha district police departments had been destroyed in the Russian assault and Lobas makes efforts to obtain resources.
There are not enough body bags. His team has also been reduced in the previous days.
“Those who were weak left early on,” he says.
Lobas receives another call. “Nine?” he asks. “Where?”
The call comes from a unit at a neighboring police department.
Nine bodies were buried in a nearby field.. Lobas hangs up and tags one of her mobile units.
“The team there is exhausted and they don’t have any body bags left,” he says.
“They have been collecting bodies all day. Please go and help them now. Find body bags and help them pack up the bodies,” he orders a deputy.
The nine graves are arranged in a row at the edge of the field, behind a fence at the end of a dirt road.
The dead had been buried by their neighbors during the Russian occupation and are now being exhumed by the same neighbors, with the help of the police.
“Some of these people died because they couldn’t get medicine, and others were killed by the Russians,” says Gennadiy, a 45-year-old Ukrainian.
“These were our neighbors,” he adds, a look of deep anger on his face.
“Here is Tolya, from the building next door, and another neighbor. Here’s another person I met from the building next door. This man has a gunshot wound, we didn’t know him but we found a passport on his body. This old lady had severe diabetes and we tried to get her out of Bucha but there was no way, so she died. This man went for a walk with her dog and did not come back. We are not pathologists but it seems that he was shot, ”he says.
The work to remove the bodies is hard.
They had been buried well, in deep graves, and the rain soaked the mud and made it slippery.
Gennadiy, clad in a waterproof green plastic cloak, climbs into each grave, one after another, and removes the earth from around the bodies so they can be tied with thick straps to hoist them up.
Each body had been wrapped in what i hadn by hand: curtains, blankets of different colors and designs.
They are examined by the police and any obvious injuries are photographed with an iPhone.
After a while, the truck arrives. The bodies are loaded inside. The sky is gray and the rain keeps falling.
In Vitaliy’s apartment building, Volodymyr and Serhiy waited as long as they could for the van to arrive.
It’s getting dark and they need to go home.
Vitaliy’s body will have to spend another night on the ground.
It is already too late to comply with the 9:00 PM curfew in kyiv, but at the military checkpoints along the route they show the report of their relative’s death and allow them to pass.
At dawn the next day, the father and son get up and start the journey back to Bucha.
They can’t wait any longer for the van, they load Vitaliy’s body in the back of their car and head to a morgue in the city of Boyarkaabout an hour to the south.
Before the invasion, the Boyarka morgue staff received about three bodies a day, the vast majority of them dead of natural causes.
Since Bucha was released, they have been performing autopsies on about 50 bodies a day, 80% of which were violent deaths, says Semen Petrovych, 39, who has been the forensic expert there for 16 years.
The morgue, a small outbuilding at the back of a hospital, had just acquired two rented refrigerated trucks, both of which are full of bodies.
Body bags lie on the ground next to the trucks, against a fence, and on either side of the morgue entrance.
“There are not enough staff and there is not enough space,” says Petrovych, the forensic expert.
“Even if we had more people, where would we put the bodies?”
Normally I would do a careful autopsy on each body and print a death certificate. “Now we just quickly dissect them and write something simple by hand,” she admits.
Volodymyr and Serhiy are not the only ones to bring a body.
Private cars stop at the morgue and remove the bodies wrapped in blankets and rugs.
Tatiana Zhylenko searches for the body of a friend’s father who was abroad.
Oleksander Zakovorotnyi comes for his father-in-law, who, when the Russians cut off the gas supply in the dead of winter, set up a makeshift heater with a gas cylinder, but fell asleep and was poisoned when the flame went out.
Volodymyr and Serhiy wait outside until they are called to identify Vitaliy. They stand inside the cramped, low-ceilinged morgue, where there are bodies on the floor and on every stretcher and the smell is unbearable.
They have to squeeze between two stretchers, next to an open corpse, to get close to Vitaliy’s body, and search it for any scars they might remember.
They repeat to the pathologist that they think they recognize their feet. Volodymyr looks away. He is struggling with doubt and hope.
Then he walks behind the refrigerator truck and is left alone sobbing, his chest heaving with tears.
Vitaliy’s body is placed in a body bag labeled with the number 552: the 552nd body processed by this small morgue since the beginning of the year, nearly double the number in a normal year.
The police take fingerprints and tell Volodymyr and Serhiy that the formal identification takea about a month due to work backlog, but that otherwise they can take it to the cemetery to be buried.
Instead of waiting for the body van, Volodymyr and Serhiy carefully load Vitaliy back into the back of his car and drive him for an hour or so to Bucha, past the rows of destroyed houses and the places where the bodies had been lying in the streets for weeks.
In the cemetery, which is already full, new graves are being dug outside the fence in a thin strip of land along the road.
A priest intones the funerary rites over a coffin. The dead man’s mother cries.
Volodymyr and Serhiy enter the graveyard, unloading Vitaliy next to a long line of body bags on the ground.
Because Vitaliy had already been identified and would be buried here in Bucha, he is placed in a simple wooden coffin and given the small dignity of resting inside a brick building on the cemetery grounds.
they will bury him in two days.
Volodymyr and Serhiy leave the cemetery and the former decides that, although he is far from his home in kyiv, he will buy a piece of land there for his wife Lily, Vitaliy’s mother, who is suffering from terminal cancer, so that when the time comes he can rest close to your child.
Two days later, on a bright and cold morning in Bucha, the family gathers at the cemetery.
Once again, Volodymyr and Serhiy take the lead and enter the brick building to prepare to carry the coffin.
Lily sits outside on a bench, smoking a cigarette, alone among the body bags.
The coffin is carried onto a stone plinth and the family gathers around it as the priest reads the funeral rites.
Vitaliy is then carried to one of the fresh graves along the roadside outside the cemetery and laid to rest.
Volodymyr is still in doubt. “I hope the fingerprints show that this was not my son,” he says.
Later that day, back at Bucha’s abandoned school, Lobas sits at his desk, listening intently to a man who has come in person to ask for help finding a relative he had heard was in a mass grave.
He wants to give Lobas a photo, but Lobas explains that this is not how things are done. “We can’t go around opening all the body bags,” he says. “You understand? It would waste too much time.”
Lobas explains that they had to start burying the unidentified bodies, because there was not enough space in the morgues.
But he assures the man that fingerprints and photographs are being taken.
“Although the bodies are being buried, the information is processed,” he explains.
The calls keep coming in: a body on Yablunska street, another body next to a school…
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