Morning Chronicle - On the trail of the dead in a Ukrainian village

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On the trail of the dead in a Ukrainian village
On the trail of the dead in a Ukrainian village / Photo: Sergei SUPINSKY - AFP

On the trail of the dead in a Ukrainian village

There is a rhythm to the way the bodies are collected in the Ukrainian village of Andriivka.

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A yellow question mark is sprayed on a home. The police arrive with a crew to dig out the shallow grave. Then the relatives are confronted with the remains of their kin.

Some are stoic and resigned -- the body is just the remnants and their loved one is long gone. Others dash to touch the corpse, as if trying to awake it from slumber.

On Monday, AFP saw the bodies of three men in civilian clothes exhumed from gardens in Andriivka, 33 kilometres (20 miles) west of the capital, Kyiv.

They were Ruslan Yaremchuk, 46, Leonid Bondarenko, 68, and Yuriy Kravchennia, 46, according to relatives, neighbours and ID documents.

A village official said three other bodies had already been excavated earlier in the day.

Andriivka -- home to around 2,000 before the war -- was occupied by invading Russian forces during their month-long northern offensive to take Kyiv.

All the men were buried by their fellow Ukrainians. But villagers say they were killed by Russians.

- Ruslan Yaremchuk -

They buried Yaremchuk in a garden behind a modest white cottage, his head pointing towards a rusted wheelbarrow.

Now the body, its arms spread high, is being pried from the earth again by a three-man team.

Yaremchuk's final outfit was a blue cableknit jumper, jeans and grey hiking boots. On his right hand is a handsome silver ring.

Neighbour Viktor Haniuk knew his first name only -- Ruslan -- but he buried him in this patch of green with the help of another local.

As the exhumation continues, nearby police scribe a report in the margins of a diploma that reveals his surname. Yaremchuk studied electrical engineering at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, it seems.

On the doorstep of the cottage are three open ration packs. As Russians swept in, the packs were airdropped for troops.

"This man went to steal them," says 42-year-old Haniuk. "Most likely he was shot for these rations."

He said his neighbour was shot "behind the ear". Yaremchuk is zipped inside a body bag and the police team continue their rounds.

- Leonid Bondarenko -

Next is Bondarenko. He was buried by the spring bulbs in the front plot of a pink cottage. There is a floral-wreathed cross above the makeshift grave. It marks the date he died -- March 6, 2022.

His body is parcelled in a patterned blue duvet. Three workers pull him out of the ground, revealing his blood-streaked head.

His son Oleksandr, 39, loiters outside the gates of the house with resigned unease.

His father was killed in shelling and a neighbour buried him a few days later.

"I don't know how we ordinary people are meant to respond to this. They destroyed the whole village," Oleksandr says.

His father's body is the fifth of the day so far and there are more still waiting to be tended.

"What am I supposed to feel when it's civilians, not soliders, who were killed?" asks 25-year-old police officer Artem Yeliseyev.

"Today we saw a man who was 30 and a man who was almost 70," he says.

"They are both murdered. It's difficult for me to talk about my feelings."

- Yuriy Kravchennia -

Kravchennia is in the ground past a wrecked home. As he is pulled from the earth, his wife Olesia howls with anguish from inside the ruins.

She peers over a garden fence and sees her husband -- wearing an orange and brown striped sweater -- tugged from the dirt, feet first.

His corpse has been covered by corrugated plastic and his face is an eerie pale green.

Olesia rushes to him but her legs give way and she is guided to a log. Yuriy was shot in the street with his hands up in surrender, she stammers through her grief.

"I'm hanging on. I'm hanging on. This is the 41st day he's been gone and I am crying. I can't go on without him."

Neighbour Tetiana Yermakova, 53, comes to comfort her.

She is also a widow. Her husband Igor, 54, is buried in the next-door garden. The women lean into each other in a prolonged embrace.

Igor was taken by Russian soldiers on March 2, his sister-in-law Ludmyla Oleksiyenko says. Two days later they found him out by the electrical pylons.

He had been messaging information about the Russian presence to other Ukrainians.

"They only said that there was somebody lying there. They said 'Go and see for yourself if it's yours'," 63-year-old Oleksiyenko recalls.

"His hands were tied with a rope," she says. "It was a thick rope. The hands were blue. Behind his back."

"We pulled it with my sister across the road to the garden here. We pulled the body because we needed to bury it. We dug the pit by ourselves, the two of us. There are no words to express that."

Now he is interred under an immense mound of mud in the back garden.

The Russians dumped the soil on the spot where he was buried when they dug a gaping trench, now littered with ammunition boxes.

His body will be the seventh of the day, if the villagers can find the strength to move the earth.