The freshly exhumed remains of three men lie in black body bags at the edge of a small cemetery in a town not far from the Ukrainian capital, waiting to be taken to the morgue. No one has been identified yet.
Ukrainian authorities are still unearthing people who were hastily buried in makeshift graves during Russia’s brief but brutal occupation of villages and towns near Kiev. Nearly 200 bodies remain unidentified, while 280 people are missing.
Oleksander Pinchuk’s mother Halyna is among them. They never found her body in the rubble of her apartment building, which took a direct hit from an airstrike a year ago. Pinchuk had only exited the building eight hours earlier and hasn’t seen his mother since, he said.
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On Thursday, Pinchuk stood in the winter chill, grim-faced, among a small group of mourners who had gathered for a church service to commemorate the anniversary of the strike in the town of Borodyanka.
“Just look at what the Russians have brought us and what they have done to our beautiful city,” said Dmytro Koshka, the priest who led the service at the former site of the residential building. “How could we ever forget and forgive?”
Nothing remains of the structure except the outline of where it once stood. Behind it is another apartment building, blackened and empty but still standing.
Pinchuk said rescue teams only managed to reach the building last April after Ukrainian forces regained control of Borodyanka. Crews dug through the rubble for about two weeks and located the remains of 15 people. But they found no sign of dozens more believed to be inside the 108-apartment condominium.
“We still have hope for at least some of them, but the rest, they just burned alive,” Pinchuk said, his gaze fixed, the pain of loss visible in his eyes.
With no body to mourn and bury, the 43-year-old is hoping against hope that his mother is still alive. He has heard rumors that Russian troops have taken more than 100 people from Borodyanka to Belarus. Maybe she was among them.
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“Up until the last moment, I will think of her as alive,” he said.
The exhumation of three bodies on Thursday from two makeshift graves on the edge of Borodyanka cemetery meant some families may have a chance to learn what became of their loved ones.
A passerby found the three in early March 2022, when Russian forces were still occupying the city, and buried the bodies with the help of another man, according to Andrii Nebytov, head of the Kyiv Region Police Department.
The passerby then fled the region. He only recently returned and told authorities about the burials, the police chief said.
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One of the dead is believed to be a 50-year-old local man who was shot and partially burned in his car, but DNA tests are needed to confirm this. No one knows who the other two are.
There’s not much you can do to identify them. A green pencil is all that was found on one, cigarette packs and key chains on another. The remains are so decomposed that identification and exactly determining how they died will require forensic testing.
The exhumations bring the number of civilian bodies found in formerly Russian-occupied areas of the Kiev region to 1,373, Nebytov said. Of that number, 197 have yet to be identified.