After the horror, the delicate search for relatives

After the horror, the delicate search: the inhabitants of liberated Boutcha, where dozens of corpses of civilians were discovered last weekend, are now trying to find out the fate of their loved ones of whom they have no news.

Some already know what happened to their friends, neighbors, colleagues, while others still hope that the worst has not happened.

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Tetiana Oustimenko knows the end of the story: her son and two of his friends were shot dead in the street. She buried the three bodies in the garden of the family home.

Oleh Onishchenko is desperately looking for two members of his family. He arrives in a windswept field where fifty body bags are spread out on the ground.



He thinks his loved ones have been burned beyond recognition, though a ring or wedding ring could be clues to find them.

Another resident of the city, Oleksandre Kovtoune, keeps him hopeful. He has no news of his son, but thinks that he may have been taken prisoner by the Russian army in its retreat towards Belarus.

Butcha, a town in the near northwestern suburbs of kyiv, was occupied by the Russians from the very first days of the invasion.

Since leaving the area at the end of March, Ukrainian authorities have discovered dozens of corpses there wearing civilian clothes, some with their hands tied behind their backs.

On kyiv-Mirotska Street, a car riddled with bullets lies. Inside, you can see a pool of clotted blood on the passenger seat. The bodies are no longer there: they have been moved to a nearby garden, that of Tetiana Oustimenko.

This 65-year-old woman says she buried her 25-year-old son Serguiï and his friends Nastia and Maxime on March 4.

A few days before, he had offered to come to evacuate him, but she found it too dangerous. Without her knowing it, he came anyway.

“I heard shots, but I was sure he wasn’t there,” she said.

“I received a call. I asked: + Are you my son? +”, before a neighbor told me that a car had been the target of Russian fire. He told me that my son was dead.

According to her, it was an enemy sniper who targeted the trio: Serguiï was hit in the back, Maxime in the head and Nastia in the legs.

Their bodies remained outside for three days before Tetiana’s husband, Valeriï, transported them, helped by neighbors, to bury them.

The very simple burial is at the bottom of the garden.

“How can we continue to live now?” laments Tetiana aloud.

In the communal cemetery, Oleh Onishchenko inspects the bodies. Lined up in black bags, sometimes piled up, there are about fifty of them.

A group of policemen scramble with the paperwork, writing preliminary reports to identify the dead bodies.

Every few minutes they open a new bag. In one, a woman’s arms are tangled over her lifeless face. In another, rigor mortis gives the impression of a man standing at attention.

In other bags, there are only body parts, burnt and severed.

Oleh, 49, remains slightly behind. In his pocket, he keeps photocopies of his sister-in-law Tamila’s identity card and the birth certificate of her daughter, Anna, 14 years old.

They left Boutcha in a borrowed car, the owner of which saw a video showing her burning in the street. He understood immediately.

He is there on the lookout for distinctive jewels, to identify the bodies.

A policeman slips a handwritten note into a bag nearby. “Boutcha, male, about 30 years old. Open eyes. Bodily injuries to the left side of the abdomen, neck and hands”.

“A month ago, no one could have imagined all this,” comments Oleh.

Oleksandr Kovtoune’s 19-year-old son, Oleksiï, has also disappeared. “He went to town and never came back,” says the 58-year-old father, who wants to convince himself that his son has been taken prisoner.

In his neighborhood, it is said that a young man from his street has been sent to Russia. Perhaps this is also the fate of his son?

“It’s our only hope,” he said.

AFP saw on Saturday the corpses of at least twenty men wearing civilian clothes lying in a street in Boutcha, recaptured this week by Ukrainian troops. One of them had his hands tied and the bodies were scattered over several hundred meters.

The bodies of 57 people were found there in a mass grave dug by the Ukrainians in the face of the large number of corpses, according to the local relief chief, who showed this site to an AFP team.

The register of the dead is growing day by day.

“We asked people around to try to find out if they knew (for Oleksiï)”, explains Oleksandre. “We hope he is not on this list”.

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