Borodianka, Kyiv region – In the woods on a roadside near Borodianka, 40 miles from Kyiv, police were overseeing the exhumation of two men who were executed and buried next to what locals say was a Russian military checkpoint.
Alongside the officers were four men in civilian clothing wearing gardening gloves – ordinary Ukrainians with no previous experience of this gut-wrenching work who have become volunteers collecting the hundreds of bodies still being dug up in towns bordering the capital.
It has been a month since the Ukrainian army pushed Russian forces out of Kyiv region, yet local police and volunteers are still finding new graves. More than 1,000 bodies have been recovered there according to Ukrainian prosecutors, who said many more people were killed by bombs, making their remains hard to find.
The police forces of small towns and quiet villages have been plunged into investigating one of the largest atrocities in Europe in recent times. Amid the unfathomable scale of this endeavor, officers are relying on ordinary Ukrainians to do the heavy lifting while they take statements and document the deaths.
The volunteer body collectors are tasked with picking up rotting and often mutilated bodies from the graves, putting them in body bags, numbering them and then, at the end of each day, driving the total number of bodies collected to whichever morgue in Kyiv region has room.
“I didn’t know this is what we’d be doing,” said Vasily Pasieka, a middle-aged driver for a construction company in Chernivtsi region, western Ukraine, who was driving the van which carries the bodies. “But someone has to do it for the relatives, for the police.”
“I am a simple driver. I’ve been behind the wheel for 40 years,” said Pasieka.
Their employer, Mekhtransbud, wanted to do something to help when they saw the news about the mass atrocities in the Kyiv region. They called one of the improvised humanitarian aid centres, who said they needed a van and manpower.
Pasieka and his colleague Serhiy Roholsky volunteered to go to the region with one of the company’s vans. The company, they said, was paying for their stay at a hotel while they volunteered.
“We pick up between 8 to 11 bodies a day,” said Roholsky, who said they had only been working in the small town of Borodianka and its surrounding villages since they arrived two weeks ago.
Roholsky had just picked up two bodies from a dug-up grave in the woods and placed them on a path with the help of two other male volunteers in their early twenties. “Every day it’s different but we find all sorts – men, women, young, old, middle-aged.”
One of the two bodies was a pension-aged man whose head had been severed, the whereabouts of which is still unknown. Both corpses were twisted and mangled. It looked as though their limbs had been broken in several places.
The son of the man whose head had been severed, Serhiy Kubitsky, was there to witness the exhumation and give a statement to the police. He and his family had left the village for the safety of western Ukraine when the war started, but his father had not wanted to leave.
“I didn’t believe it was him when they told me,” said Kubitsky. He said that his neighbors found his father’s body in the woods near the Russian checkpoint on 17 March and buried him on the spot. The neighbors then returned to the grave yesterday to dig it up under police supervision.
“Then they showed me his documents,” said Kubitsky. In the trunk of his car were the spades used by his neighbors to exhume the bodies.
Every day, Pasieka and Roholsky go from their hotel to the humanitarian aid center where their company’s van is refueled, then they pick up two new volunteers to help them collect the bodies.
Even amid the daily hell of the task, the two worst instances in the relatively small area of Kyiv region where they have been volunteering, Roholsky said, were when a 15-year-old girl was exhumed from a mass grave near the town’s GP surgery and when they dug up the body of an elderly man who had been doused in petrol and set alight. The witness who recounted the story to Roholsky was the elderly man’s wife, who said she had been tied up by Russian soldiers and forced to watch.
After the two men in the woods , the next stop was the cemetery of a nearby village, where the team were to dig up two buried bodies in order to register the cause of death.
Stanislav Kozynchuk, the deputy head of the Kyiv region prosecutor’s office, said the two people who had been buried in the cemetery were killed by airstrikes, which he had reason to believe may have used cluster bombs.
Evidence collected by the Guardian during visits to Bucha, Hostomel and Borodianka – and reviewed by independent weapons experts – showed that Russian troops had used cluster bombs, which are widely banned across the world, as well as extremely powerful unguided bombs, which are not permitted for use in populated areas and are responsible for the destruction of several blocks of flats in Kyiv region.
At the cemetery, one of the victims’ wives, Alla Kuzmenko, said that her husband had gone out to help neighbors after a bomb hit a house across the road. She started following him but turned back to put the dog in the house when a second bomb hit and killed him.
“My dog likes to run between people’s legs, I didn’t want her to be running riot,” said Kuzmenko.
Deputy prosecutor Kozynchuk said that all bodies not buried according to the law needed to be exhumed and examined until every cause of death was determined by a forensic doctor after an autopsy – only after that could such bodies be buried.
“Because of war, there was no chance to do the autopsies, the civilians just buried the body and later reported to the police the location of the grave. It doesn’t matter whether the body was buried in a cemetery or somewhere in a field, if it wasn’t documented it has to be exhumed,” said Kozynchuk.
“It is essential that all bodies are exhumed and identified so that victims’ families can be informed, and the exact causes of death established,” Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has said. “All measures should be taken to preserve evidence.”