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In Bucha, a massive search for the bodies left by the Russian occupants

BUCHA, Ukraine – There were bodies in every neighborhood.

This week, investigators in this Ukrainian town searched homes and mass graves to find out how many.

Russian soldiers occupied Bucha for a month and their campaign of atrocities killed hundreds. Since the city’s recapture by Ukrainian forces last week, investigators have been recruited across the country to search neighborhoods for the remaining dead.

In a basement they found five men, each with their hands tied before someone shot them in the head. In a clearing not far away was another body, left with the rubbish of what had been a Russian military camp.

As police fanned out across town in search of more, investigators gathered at a mass grave near a gold-roofed church in central Bucha. Officials had suggested it contained at least 50 bodies. Dressed in black fatigues and a waistcoat that read “War Crimes Prosecutor,” the top official turned to his colleague, who was counting them.

“Alina,” he said, “you can start.”

Ukrainian officials said Friday morning they had recovered 320 bodies during their week-long search through Bucha, nearly half of which had yet to be identified. That number did not include those cataloged throughout the day on Friday.

According to residents who endured the Russian occupation, the treatment of a neighborhood depended on its occupants. Some units performed better than others. But executions took place throughout the city. Investigators say dozens of them followed prolonged abuse. Others were simply part of the daily violence that the soldiers – some drunk, some scared – used to strike terror among the population.

In Bucha, the extent of Russian barbarism becomes clearer

At the mass grave on Friday, forensics officials worked carefully over the sandy dirt, pulling body bag after body bag from the grave onto the ground before opening, taping and then gently closing them.

Russian soldiers had confiscated cell phones, leaving families disconnected for weeks. When the soldiers left, many locals emerged to find loved ones missing.

Some stood in front of the grave on Friday seeking answers as to whether it was their final resting place. “I came here because my son was lost here,” said 63-year-old Natalia Lukianenko. She had tried calling him more times than she remembered.

When she asked her friends, they said he hadn’t been in touch.

“There are people who say their children are buried there,” Lukianenko said anxiously, placing a reassuring arm around his daughter, Anna.

The 27-year-old stared at the ground.

“We hope he’s alive,” she said.

Bucha district war crimes prosecutor Ruslan Kravchenko said the team examined 21 bodies, including 19 killed by bullets or shrapnel. Two were women. “All necessary examinations will be carried out,” he said. The search was to resume on Saturday.

The task of the prosecutor is the same as that of officials in other cities where abuses by Russian forces have been reported. On Friday, officials in Makariv, southwest of Bucha, said authorities had recovered at least 132 bodies, while the search continued.

In Bucha, Washington Post reporters witnessed the discovery of more bodies.

In a wooded lane on Yablunska Street, the body of a Ukrainian man, identified by his wife, had been left by Russian soldiers after their retreat.

In the northern sector of the city, the police entered a yard and found a woman who had committed suicide. The noose she had used to hang herself was still visible on a tree under a canopy of vines. As they searched the garden for further evidence, one of the investigators stopped and shook his head.

“It was bad here,” he said. “People were so scared.”

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With the scale of the bloodshed becoming apparent, Ukrainian officials have urged the international community to bring the alleged crimes committed in Ukraine to an international tribunal.

If they didn’t, said Ukraine’s Attorney General Iryna Venediktova, standing by the grave, ‘it will mean that we have no law at all, no rule of law’ .

With authorities overwhelmed, video footage showed at least one body had been left in a vehicle on a nearby highway for nearly a month.

On the passenger seat lay the corpse of a woman, dressed in civilian clothes, according to a video posted on Twitter by a member of the Ukrainian parliament. Holes that appear to be from bullets or shrapnel riddled the vehicle.

The video was posted by lawmaker Oleksiy Goncharenko, who said in the recording that the body was that of a woman. Goncharenko said a family fled the war when they were hit by a Russian attack.

Satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies show the vehicle had been there for at least three and a half weeks. An image captured by a satellite on March 9 shows the vehicle in the same location as in the video.

Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies shows the damaged car recorded in the April 3 video at the same location on a road outside Bucha throughout March. (Video: TWP, Photo: TWP)

The time period overlaps with intense battles on the outskirts of Bucha. When Russian troops forced their way devastatingly into suburbs like Bucha that surround the capital, Kyiv, they aimed to encircle the city, US officials said.

It didn’t work like that.

A road approaching the town effectively became a graveyard for tanks that attempted to enter. Inside Bucha there are few traces of troops now, just Ukrainian bodies.

A police investigator carefully walked through the gate of another house where his instructions suggested a murder had taken place. His shoulders slumped. He looked exhausted.

“Everyone, leave us alone with our dead here,” he told reporters recording the scene. “Leave us alone to mourn them.”

Serhiy Morgunov in Bucha, Jon Swaine in New York, and Sarah Cahlan and Reis Thebault in Washington contributed to this report.


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