On the trail of the corpses of the Russian occupation

In the collection of bodies in the Ukrainian village of Andriivka, there is a ritual: first a yellow question mark is marked on the house, then the police arrive to exhume the grave. Finally, the relatives are confronted with the sad discovery.

Some of them are stoic and resigned to the remains of a loved one now gone. Others rush to his side to caress him, as if to try to wake him up from a deep sleep.

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AFP journalists thus saw on Monday the corpses of three men in civilian clothes being exhumed from the gardens of Andriïvka, more than 30 kilometers west of Kyiv.

They are Rouslan Iaremchuk, 46, Leonid Bondarenko, 68, and Yuri Kravtchennia, 46, according to their identity documents and their neighbors.

According to a local official, three other bodies were exhumed earlier. Buried by their neighbors, all had been killed by the Russians, say the inhabitants.

Andriyvka, where 2,000 people lived before Russia began its February 24 invasion of Ukraine, was occupied by Moscow forces until their withdrawal from the area in late March.

Rouslan was buried in a garden, behind a white house, wearing a blue sweater, jeans and gray hiking boots. His body is hoisted by three men.

His neighbor Viktor Ganiouk, 42, only knows his first name: Rouslan. It was he who buried him, with the help of another villager.

Nearby, the police write a report, armed with a diploma that reveals his name. Rouslan Yaremchuk studied electrical engineering at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.

On the doorstep, three Russian army rations, opened. “This man went and stole them. That’s probably what he was killed for,” says Viktor.

According to him, his neighbor was shot “behind the ear”. Rouslan’s body is placed in a body bag, and the police continue.

The next, Leonid Bondarenko, is buried near a pink house, a flowery mortuary cross filed with the inscription: March 6, 2022. The day of his death.

Her body is wrapped in a patterned blue duvet. Three men lift him up, revealing his bloody head.

Her 39-year-old son Oleksandre stands in front of the house gate with resignation. His father was killed in a bombing and a neighbor buried him a few days later.

“I don’t know how ordinary people must react to all this. They destroyed the whole village,” he breathes.

Artyom Yelisseïev, a 25-year-old policeman, wonders: “What do you think when it’s civilians who are killed, not soldiers?”. Today he unearthed a middle-aged man and a pensioner, who were also killed. “It’s hard for me to talk about how I feel,” he says.

Yuri Kravchennya’s body is buried in the ground near a destroyed house. As he climbs out of the ground, his wife Olessia screams in pain inside the ruins.

She peeks over the fence and sees her husband’s body being lifted.

The body is wrapped in corrugated plastic, and its face is pale green. Seeing her again, Olessia rushes to her side, but her legs suddenly give way, and she collapses. Yuri was shot dead in the street as he held his hands up, she said.

“He’s been gone for 41 days and I’m crying. I can’t go on without him,” she laments.

Her neighbour, Tetiana Iermakova, 53, comes to comfort her. She is also a widow. Her husband Igor, 54, is buried in the nearby garden.

Igor was arrested by Russian soldiers on March 2 because he was circulating information about the presence of Moscow forces, according to his sister-in-law Lyudmila Oleksiyenko. Two days later, he was found dead near the electricity pylons.

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“They just said there was someone there. I was told: “Go see if it’s yours”, says Lioudmila Oleksiyenko, 63.

The corpse’s hands were tied tightly with a rope behind its back, so much so that they turned blue, she said.

“With my sister, we dragged him to the garden here, to bury him. We dug the hole ourselves”, continues Lioudmila.

His body will be the seventh to be exhumed on Monday, if the inhabitants of this village still find the strength to continue.

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