The first body arrived in late February, a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. The next day, two more. By the beginning of March, the morgue, on the outskirts of Kyiv, had no more space for the dead who, every day, arrived by the dozen from the cities of Bucha and Borodyanka – at the time occupied by the Russian forces.
When Moscow’s withdrawal from the areas north of the capital early in April unveiled the brutality of mass graves, with hundreds of civilian corpses buried in residential districts, every morgue in the Kyiv region was already at breaking point.
Today, more than two months after the war began, bodies are being piled in refrigerated trucks in front of the morgues, as authorities struggle to handle the number of dead.
“We weren’t prepared for this,” said a coroner from a village a few kilometers from the capital. “No one would ever have imagined that it would come to this.”
Survivors of Bucha, Borodyanka, Irpin and Hostomel, where Russians are accused of war crimes against civilians, did not stop to celebrate their liberation, starting immediately instead to count and identify their dead. Each day, dozens of people now approach the refrigerated trucks to put the names of their loved ones to the bodies closed in black bags and piled one on top of the other.
“Up to Sunday, 1,123 bodies were recovered in the Kyiv region alone, with 35 children among them,” said Oleh Tkalenko, a senior prosecutor for the Kyiv region. “These are the bodies that we have dug out from mass graves or that we have found on the streets. We have found brutalized people. All 1,123 cases are being documented and examined by detectives. And, every day, we continue to uncover more bodies. I can’t give any more precise information because there are thousands of reports being written.”
Vladyslav Perovskyi, a Ukrainian forensic doctor who, with a team of coroners, has carried out dozens of autopsies on people from Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka who died during Russia’s month-long occupation of the area, explains that the process of identifying corpses is complex , given the state of decomposition of the bodies found in the mass graves and the high level of brutalization perpetrated on the victims, even after they were killed.
He tells of people killed and then crushed by tanks. “There are many burnt and disfigured bodies that are just impossible to identify,” he said. “The face could be smashed into pieces. You can’t put it back together. Sometimes, there’s no head at all.”
His team, which operates in a morgue that cannot be identified for security reasons, has been examining about 15 bodies a day, many of them mutilated.
An elderly couple approaches the rear doors of the vehicle. Through tears, they communicate the identity of the victim to the men standing inside the trailer, in the midst of no less than 30 bodies. He was their son, who was serving in the civil resistance. The couple say he was allegedly betrayed by a woman when Russian soldiers occupied their town on the outskirts of the capital and were hunting down Ukrainian fighters and former soldiers who had taken part in the war in Donbas.
Their son was one of them. The Russians captured him, tortured him, broke his arms and legs and put a plastic bag over his head. Then they shot him dead in the head and threw his body on the side of the road. His corpse of him remained there, for days, until it was found by volunteers.
When the men inside the vehicle show her the body of her son, the woman bursts into inconsolable cries and screams, as she curses the Russian soldiers, wishing them the same fate.
A tattoo on his shoulder is the only identifying sign on an almost completely unrecognizable body, marked by decomposition and brutalisation. When the woman sees it, she nods and is accompanied to the car, in tears.
Before his body can be buried, however, it will first have to be examined by Perovskyi’s team, who, alongside 18 experts from the forensic department of France’s national gendarmerie, have started documenting the terror inflicted on civilians during the month-long occupation.
“We are seeing a lot of mutilated bodies,” said Perovskyi. “A lot of them had their hands tied behind their backs and shots in the back of their heads. There were also cases with automatic gunfire, like six to eight holes on the back of victims. And we have several cases of cluster bombs’ elements embedded in the bodies of the victims.”
Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians and has said Ukrainian and western allegations of war crimes are concocted. Evidence of death and destruction in the areas occupied by Moscow’s troops seems to suggest otherwise.