Vlad Minchenko wakes every day with trembling hands. For hours, until it eases, he can’t message on his phone or even consider his previous work of making art or tattoos. But he can continue to retrieve bodies, scores of bodies, around the Ukrainian town of Bucha as part of a task that continues more than three weeks after Russian forces withdrew.
“I have collected a lot of bodies, more than 100,” he said.
The grim work for Minchenko and a small group of others began under occupation as the bodies scattered in streets or hurriedly dumped in yards apparently became too much even for the Russians. But the work was dangerous.
“We were told (by Russian troops) ‘Go there, 15 bodies are lying there.’ Others stopped three of us. They told us to go to the fence. We said that we wouldn’t go to the fence: ‘If you want to shoot us, shoot us here, we won’t be lying near a fence,’” Minchenko said.
He and his colleagues have crossed Bucha’s streets again and again, exploring its darkest corners. They respond to residents’ reports of bodies or come across them themselves. They have been among the first to see abuses that will be investigated as possible war crimes.
“People were walking on the road, or riding a bicycle, when snipers shot them in the head,” Minchenko said. “Some were shot in the yards. Six or seven people with hands tied behind their backs were shot in the head as well.”
Eventually, the work brings him to the cemetery, where he helps to dig the graves and offer quiet comfort as shaken relatives say goodbye.
Almost two months after Russia’s invasion began, Minchenko recalls the moment when his wife woke him up, saying “It has started.”
He doesn’t know when it will end.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine