Vlad Minchenko wakes every day with trembling hands. For hours, until it eases, he can’t send messages 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 is continuing more than three weeks after Russian forces withdrew.
A cemetery worker takes a rest from working on the graves of civilians killed in Bucha during the war with Russia, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 14, 2022.
“I have collected a lot of bodies, more than 100,” he said.
Cemetery workers Vlad Minchenko (C) and Artem (L) prepare the coffin for a person killed during the war with Russia, as dozens of black bags containing more bodies of victims are seen strewn across the graveyard in the cemetery in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 11, 2022.
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.
A woman stands next to three people killed in the courtyard of a house in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 5, 2022.
“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.
Volunteers load bodies of civilians killed in Bucha onto a truck to be taken to a morgue for investigation, in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 12, 2022.
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.
Cemetery workers, Artem (R) and Vlad Minchenko, smoke while taking a break from attending funerals in the cemetery in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 13, 2022.
“People were walking on the road, or riding a bicycle, when snipers shot them in the head,” Minchenko said. “Some were shot in their yards. Six or seven people with hands tied behind their backs were shot in the head as well.”
Cemetery worker Vlad Minchenko (L) watches as Natalya Verbova, 49, and her son Roman Verbovyi, 23, attend the funeral of her husband Andriy Verbovyi, 55, who was killed by Russian soldiers while serving in the Bucha territorial defense, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 13, 2022.
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.
Vlad Minchenko gets out of the vehicle that was carrying the dead body of Stanislav Berestnev, who died during the Russian occupation and was buried in the graveyard in Bucha, Ukraine, April 19, 2022.