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Ukrainians still finding bodies in former occupied villages outside Kyiv | Ukraine

The man’s body was first discovered by local people who were ploughing a nearby field.

Only lightly covered with dirt, it lay near a copse of trees beside open pastureland roamed by cows near Zahaltsy, a small village in the Bucha district west of Kyiv.

On Tuesday, local police exhumed the remains – believed to be those of a local man – as the aftermath of the Russian occupation continues to haunt the towns and villages around Ukraine’s capital, nearly three months after the invading troops withdrew.

The body was found next to a police checkpoint used by Russian soldiers during their occupation, leading officials to believe that he was killed by the soldiers manning the post.

“All signs indicate that this man was murdered by Russian soldiers. We have found more bodies around checkpoints in this area,” said Vyacheslav Tsyliuryk, the head of the local police unit. “We believe this person was heading towards his home when he was shot.”

As two men started digging up the earth, the outlines of the corpse began to emerge, and then Tsyliuryk pointed to a gunshot wound in the man’s chest as the likely cause of death.

The dead man was wearing a thick winter jacket, which Tsyliuryk said suggested that the killing had taken place in late March or early April, shortly before the Russians left Kyiv. Zahaltsy, like other towns and villages nearby, was occupied for about a month before the Russian forces’ retreat.

“We saw that the majority of murders happened just before the Russians retreated. Then they lost all sense of humanity,” said Tsyliuryk.

The bodies of more than 1,000 civilians have been discovered in the Bucha district, many hastily buried in dozens of shallow mass graves. Ukrainian police believe that about 650 people were shot in what they have described as executions.

The dead man had no identification on him, and the only thing in the pocket of his jeans was an e-cigarette.

As the team worked, a local woman from Zahaltsy ran across the field towards the grave.

“My nephew is missing,” she shouted. “Could this be Victor?”

The woman, Tatyana Ivanina, showed Tsyliuryk a photograph of a young man, but it quickly became clear that the corpse didn’t match the height and weight of her missing nephew.

“Victor has been missing for months,” Ivanina said, as she walked away. “I just want to know what happened to him.”

Ivanina, a local Zahaltsy woman, shows photos of her missing nephew Victor.
Ivanina, a local Zahaltsy woman, looks for her nephew Victor. Photograph: Pjotr Sauer/The Guardian

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians like Victor are still missing.

Many among them, mostly men, were detained and sent to Russian-controlled territories, sometimes used to barter for Russia’s captured soldiers. Others, Tsyliuryk said, were probably dead.

“We have 70 missing in my area alone. The hardest part is when family members come to these exhumations,” he said.

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This summer, the fields and forests around Kyiv – dotted with wooden datchas and normally beloved by those looking for a break from the sweltering heat of the city – have turned into crime scenes.

Earlier this month, Ukrainian authorities exhumed a mass grave containing the bodies of seven civilian men believed to have been tortured by Russian forces and brought to the forest to die.

“The people who did this weren’t human, they were animals. We will need to punish those responsible for these barbaric crimes,” Tsyliuryk added.

Once Tuesday’s exhumation was complete, the corpse was put in a truck and the body was brought to a local morgue, where DNA samples would be taken and an examination would establish a definitive cause of death.

Ukraine has vowed to prosecute those involved in war crimes in the country, and the authorities have already compiled hundreds of dossiers, named dozens of suspects and sentenced one Russian soldier to life in prison.

The exhumation happened on the same day as Merrick Garland, the US attorney general, made an unannounced trip to Ukraine to discuss the prosecution of Russians for war crimes.

He was scheduled to meet Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, to discuss US and international efforts to help identify those involved in war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine.

For those living in Zahaltsy and nearby towns, life after the Russian occupation has not returned to normal.

Houses in Zahaltsy and the nearby city of Borodianka remain damaged, and some local people say they now dread going on walks.

“It is hard to live here when you can just stumble upon a body during a walk with your children,” said Tonya, whose wooden house overlooked the field where the body was found.

“We haven’t really recovered since the Russians left.”

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