Hroza, Kharkiv Oblast - Serhii Pletinka rushed to the scene just after a Russian Iskander-M missile struck a packed cafe in the village of Hroza in Kharkiv Oblast.
A soldier on vacation who lives just across the street from the cafe was the first to witness the fire, screams, and bodies.
“I was thrown by the blast wave, but I immediately ran (to the scene of the attack). A woman was screaming. She had broken legs and was pinned down by a refrigerator. She didn't understand what was happening,” Serhii told the Kyiv Independent.
A Russian missile struck the cafe on Oct. 5, where around 60 people had come for the funeral reception of the fallen soldier after his reburial in a cemetery nearby. The strike killed at least 52 people, including a child, and injured six others in what is the deadliest attack against civilians in Ukraine in 2023.
This was the first strike on the village during the full-scale invasion. Villagers and the law enforcement agency investigating the Russian attack believe that someone among the locals may have informed Russian forces about the funeral, which was supposed to involve military personnel.
The village of Hroza had a pre-war population of around 300 residents. Since many have fled since the start of the full-scale invasion, the attack killed roughly half of the residents who have stayed.
“We rescued only five people. Police and emergency services rescued others. The rest were dead,” Pletinka, a soldier who spent two months in a Russian torture chamber while Hroza was occupied, said.
Reburial turned massacre
The morning of Oct. 5 was busy in the village of Hroza. Locals had gathered at the cemetery for the reburial of Anrdii Kozyr, who was killed in action during the initial phase of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
When Kozyr, who had been fighting with the Aidar Battalion, was killed, his body couldn't be brought to the village at the time as it was occupied by Russian forces.
Hroza sits between Kharkiv and Kupiansk, which has come under increased attacks amid Russian attempts to retake the territories since mid-July.
Kozyr’s son, also a soldier, completed his service in the Ukrainian army two months ago and had decided to bring his father’s body back home, according to Pletinka, a family friend.
“His son, daughter, wife, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, and father-in-law died in the cafe,” Pletinka said.
Forensic experts have identified more than half of the bodies brought to the morgues in the area, according to locals. Throughout the day, villagers continued to gather on one of the four streets and go through the updated lists of killed in an attempt to find the names of their loved ones.
With teary eyes, Mykola Fomenko searches the list for the name of his wife, Valentyna, to whom he has been married for 48 years.
“I didn’t want to attend the reception because I didn’t know the fallen soldier. I asked her to stay with me,” Fomenko later told the Kyiv Independent, showing a black-and-white family picture.
Every family affected
Valentyna Fomenko’s body has yet to be identified. Some of the bodies of those killed were completely dismembered in the attack.
The impact site near the Fomenko’s home looks like a pile of bricks and smells of burnt flesh. Crushed chairs are visible from under broken concrete beams.
The children's playground just next to what once was the cafe is dotted with dark red blood spots. Bloody wooden stakes removed from the bodies of those killed and burned pieces of clothes and shoes are everywhere.
With hollow eyes, Serhii points at a destroyed car parked outside the cafe, saying it belonged to his cousin who went to the reception with her husband and a little son. They were all killed in the attack.
“They left home just before (the attack), and I hoped that they would be late,” Serhii, who didn’t want to disclose his last name, told the Kyiv Independent.
Every house on the main street has been affected. Repairmen are walking around, quickly boarding up the broken windows and covering the damaged roofs with tarpaulin. Some of the home’s owners have all been killed, according to locals.
Volodymyr Shudravyi, a chief repairman, can’t hold back his tears while collecting data on the destruction.
“The earth shook on Oct. 5. (Russia) used such powerful weapons against civilians. Every family is affected. There are no military hardware, bases, or even no military personnel. Why? This is the genocide of Ukrainians,” he told the Kyiv Independent, interrupting himself to say the name of his friend who was killed in the attack, Anzhela.
Shudravyi, like other villagers, believes someone among locals leaked information to the Russian forces about the burial of the fallen soldier, as top commanders of the Aidar Battalion could possibly have been at the funeral.
Kharkiv Oblast Prosecutor’s Office supports this version as well. Dmytro Chubenko, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office, said the investigators are verifying the information.
“Everyone wants to find logic to the attack. But Russian forces are striking settlements without any logic,” Chubenko told the Kyiv Independent in a phone interview.
The other version suggests that Russian forces noticed a gathering of people in the Hroza village of the Kupyansk community, which is subjected to daily attacks with artillery, tanks, and mortars, he said.
Burying those killed
A big Ukrainian flag flies above the grave of the fallen soldier, who was reburied two hours before the attack. Two workers were almost done digging the fresh grave. The adjacent square piece of land is enclosed with a white string and two handwritten signs that say "Occupied."
Serhii Starikov who heads the Shevchenkove Military Administration, which covers the village of Hroza, told the Kyiv Independent that local authorities would help villagers with “all they need.”
One of these needs is to bury the killed at the small local cemetery. Bulldozers have already started clearing the bushes for new burial plots. The cemetery will expand by about one-third.
"Look at who we'll be burying. It's mostly 50-year-old women," said Shedravyi, a chief repairman, who lost five of his friends.