BUCHA, Kyiv Oblast — With cameras clicking and reporters crowding around, three men in grey uniforms began pulling a dead civilian in a black body bag out of the ground.
Their movements were confident and precise. They have repeated the procedure dozens of times in recent days.
After Kyiv Oblast was liberated from Russian troops on April 1, local authorities found a large mass grave in Bucha, once a cozy suburb northwest of Kyiv, where Russians brutally killed hundreds of civilians.
On April 13, authorities exhumed 17 bodies, putting the total count at 72. Dozens more are presumed to be under the ground.
Bucha was under Russian occupation for weeks. When Ukrainian troops finally cleared the city, they discovered streets scattered with dead bodies of civilians: many shot in the head, some raped, and some with hands tied behind their backs.
In total, the authorities have so far discovered more than 400 people killed in Bucha, according to Kyiv Oblast Governor Oleksandr Pavliuk.
“They shot everyone. It was enough to speak Ukrainian,” said Ruslan Kravchenko, who heads Bucha’s District Prosecutor’s Office, wearing a jacket that said War Crimes Prosecutor written on the back. “These people had no weapons.”
“We have enough evidence to qualify this as a war crime,” he added.
Proper burial was impossible amid the fighting, so those residents remaining in the city buried dozens of people in a mass grave near a local church.
“Yesterday, we pulled out a mother with two children. Their bodies were burned,” Andriy Novikov, who works at the Main Investigation Department of Ukraine’s National Police, told the Kyiv Independent, as he was standing near his team documenting the proof of Russia’s atrocities in Bucha. The remaining family members told Novikov that the woman and her kids were driving in a van when Russians shot at them and tried to burn them after.
The mass grave in Bucha is thought to contain over a hundred people, placed in three rows near each other. Fifty-five people were already uncovered in one of the rows. By the end of the day on April 13, the police exhumed 17 more bodies in the second row. "But we only got halfway through here,” Kravchenko said, explaining that there are more bodies under the ground.
As the search was wrapping up, a man walked up to the cordon tape barrier.
“Can I go take a look?” he said. “I was the one who buried them.”
Novikov quickly lifted the tape, letting through Volodymyr Levchuk, a 57-year-old surgeon who worked at a hospital located half a block away from the mass grave.
When Russians occupied Bucha on March 3, the local hospital – a branch of Irpin City Polyclinic – continued operating under occupation for nearly two weeks. The Kyiv Independent interviewed the polyclinic’s chief doctor Anton Dovgopol about its work.
“Before evacuating our staff, we had to bury these people in a dignified manner,” Levchuk told the Kyiv Independent. On March 10, he and his colleagues buried 67 people, only 33 of whom were identified at the time.
After entering the city, Russians broke into Levchuk's hospital and demanded that staff discuss their every move with them. "For days, they wouldn't let us bury those people," Levchuk said. "We went to ask for permission every day, and they said no."
As a result of Russia's indiscriminate killing of Bucha's civilian population, bodies of killed Ukrainians were left all throughout the city.
"We couldn't bury anyone until the very end of the occupation," Levchuk said. "Dead bodies laid on the streets. People buried them in their backyards and gardens."
Finally, Russian soldiers stopped intervening in the burial, just watching the process from down the street.
Not all of those who the hospital's staff buried were killed during the war, Levchuk said. Some were patients that died of natural causes a few days or weeks before the war.
The surgeon insisted that there was another, the third row, in this mass grave, yet to be found with the 67 bodies he helped bury.
"Our grave was deeper," Levchuk said, instructing the police. "You have to dig deeper."
“There is still a lot of digging to do,” he added, as he walked away.