By Clodagh Kilcoyne
KAMYANKA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Nina Melenets finally buried her son in November, more than seven months after she said he was killed by shelling in their village in eastern Ukraine.
The 62-year-old is still looking for her husband, Serhiy, who has been missing since late March. Her surviving son has given DNA samples to forensic experts to see if there is a match among the bodies exhumed from a mass grave nearby in the city of Izium.
“It will be easier for our hearts if they match the DNA,” Melenets told Reuters in Izium, where she had rented a small house for a few days.
“We will know where he lies,” she added, holding her hand close to a gas flame on her cooker for warmth. “We spent 44 years together. We spent our whole lives together.”
Thousands of civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, and thousands more are missing as fighting rages in the east and south and frontlines shift.
The task of identifying the dead is complex, as is trying to track people who are unaccounted for.
The Hague-based International Commission on Missing Persons, an intergovernmental organization, estimates that more than 15,000 people have gone missing across Ukraine during the war, including detainees, those separated from their loved ones and people killed and buried in makeshift graves.
For Melenets, the journey has been long and painful, and it is not over.
She recently returned to the east of Ukraine to organise the funeral of her elder son, Oleksandr, who was 44 when he died in fighting in their home village of Kamyanka early in the conflict.
Even though Russian forces have been driven back from the area and Ukraine now controls the territory, she and her 37-year-old son Mykola doubt they will ever return for good.
“We could come home but now there is nothing there. Our village is totally destroyed.”
BURIED BY VILLAGERS
Melenets has been trying to piece together what happened to her husband and elder son.
Reuters could not independently verify her account, and she has relied partly on testimony from friends and neighbours who stayed behind in Kamyanka.
Russia’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the missing cases mentioned in this article or on missing Ukrainians more broadly.
Melenets said she left her home village with Mykola and some other residents on March 21, when the Russians took control and allowed them to evacuate. Serhiy and Oleksandr decided to stay to protect their homes and help others get out.
A few days later, a shell struck close to her son Oleksandr’s single-storey house and killed him.
Russian troops who found him asked local residents who he was and covered his body with tarpaulin. Villagers later buried him on the spot, they told his mother. Serhiy, 65, went missing at about the same time and has not been found.
In October, when Ukrainian forces marched back into Kamyanka following a counter-offensive, Oleksandr’s body was exhumed and taken to the recaptured city of Izium where it was stored.
In early November, the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office set up a temporary mobile laboratory for DNA testing at a local police station there to help relatives identify loved ones.
In Izium, people queued in the cold, waiting for their turn to climb the stairs to an office where their documents were processed. Paperwork was stacked high and officials struggled to cope with the number of visitors.
Once registered, relatives, including Mykola, went into the mobile DNA lab to have saliva swabs to be compared against the recovered bodies.
In Levkivka, a village about 11 miles (18 km) from Izium, Anna Ozerianska is also looking for her husband, who she said was taken away by pro-Russian forces on April 12 and has not been heard from since.
The 61-year-old has put up posters of him around Izium, hoping that someone may have heard something about the fate of her husband Oleksandr, whom she calls Sasha.
“Sometimes I wake up early in the morning, I have to get up, but I don’t know where to start,” she told Reuters. “I bury my head in my pillow and think, what should I do now?”
Ozerianska keeps her phone at the home of her friend Lena, who has a mobile signal, in case she receives a call about Sasha from the missing persons administration office.
MINES, CRATERS AND DEATH
The day after Mykola visited the DNA lab, his brother Oleksandr’s coffin was taken from a morgue in Izium to the cemetery in Kamyanka to be buried in the presence of a small number of relatives and neighbours.
On a dank, misty morning under a flat grey sky, the group walked slowly along a path through the overgrown grass and scrub, careful not to tread on “butterfly” mines that littered the ground and were hard to distinguish from autumnal leaves.
The graveyard was marked by craters from earlier fighting, and crosses stood askew from the impact.
Melenets wept over the coffin covered in embroidered cloth. The thud of distant explosions could be heard. The mourners cried as Oleksandr was lowered into the ground. Mykola held his mother close.
Outside the cemetery, the people said their farewells. As they were leaving, another van arrived carrying a coffin. This time there was no-one to greet it and it was quickly taken away to be buried.
The Melenets visited their home village before heading back west, to near the Carpathian mountains, where they have settled.
Like many other buildings in Kamyanka, Nina and Serhiy’s house had been flattened to rubble, with only a few walls partially standing.
Wooden ammunition boxes were strewn on the side of a dirt track, the letter “Z” used by Russian forces was painted in white on cars, fences, tanks and houses, and a burnt-out armoured vehicle lay on its side.
“Thank you Russia,” Melenets said as she surveyed the devastation. “This is the gift you give us.”
See photo essay here
(Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Pravin Char)