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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine—It was the terrible stench they remembered as they left Mariupol. Before Russian airstrikes it was a city of nearly half a million people. Today dead bodies are still rotting under the debris of bombed buildings while only a few hundred Ukrainian soldiers continue to hold on.
It is possible to escape from a burning city but the smell—like the pain of loss—stays with you for a long time.
Shells crashed around the Lyubomirsky family and their friends as they carried a stretcher and pushed a wheelchair 11 miles from their still-burning home. The seven of them could not stop talking about the “demons” that destroyed their happy life.
Most of the refugees, who had been trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol without food or supplies for weeks, were Russian-speakers. The very people President Vladimir Putin claimed he wanted to protect.
Ever since he sent the army to Ukraine, Moscow has denied killing any civilians and baselessly blamed the atrocities on Ukraine.
The four members of the Lyubomirsky family and their three neighbors escaped on April 7 from the hellish war zone, their city now resembling Dresden after the bombings of World War II. “You might know the smell of rotten meat but this was deeper. The smell of rotting human bodies and of bodies being burnt in crematoriums was everywhere,” Mariupol siege survivor Vitaly Lyubomirsky told The Daily Beast.
The latest debate in Kyiv is about who should document the crimes of this war and how. Independent international groups including Amnesty International are preparing reports focusing on airstrikes targeting the civilian population, and soldiers raping civilian women, torturing or executing civilians, or burning bodies of the victims. Thousands of Ukrainians including more than 200 children have been killed in the war.
Yuriy Fenenko, a pathologist in the city of Chernihiv, has examined hundreds of bodies since Feb. 24. “Out of 139 bodies that we received in our morgue in the past two weeks, after the Russian occupation, at least 20 had hands tied up behind their backs; about 40 percent of them were executed in the back of their heads,” he told The Daily Beast. “There must be a group of forensic experts analyzing the evidence of war crimes, such as executions, rape, or the bombing of lines of civilians queueing up to get bread or outside the pharmacy, the bombing of residential apartment blocks—criminology experts should analyze each particular case.”
Experts agree that even having thousands of investigators and journalists working in the field, Ukraine cannot document all the atrocities and investigate each bombing. “It will take us years to put together records of each crime,” Fenenko said.
Father Serhiy, the principal bishop of Mariupol and the Donetsk region, told The Daily Beast that he had encountered countless horror stories.
One of the victims he met was an Orthodox Christian believer called Yelena, 15, who was raped. Her mother and her brother were beaten. The trauma was so terrible that she broke down at the refugee hub in Dnipro ten days after the attack as soon as she saw men in uniform. “Several DPR soldiers raped Yelena at Mariupol checkpoint, her mother told me that there were several men. So when policemen came to our refugee hub, Yelena began to shake, as if she was having a seizure,” Serhiy said.
The priest was struggling to feed about 2,000 refugees every day, most of them survivors from Mariupol. “Whoever can help our refugee hub, please help us with food. Russian bombs destroyed our church on Otkrytaya street of Mariupol, Russian bombs killed thousands of our countrymen, Russian soldiers raped 15-year-old Yelena, and they continue to commit war crimes even three days before Easter—they must be demons,” he said.
Mariupol’s deputy mayor, Stepan Maksma, is helping tens of thousands of refugees with transport, accommodation, and food, while still processing the tragedy himself. “The Russian Army has committed genocide in our peaceful city, where none of us Russian-speakers had ever suffered from Ukrainian nationalists. Now soldiers are getting rid of the dead bodies—more than 6,000 civilians have been killed in this war,” Maksma told The Daily Beast.
Earlier this week, survivors of the Mariupol siege were waiting on a train to travel west. It was a train full of pain.
Most of the passengers were women. A kindergarten teacher, Olga Goncharova, 46, was escaping from Melitopol because of her teenage daughter Kristina, 17. The mother and daughter were holding hands. “We began to read about rape and got scared. Earlier this month Russian soldiers began to arrest people in Melitopol, take them out and leave them on the road about 50 kilometers away from the city, everybody who disagrees with them and refuses to work. One of them was my colleague, she is missing,” Goncharova told The Daily Beast, trying—and failing—to hold back tears. “The feeling of horror choked us, we left everything we had, our two-room apartment, our summer cottage.”
There are tears everywhere. Even after decades of experience as a forensic pathologist, Fenenko could not help it: he welled up twice during our interview at his morgue in Chernihiv. His pain was understandable, Chernihiv’s giant apartment blocks, schools, bridges were horribly disfigured. Fenenko placed little plastic bags full of bullets on the table. One of the plastic bags contained three bullets removed from dead bodies. The paper tag inside the plastic bag bears the name of a nearby village, Krasne—the body has not yet been identified. Another bullet is tagged with the actual name of its victim, Metik. Fenenko points at the bullet: “This bullet was in his head. The man’s hands were tied up behind.”