May 27, 2022

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Mayor exhumed as Ukraine confronts grim cost of war

Mayor exhumed as Ukraine confronts grim cost of war

The funeral of the Gostomel mayor plays out in reverse. His body is pulled out from the ground, the crowd of mourners disperses, then a priest hugs his weeping wife and says a few kind words.

Yuriy Prylypko “was a great patriot, a great man”, says Father Petro Pavlenko. “He was loved.”

Prylypko was killed on March 7, after Russian forces rolled into the Kyiv commuter town he managed. The municipal council said he was shot dead while “handing out bread to the hungry and medicine to the sick”.

Pavlenko collected his buckled corpse in a wheelbarrow and oversaw a burial in a shallow grave between the Church of the Intercession of the Blessed Virgin and a pistachio green local government building.

On Tuesday, AFP saw the grave exhumed as Ukrainian war crime investigators opened a probe.

Workers hauled the mayor from the earth using a wide yellow cord. Police videotaped his wounds, including a bloody head injury.

His wife Valentyna wept as a group of around 30 mourners looked solemnly on. Then the body was sealed in a crumpled black body bag and placed in a van.

‘Shot without any reason’
Gostomel — a town on the cusp of Kyiv — is where Russia’s northern offensive was turned back by Ukraine.

After President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion on February 24, troops stationed in Belarus swiftly occupied the area. However, they were hammered by air strikes and could advance no further.

Since Russia called off its assault on the capital to regroup for a push in the east, Ukrainian authorities have retaken control and started to pick through the wreckage.

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The town of Bucha — one short bridge south of Gostomel — has been the focus of international attention after AFP discovered the bodies of 20 people strewn along one single street.

Ukraine says Russian forces executed civilians, while the Kremlin denounced photos of the scene as fakery.

However Gostomel, the site of a bitter battle over an airfield coveted by Russian commanders, also witnessed its own share of suffering.

“The town council has counted the number of missing at up to 400,” said regional prosecutor Andriy Tkach.

“We are figuring out who was shot. Perhaps not all the bodies are found.”

The mayor is among those whose fate is known.

“According to the preliminary information, he was shot without any reason, together with his driver,” says Tkach, observing the exhumation wearing a vest printed with the title “war times prosecutor”.

A second funeral

In Gostomel on Tuesday the final moments of other citizens were also being pieced together.

AFP saw the body of Oleksandr Karpenko pulled from a garden grave as his mother Lyudmyla paced the path in a frenzy of grief.

Lyudmyla, her head wrapped in a black shawl, fell to the ground as it departed in a van. Father Pavlenko comforted her as it left, mumbling words of consolation.

The bodies of Gostomel are taken to a refrigerated lorry trailer in nearby Bucha where they are stored awaiting autopsy and formal funeral rites.

It is cooled to 5.7 degrees Celsius (42 degrees Fahrenheit) and marked with a stamp reading “approved for transport of perishable foodstuffs”.

There are perhaps 30 or 40 body bags inside already, and two more trailers on standby for those still to come.

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“I have never done this before, but our citizens are murdered and we must bury every person in the right way,” said Igor Karpishen after loading a batch of the bodies.

“I don’t have any words to express these feelings.”

“Welcome to peace,” the 46-year-old says with a hint of hope as he slams the lorry door shut, closing the unhappiest chapter in the history of his home.