Russia and Ukraine: Stories of the Search for the Bodies of Victims After the Discovery of 1,500 New Graves near Mariupol
- Hilary Anderson
- BBC Panorama
More than 1,500 new graves have been unearthed at a massive mass grave site near the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, according to an analysis of new BBC satellite images.
The site northwest of Mariupol contains a vast burial ground that Ukrainian officials and witnesses say contain thousands of bodies.
The city of Mariupol – a port city near the border with Russia – was a strategic target for the Russians.
From the beginning of the war, the city was relentlessly ravaged by air and land.
When it fell into Russian hands last May, the number of civilians who died inside exceeded thousands, and much of the city was destroyed.
Recent satellite images from Maxar showed three large burial sites near Mariupol in the villages of Manush, Stari Karim and Vinohradny, which have been steadily growing since the spring.
The Satellite Information Processing Center analyzed images from the village of Stary Karim for the BBC’s Panorama program and concluded that 1,500 new graves have been dug since the images were last analyzed on site in June.
It is estimated that more than 4,600 graves have been dug there since the war began, and the center still says it does not know the number of bodies buried there.
Ukrainian officials believe at least 25,000 people were killed in the fighting in Mariupol and that between 5,000 and 7,000 died under the rubble after their homes were bombed.
Witnesses in Mariupol told the BBC they had seen Russian authorities digging up bodies from the rubble of destroyed buildings in the city in recent months and taking them away for burial.
Olga Sagirova’s story is a summary of what many residents of Mariupol went through as she is the sole survivor of her family whose home was bombed by the Russians.
Her husband and parents were killed as a result, and like many others she fled the city and does not know where the bodies of her relatives are.
The 48-year-old accountant lived with her husband Valerie in a two-storey house with a landscaped garden in a residential part of Mariupol, and their two adult children lived elsewhere.
Although several areas of the coastal city were under Russian shelling in early March, the atmosphere in the area where Olga and her family lived was completely calm.
But Olga and her husband slept in the basement: “I cried all the time, and my husband tried to calm me down.
On the night of March 10, the fifteenth day of the Russian bombing, someone knocked on the door and Olga’s father, both in their eighties, watched with a shudder at what was happening.
Her house was bombed and set on fire, so Olga put her parents in the basement to sleep, but they didn’t want to, so she gave them a bedroom in the main house.
At half past nine in the evening, because of the silence of the bombing and his desire to rest, Valery rose from the basement.
But he repeated his assurances to Olga that if something happened, he would return.
At half past three in the morning, Olga woke up and heard the sound of an airplane, and suddenly the whole house collapsed on her.
“Everything happened in a split second,” says Olga. “Everything fell on me. Half my feet were buried and I couldn’t move. When I listened back, I could hear my husband’s voice somewhere, he said to Olga, help.” me, dig and get me out near the stairs.” “.
Olga could see Valery only a meter away from her, but she could not reach him. He was more buried than she.
She could only talk to him: “After a while he was breathing heavily, then fell silent.”
Alone in the dark, Olga tried to scream, but no one heard her. Finally she saw a torch coming towards her. Her neighbors tried to extricate her from the rubble. They could not do this and said they would be back by sunrise.
Olga was alone again, with her husband saying his last words, buried in the rubble beside her.
hours under the rubble
As dawn broke, Olga began to mark her surroundings. Looking up, she saw a slab of concrete leaning and threatening to fall on her.
“I knew there was nothing important anymore. I was dying. At that point, she says, I tried to commit suicide.”
Eventually her neighbors came back with others and tried to pull her out and managed to free one of Olga’s legs, but one of the concrete slabs was pressing against the other.
For another agonizing six hours they tried to free her right leg and finally decided to wrap a cable around her leg and pull hard on it.
“I was really scared they wouldn’t be able to get my leg out,” she continued.
After three attempts, Olga was able to be freed, but she broke her legs in several places and was unable to walk for about five months: “My right leg was completely crushed,” she said.
That night, Olga lost not only her husband, but also her parents, who were sleeping in the main part of the house when he was crushed.
But her ordeal was far from over: while Olga was being cared for in a nearby basement in Mariupol, more and more devastating news reached her.
Her sister and brother-in-law were murdered in her home three days ago.
“They were sitting in their garden drinking coffee when a bomb fell. I lost five of my closest people in a couple of days,” Olga said.
When she met Olga, she was safely living with her two adult children in Huizen near Amsterdam. She can now walk again after being confined to a wheelchair for months.
She is learning English and loves to go for walks and look at the flowers and gardens that remind her of home.
She is a warm, elegant and kind-hearted woman with a very kind smile. Olga told me that she was happy to be alive and believed that she could live.
When I texted her that day to wish her a happy birthday, she replied, “No matter what happens, life goes on and I understand that I have to live!”
She had spent most of the day crying.
By midsummer, she forced herself to stay awake into the early hours to stave off the nightmares and horrors she was experiencing. She endlessly scrolls through photos of her past life and says she still doesn’t quite understand what happened to her.
In her two adult children, Olga sees the image of her husband, she misses Valery so much that she can hardly stand it, and now Olga lives in a small apartment in a foreign country.
Olga has not been able to get any information about her family’s bodies, but suspects that they are still buried under the rubble of their home.
The Russians are now in control of the city, but Olga was told this summer that a body was stuck in the ruins of her old home.
Olga is just one of many people from Mariupol who cannot find the bodies of their missing loved ones.
Some were buried in mass graves in central Mariupol, dug by Ukrainians who braved the bombing raids to recover the bodies that littered the streets and homes.
In early March, Vagen Mnatsakanyan, a local ecologist, was trying to find a burial site for his father, who was killed in the fighting.
Fagen was disgusted that the morgue was full.
He went to local authorities to ask where he could bury his father and, realizing how many others were in the same situation, volunteered to begin organizing emergency burials.
He began assembling teams from other local residents to dig three mass graves in the city center for the Ukrainian city authorities. For five days in March, under intense bombardment, he and his team collected bodies from across Mariupol.
The bodies slid hastily into the trenches, often without body bags. “Some terrible days we were told that there were more than 100 bodies, and sometimes 150 bodies, that needed to be collected that day. There were so many that we couldn’t collect them all,” he said.
“One day a grenade flew at me and I had to jump into the mass grave for cover. I found myself close to the bodies, but I was glad to be alive.”
looking for my son
Tatyana, who lost her son in the fighting, was desperately looking for him and this summer she visited a mass grave site in Vinohradny near Mariupol in search of him.
She says she doesn’t know what happened to 26-year-old Yaroslav, who loved cars and dreamed of owning his own business.
But she says she was told he was killed by a sniper.
“If he doesn’t live, we want to bury him humanely,” she said.
“We counted more than 800 new graves,” adds Tatiana, who prefers not to use her last name. “Many people from the Russian-controlled city don’t want to talk openly about mass burials because they fear reprisals from the new authorities.”
A photograph was taken of the site at Vinohradny and many of the graves at the site are marked with small plaques bearing numbers and information about the sex of the victim but no names. “Most of the bodies are unidentified,” she said.
Others the BBC spoke to visited a makeshift morgue in Mariupol to try to locate loved ones this summer and were forced to view dozens of bodies lying uncooled on the ground.
“People need to know the truth about these atrocities so something like this doesn’t happen again,” Tatiana continued.
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