February 3, 2023

In Ukraine, A Body Bag and a Sister in Denial

6 min read

ZMIIV, Ukraine – The wind carried the smell of death to the streets. The dead man’s body, burnt, mutilated and barely recognizable, was removed from the refrigerator and placed on a metal grinder. The coroner lit a cigarette and unzipped the black bag.

It was a beautiful spring day. There was no shelling this morning. And Oksana Pokhodenko, 34, panting, blinking at the charred corpse. He was not her brother, she told herself, he was not Alexander. He was barely human.

Her brother once lived there. For 20 years after his father’s death, he was the head of the family. ۔ He kept calling – “Hello, little one. It was good. How are you?” But he never mentioned that the Russians had captured the village where he was hiding.

Ms. Pokhodenko, in black jeans, black jacket and barely lace sneakers, was struggling to keep her body looking. Her brother taught her how to ride a motorcycle and she loved watching cartoons for hours with her son. For his sister, it was a “stone wall.” It was burnt straw. The man’s skull was half gone, and his chest cavity was open.

“How is it possible to recognize anything here?” He cried. “Nothing left. Oh God. It’s terrible. Nothing left.”

On Tuesday morning, it was Ms. Pokhodenko’s job to identify the unrecognizable, to reconcile the unreconcilable, to write the name on the black corpse, to complete the paperwork, and so on. Such a great war that shook the world was suddenly just a body bag containing the remains of a man.

“We’ll be gone in a minute,” Coroner said. “Let me smoke.”

The coroner was tired. He was 51, had been employed for 25 years, and for security reasons, only gave his first name, Vitali. Since the start of the war in February, more than 50 bodies have come through the gates, including Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, who have been hit by rocket fire and tank shells and bullets from various fronts in eastern Ukraine. Ezim near or near the city. Chuhuiv city.

He was accustomed to the horror of how war made a body unrecognizable. There were no others.

“Take a sip of water,” Vitaly told Ms. Pokhodenko before entering the room with the body. “Did you take the mask with you? Here’s something, wearing a double layer. Only then.”

The masks were not for the coveted.

Ms Pokhodenko fled her home that morning to Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, which is now a regular target of Russian bombing. The coroner arranged for her to be picked up and, after buying a cigarette, headed for the morgue.

“All the horrible things are in front of me,” said Ms. Pokhodenko, standing in front of the morgue’s swinging wooden doors before entering. The building, a one-story brick monument built shortly before World War II, is surrounded by grass and stray dogs. A few days ago the rain had left pits in his yard where mud had risen and flowed away.

He had reason to be afraid. Her brother had not called since March 14. He last saw her on February 23, a day before the Russian invasion.

They were sitting outside in a parking lot in her second-hand sedan where she worked, quickly grabbing and handing over the bills she needed to pay for her elderly mother. He asked for coffee, but she refused. He had to return to his work.

“If I only knew I was going to see her one last time,” said Pokhudenko, her hair was back in the ponytail and her eyes were swollen with tears. “I would never let her go.”

Oleksandr Pokhodenko, 43, drove a delivery truck to the supermarket chain and lived in the Saltyoka neighborhood of Kharkiv. Russian forces began shelling the neighborhood from the start of the war, and Mr Pokhudenko, his wife and their 3-year-old son fled east to a small town. When the Russians captured the town, the family fled again, this time to the village of Hasarioka, with a population of about 1,060.

In early March, the Russians captured Hosarioka and the Ukrainians retaliated. Continuous shelling of the enclave. A village that no one had ever heard of, which once looked isolated from the world, had now become a theater of war.

On March 15, Mr. Pokhodenko and 57-year-old Mykola Pesario, a distant relative in Hasarioka who had taken the family inside, arrived at about 3 a.m. to pick up some potatoes for eight people living in Mr. Pesario’s basement. Took out The Russian military had assured them that they would be able to carry out the operation without interruption.

Mr. Peserio was a construction worker who served in the Soviet Army in the 1980’s. His wife also went to the morgue on Tuesday. He said he last saw her walking out the door to pick potatoes, and remembered that Mr Pokhudenko had stopped her just as he was about to leave. “Uncle Kolia,” he said, “let me come with you.”

The two men went out in the cold and never came back.

When Ukrainian troops recaptured Hosariyoka in late March, residents came out of their basements with horrific stories. The five men went missing after grazing cows on a farm they were using as Russian headquarters.. Then, on April 22, Ukrainian soldiers found two bodies they thought belonged to Mr. Pokhodenko and Mr. Pesirio, who had their throats cut. Soon, the bodies were taken to the morgue in Zmiiv.

Inside the morgue, Vitaly, the coroner, invited Ms. Pokhodenko and her companion, who had gone with him, to his cramped office with a pile of books and scrap paper, an old man hanging behind his desk. There was a painting of the ship. He pulled out his passport and explained why the two bodies were probably his brother’s and Mr Pacero’s.

“The little man was shot in the left side of his chest,” Vitaly said, referring to Mr Pokhodenko. “Here’s the passport. He’s been shot.”

The coroner showed it to Ms. Pokhodenko.

The edges of the passport were burned, but it was still readable. In the upper part of the book, through the portrait of Oleksandr Pokhodenko, his hair was firmly cut and his face was hard, a bullet hole. After Mr Pokhudenko was shot, the coroner said, his body was thrown into the fire, covered with tires and set on fire.

Ms. Pokhodenko composed herself and walked out into the courtyard in the hot sun, weeping at the sight of her brother’s body.

That was not it, he said. There was no way. The same height, perhaps, “but there was not a single skull.”

Ms. Pokhodenko’s colleague asked for an autopsy. The teeth seemed to belong to Mr. Pokhodenko, he insisted, so, after much discussion, the coroner placed his hands in the remains and removed that part of the skull along the top row of teeth.

Vitali didn’t need to use a saw because the joints of the body were no longer tight – the bone came out easily. He placed it on a metal mat outside the morgue, away from the rotting corpse.

Hours passed. Ms. Pokhodenko gave her statement to the police. But it will take another night for him to accept that his brother is no longer missing, but dead, lying in the middle of a morgue, a brutal war that had just begun.

His acceptance that it was Alexander, the height, the size of the feet and how the front teeth of the corpse were bent at a certain and familiar angle. She will wait for the results of the DNA test, but, for now, that is enough.

His thoughts turned to burying her, to the funeral to come, and to take her away from the horrors of the morgue.

“I don’t want my brother to be there for a month,” he said before burying Thursday. “It’s very cold in this room.”

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