Ukrainian widow searches for answers

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Associated Press ERIKA KINETZ

OZERA, Ukraine — Tetiana Boikiv watched from the cellar door as Russian soldiers interrogated the man she called her big, big love. They took him away and she never saw him again.

While it was the atrocities in the nearby town of Bucha that captured the world’s attention, they are part of a trail of violence that has spread far and wide, often under prosecutors’ radar, to ordinary villages like that of Boikiv, half an hour to the north. Much of the violence was systemic, not random, designed and implemented within Russian military command structures, according to an investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS Frontline series.

Troops have been instructed to blockade and destroy remnants of the “nationalist resistance,” according to Russian battle plans obtained by the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London. These clearing operations – zachistka, in Russian – took a sharper turn as the line between civilians and combatants blurred.

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Ukraine has made it incredibly easy for anyone with a cellphone connection to report the position of Russian troops, and many civilians are doing so. As Russian soldiers fight to quell what has effectively become participatory resistance, they have swept away many civilians who have done nothing at all.

Ukrainian prosecutors say they will deal with all crimes committed in this war, but they are scrambling to sort through more than 40,000 war crimes investigations. This left Boikiv largely alone to find her husband, Mykola Moroz, known to her friends as Kolia.

They had met in a botanical garden during a singles church outing. Boikiv, also known as Tania, moved to the village of Ozera just months before the Russian invasion to build a new life with Kolia.

Kolia got up before dawn to bring Boikiv fresh flowers from the fields. When they were apart, he sent her pictures of flowers on his phone.

He liked to collect small and beautiful things – stones, stamps, postcards, pieces of glass. In the evening, they took turns cooking. He made a better apple pie than her.

“Once Kolia has told me, Tania, what’s the point of living for yourself? It’s when you have someone next to you, you can feel happy,” she recalls.

After the Russians left, it was rumored that a priest in the village of Zdvyzhivka had pictures of people who had been killed.

Father Vasyl Bentsa had wanted to document the bodies of five strangers found in a garden behind one of the most luxurious houses in the city. He had therefore taken photos and then buried the men at the edge of a forest.

Boikiv went to him and scrolled through the images of the dead on his phone. At the third man, Boikiv froze.

There was Kolia, bloody and battered but intact. Her hands were clenched into fists and her body was fixed in a fetal position. His leg joints were bent at odd angles. One eye was swollen shut and his skull had been crushed.

“My Kolia! Kolia! ” She cried.

Father Bentsa said police had exhumed Kolia and four other people from their mass grave six days earlier. But Boikiv still didn’t know where to find him.

Kolia had been abducted the day after drone footage showed a Ukrainian rocket hitting Russian artillery munitions with such accuracy that Ukraine had likely obtained information about the Russian position from military intelligence, a drone – or a civilian observer. Cell tower records for Kolia’s cell phone numbers obtained by the AP show that his phone was last active on February 25, making it extremely unlikely that it was Kolia. But the Russians swept it away anyway.

Boikiv’s first stop in his efforts to find Kolia was Bucha’s morgue. But Kolia’s name was not on the body lists there.

Three large refrigerated trucks were parked outside. Boikiv and her friend went through dozens of bodies and looked at the faces of the dead. They haven’t found Kolia.

A few days later, she learned that two unidentified bodies from Zdvyzhivka had entered. By the time Boikiv returned to Bucha, the bodies were at the bottom of a pile of body bags in a refrigerated truck about to leave for a nearby town.

Boikiv began to cry and threatened to ride in the back with all the dead. She couldn’t let Kolia slip away again. The driver made room for him in the cabin.

When the truck was unloaded, Boikiv looked at Zdvyzhivka’s corpses. They were in such poor condition that it was difficult to be sure. Kolya opened his mouth and looked at the teeth. It wasn’t him.

Then she spotted Kolia’s shoe sticking out of a partially open bag. She recognized her husband by the shape of his skull, his beard and his trimmings.

“They took my great love,” she cried.

All that remains is to seek justice. The only official documentation Boikiv had was a thin strip of paper that her husband had died of multiple gunshot wounds on March 25, 2022. Boikiv doubted it was bullets that killed him.

She made a statement to Ukrainian authorities, but said she hadn’t heard from anyone since. Nor did anyone ask him to identify the soldiers who took him away.

She is not optimistic that those responsible for her husband’s death will be identified and punished. She’s also not convinced it would matter much.

“You won’t bring him back,” she said.

She was sitting at home in the dimming light, surrounded by the bed she had brought to share with Kolia, the water from the well he had dug, the little plastic blue and white butterflies that Kolia had pinned to their warped wallpaper.

“I understand that everything is in God’s hands,” she said. “And the time will come when people will be punished for this. The day of judgment awaits them.

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