He was allowed 20 minutes to collect the scattered parts of his late friend and bury him.
This is Mykola. He's 53 years old. He lives in Bucha. Mykola is a bad stutterer. He enters into the conversation only after he lit a cigarette.
He's lived in the cellar for 34 days. He could have moved from the city, but he's super in a 5-story apartment block. Says he couldn't but stay. On the first day of fighting in Bucha, a shell came through his window, hit the wall, and got stuck in a kid's bed, which eventually caught fire. Luckily for him, he had his children evacuated by that time. They put out the fire and together with his three friends assisted all the elderly ladies and women to descend into the cellar straight away; they, too, relocated themselves into the basement.
When the Russians captured the town, they set out to break into every house. Men were taken outside, stripped naked, and searched for tattoos. Two of his friends, Serhiy and Leonid, were over 50, the namesake of his second friend, who was far younger than them. Having looked through his passport, they claimed he was under 50, which meant he could fight. He was knelt down and shot in his head.
Leonid was the first one Mykola buried. Right in the yard. At the transformer cabin. The crime scene is still stained with blood.
Serhiy passed away in a few days. He went outside to have a cigarette -- and had his bullet. For nothing. Without a word of warning.
When fighting grew heavier, Russians seemed to have gone raving mad. People would occasionally go outside -- for food or just for a breath of fresh air. But later they decided to lock themselves up. As the evening drew closer, the enemy started banging on the cellar doors. They were ordering us to open. Perhaps, they meant to break into and shoot us dead before they left the town. As they slaughtered the residents of one of the neighboring buildings, the man recalls.
Not being able to break into the cellar, the Russians threw a grenade on the staircase. It was Leonid holding tightly the door from the opposite side. The only man who remained alive, besides Mykola. A grenade went off. Then silence descended. His body had been left sprawled on the staircase covered in blood for 24 hours. It was not until the next day that he heard the second knock at the door and them saying he had 20 minutes for a clean-up. Then Mykola went outside and saw his friend with his head ripped off, his limbs flung in opposite directions.
Mykola collected the remains of his late friend into a plastic bag and dug out another grave. The third one already. He couldn't dig deep: he was running out of time and stamina -- he wasn’t young anymore, he recalls. So now his main concern is that with rain setting in, sand will wear off and the stray dogs will come.
Maybe, it is easy to lose hope amidst the horror, pain, and death. But as for now, I see a hero in Mykola. For he, having witnessed the worst in man, retained his humanity. The man could barely hold his tears back, talking on camera. And having gone off the record, he burst into tears and thanked for his sympathetic ear.
You look at the mass graves with the numb hands protruding from sand and you may easily lose faith in humanity, but it is those like Mykola who help to regain it.
Ukrainian Text by Oleksiy Pshemyskiy, translated into English byUkrainianvancouver team – Mar 25, 2022