MYKULYCHI, Ukraine — This is not where Nadiya Trubchaninova thought she would find herself at 70 years of age, hitchhiking daily from her village to the shattered town of Bucha trying to bring her son’s body home for burial.
The questions wear her down, heavy like the winter coat and boots she still wears against the chill. Why had Vadym gone to Bucha, where the Russians were so much harsher than the ones occupying their village? Who shot him as he drove on Yablunska Street, where so many bodies were found? And why did she lose her son just one day before the Russians withdrew?
Now 48-year-old Vadym is in a black bag in a refrigerated truck. After word reached her that he had been found and buried by strangers in a yard in Bucha, she has spent more than a week trying to bring him home for a proper grave. But he is one body among hundreds, part of an investigation into war crimes that has grown to global significance.
Trubchaninova is among the many elderly people left behind or who chose to stay as millions of Ukrainians fled across borders or to other parts of the country. They were the first to be seen on empty streets after the Russians withdrew from communities around the capital, Kyiv, peering from wooden gates or carrying bags of donated food back to freezing homes.
Some, like Trubchaninova, survived the worst of the war only to find it had taken their children.
She last saw her son on March 30. She thought he was taking a walk as part of his long recovery from a stroke. “It would be crazy to go farther,” she said. She wonders whether he went driving to search for a cellphone connection to call his own son and wish him happy birthday.
More than a week later, she found his makeshift grave with the help of a stranger with the same name and age as her son. The following day, she spotted the body bag containing Vadym at a Bucha cemetery. He always stood out as tall, and his foot stuck out from a hole in the corner. Anxious not to lose him, she found a scarf and tied it there. It is her marker.
She believes she knows where her son’s body is now, in a refrigerator truck outside Bucha’s morgue. She is desperate to find an official to hurry the process of inspecting her son and issuing the documents needed to release him.
“I get worried, where he’d go, and whether I’d be able to find him,” she said.
Once she collects his body, she’ll need a casket. A casket equals a month of her pension, or about $90. She, like other elderly Ukrainians, hasn’t received her pension since the war began. She gets by selling the vegetables she grows, but the potatoes she meant to plant in March withered while she was hiding in her home.
Her aging cellphone keeps losing battery life. She forgets her phone number. Her other son, two years younger than Vadym, is unemployed and troubled. Nothing is easy.
“I would walk out of this place because I feel it’s so hard to be here,” Trubchaninova said, sitting at home under a tinted black-and-white photo of herself at age 32, full of determination.
She recalled watching her television, when it still worked, in the early days of the war, as broadcasts showed so many Ukrainians fleeing. She worried about them. Where are they going? Where will they sleep? What will they eat? How will they remake their lives again?
“I felt so sorry for them,” she said. “And now, I’m in that situation. I feel so lost inside. I don’t even know how to describe how lost I am. I’m not even sure I’ll put my head on this pillow tonight and wake up tomorrow.”
Like many Ukrainians of her age, she worked without taking time for herself, determined to give her children an education and a better life than her own. “Those were my plans,” she said, agitated. “What plans do you want me to have now? How do I make new plans if one of my sons is lying there in Bucha?”
On Thursday, she waited outside the Bucha morgue again. After another long day without progress, she sat on a bench in the sun. “I just wanted to sit in nice weather,” she said. “I’m going to go home. Tomorrow I’ll come again.”
Across town was the kind of closure that Trubchaninova wants so badly. At a cemetery, two 82-year-old women rose from a bench and crossed themselves as the now-familiar white van arrived carrying another casket.
The women, Neonyla and Helena, sing at funerals. They have performed at 10 since the Russians withdrew. “The biggest pain for a mother is to lose her son,” Neonyla said. “There is no word to describe it.”
Like Trubchaninova, they hadn’t fled ahead of the Russians. This is our land, they said.
They joined the priest at the foot of the grave. Two men with handfuls of tulips attended, along with a man with cap in hand. “That’s it,” a gravedigger said when the exhausted-looking priest was finished.
Another man with a gold-ink pen wrote basic details on a temporary cross. It was for a woman who had been killed by shelling as she cooked outside. She was 69.
A row of empty graves lay waiting.
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