WARNING: The following article contains graphic descriptions of death that some readers may find upsetting.

Oleksandr Chaly volunteered for the front in the first days of Russia's full-scale invasion. After being wounded in action and a long medical treatment and rehabilitation, he decided to help by exhuming dead bodies in the Makariv district, Kyiv region. He shares his emotions of appalling finds with a Kyiv Post correspondent.


When the war began, I was in Kryvyi Rih and immediately enrolled in the local territorial defense. We were formed into a unit and sent to a nearby village. We had to hold our positions. However, the enemy came very close and we were unable to repel the occupiers' column. First, massive artillery fire began, and then heavy weapons followed. One of the shells hit our dugout. Many fellows died then – half of the 80 persons were dead. The explosion threw me 20 meters away – I survived. Unconscious, shell-shocked, with my back slashed, I was taken to hospital.

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After a long treatment, I was transferred to a rehabilitation center near Kyiv. I was in a state of panic as I might be left alone. Thank God, a psychologist worked with me, and that was much help. I stayed there for more than a month. Many guys who survived the horrors of war were not able to return to a normal life. Scary pictures are constantly spinning in my head. The dead comrades, the groans of the wounded, even the smell of war are forever with me now. In order not to break down psychologically, I decided to distract myself by doing good deeds, helping people.

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After I had undergone rehabilitation and felt stronger, I decided to go to the local church and ask whether I could be of service. I was offered two options. The first was to go to Donetsk region with a humanitarian mission, the second option was to go to the places where corpses were found and take them to the morgue – that is, to work as an exhumer. I rejected the first option. Psychologically, morally and physically, I could not return to the combat zone. The second option was close to my heart. I felt that it was my special mission to help people find peace in their native land. Moreover, there were few volunteers willing to work in this direction – only four persons agreed. It was a team of people with nerves of steel.

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After the de-occupation, many bodies were found in Makariv district. They were in forests, basements of houses, in rivers, those who burned in cars - they all had to be taken and buried. Part of the funds for this was allocated by the local church, the other – by funeral bureaus. We worked for free. They gave us a separate house and a phone number for direct communication with the police. We worked at least three times a week, at most every day. Sometimes several corpses were found in one place. The first week I could neither sleep nor eat at all. Then I got used to it. What stuck in my mind the most were the cries of people who found their dead relatives, especially when parents recognized their children.

My first trip was to the river bank. A 40-45-year-old man's body was found there. Apparently, the occupiers threw him into the river, and he had been in the water for a long time until washed ashore. I remember he was lying with his hands tied behind his back, his face in the water. We were approaching him, when at a distance of 200 meters the stench of a decomposing body hit my nose. Did I get scared when I saw the first corpse? No. I was rather afraid of doing something wrong because I was doing it for the first time. I was afraid of harming the body. We carefully turned him over and saw a bullet hole in the heart area, the face was already difficult to recognize. We put the poor man's body in a special bag, zipped and carried it to the car to take it to the morgue. A week later, I already knew at what stage a decomposing corpse was by smell and what to do not to damage it.

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During the mission, I managed to exhume 52 bodies. Some 38 of them could not be identified. Almost all of the bodies had their hands tied behind their backs and bullet wounds, mostly in the head. The traces of these atrocities are frightening. In one of the basements, we found five elderly women and two girls. All of them had their hands tied and the traces of chaotic gunshot. Apparently, they were led into the basement and were shot there. Another family consisting of a grandmother, a mother, and a 13-year girl was killed in one of the houses. It was particularly difficult to work with the bodies of the murdered children. The thought swirled in my head for a long time – why were these little souls treated with such cruelty? The bodies of boys were also found.

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I remember one case very well. In one village, after the de-occupation, the father of the family collected weapons abandoned by the occupiers and took them to his house - whether for further sale, or simply loved weapons. His young son took one of his father's trophies to show off to his friends and accidentally shot himself in the chin. The boy was torn into pieces. He was 14 years old, and he was the only child in the family. The mother was shocked. The most frightening thing was that during the funeral procession we found the other hand and had to interrupt the priest's burial service to place the hand in the coffin until it was buried forever. It was very painful to be near the mother who lost her only son because of his father's negligence.

A mass grave is seen behind a church in the town of Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on April 3, 2022.

People in the villages told tragic stories. When the Russians occupied the villages, they were searching for our police officers who could cooperate with the Ukrainian authorities and told about their positions. If someone fell under suspicion, they entered the house and shot the eldest first – that is, the grandfather – in the head, and then killed all the men one by one before the eyes of the women. We found such victims in the houses and in the forest several times. The story about a large family in the village of Lypovka struck me. Their house was at the very entrance to the village. There lived a woman who, in addition to her own children, had many adopted children. It was a big and friendly family. When the occupiers' column arrived, they took aim at this very house from the tank. It was impossible to establish how many children died there. The house was reduced to ashes, there was nothing to bury... an empty playground remained there.

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The most difficult task was to scrape the burnt bodies from the cars. They clung tightly to the car seats and had to be cut out along with the upholstery and then separated. The people I had to pull out of the cars were almost all couples – a man and a woman who were fleeing the war with hope of salvation. Unfortunately, they suffered a terrible death, being burned alive... We also pulled out people with bullet wounds from the cars – it was clear that the occupiers were shooting at close range.

Most of the bodies we found were men shot dead with their hands tied. About 40% of the corpses could not be identified, but we buried them according to all canons with the sign "unrecognizable" in the cemetery.

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We took all the dead we found to the morgue. Whether the body was recognized or not, I was present at all burials and stayed there until the coffin was buried. It was important for me to bring the story of each person to the end. That is how I had lived for two months. Then at one point, I realized that my mission was over. I accompanied 52 people who died a violent death because of the terrible war that came to Ukraine on their final journey. I was able to make these innocent souls find peace in their native land.

It is unlikely that I would forget what I experienced during this war: the stench of the dead and the cries of mothers standing near their child's coffin. However, I am sure we should not give up under any circumstances. Today, everyone who brings our victory closer and does something for people is very important. Every soul is important. Now I continue to work for charity. I help disabled children. Ukraine's victory is coming soon, and there will be even more work. Who knows what mission I still have ahead?

As told to Kyiv Post reporter Marichka Palamarchuk

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