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Igor Sereda at work in Bucha

‘We dug up an old woman in а diaper’ Igor Sereda buries the dead for living. Now he’s exhuming the bodies of civilians killed outside Kyiv during Russian occupation.

Source: Meduza
Igor Sereda at work in Bucha
Igor Sereda at work in Bucha
Photo courtesy of Igor Sereda

More than a thousand civilians have died in the Kyiv region since the onset of war. Most of these people died in areas that the Russian military temporarily occupied. Igor Sereda, 24, heads a mortuary service in one of these settlements — a town called Nemishaieve. Since February 24, Sereda had to bury the deceased from nearby villages under Russian fire. When the suburbs of Kyiv were finally liberated, he began working in Bucha, exhuming the mass graves and temporary burial sites. Meduza special correspondent Lilya Yapparova spoke to Sereda about wartime funerals, and what he learned about Russian soldiers during the occupation.

How did you become Nemishaieve’s head mortician?

My father supplied mortuary services in the village for 20 years. He first brought me to a morgue when I was 14.

Because of my back problems, we had to visit the Pechersk military hospital, and suddenly he said to me, “I know someone at the morgue here. Would you like to drop in?” I was really young and wanted to prove to him that I was a “man.”

I remember the smell — that was new to me. And when I saw someone being autopsied — all carved up, skull cut open — I felt something like the presence of the unknown. I was used to live people, and here was a man with his organs being removed and examined, his heart taken out… That’s how I became conscious of death.

My father understood that I wasn’t afraid, and from age 16, I’d go with him to collect the deceased from accident sites and from their homes. To turn them over for forensic autopsy. To embalm, to get them dressed. When I got a driver’s license at 18, I began to go out by myself. And when I was 20, father passed away, and since then I’ve done his work on my own. I’m now 24.

Did you want to continue the family business?

It just happened that way. My father, by the way, didn’t really want me to go into mortuary services. “You don’t need that,” he’d say. It’s very stressful work. He was only 45 when he had a stroke.

That happened in early September, right at the beginning of the school year. I was in college, studying for the state fiscal service and living in the barracks. Apart from burials, we were also making tombstones, and people began to call and ask: where’s our headstone? I thought I’d take a week’s sick leave just to pick up the loose ends with all the sculptures we owed. Plus, I had to drive my mom to the hospital, and to buy medications for my dad.

One week passed, and then a second week. My father was still in a coma. And then he passed away. At the university, they told me, either you leave completely, or you return to the barracks. And at the same time, the calls from our community council began: “You’ve learned the craft! Why don’t you get on with it? We need help here, there, and there.”

It’s just that there a very few funeral services; no one wants to do this work. I took a little time to think it over and decided to stick with the mortuary work.

It’s a very specific kind of job. People don’t want to do it, but someone has to. That’s why I didn’t leave Nemishaeve when the war began. I understood right away that I was staying. My mom also didn’t want to leave — she stayed until March 9.

Russian troops entered Nemishaieve in the first days of March. What was the start of occupation like?

In the first days [of the war], we held the funerals as usual: there was a priest, and a procession. We hoped right until the end that they wouldn’t enter Nemishaieve. When they did enter, we didn’t know at first what to expect from them. But we soon understood what kind of people they are.

If the Russians were out driving and you drove out towards them, they would shoot. Either in the air, or directly at your car. As for deliberate killing, like in Bucha, here they killed 20 civilians [over the course of the town's occupation].

In the [nearby] Mykulichi, where I have a funerary store, some Buryat [serviceman] was entering the properties, knocking at the gates. And when they opened their gates, he’d simply shoot the owner point-blank in the forehead. He’d stop, he’d kill, he’d walk some more. Stop, kill, and walk. He shot five people like that.

At first, there was still communication, and people could call me: “We have a deceased person here — please come and bury him.” When there weren’t Russians in sight, we would go out to bury. It’s our luck, too, that all the streets in Nemishaeve are very long — half a kilometer, sometimes a whole kilometer. You come out, look around, and see nobody. So, you drive to the end of the road. At the next one, you look again and repeat. That’s how you got around town.

In Mykulichi, the situation was a bit more difficult: their whole main street was patrolled. We couldn’t come over to conduct a funeral—and people buried the dead in their own yards.

10-year-old Vova before the funeral of his mother Marina, who died during the Bucha occupation. April 20, 2022.
Emilio Morenatti / AP / Scanpix / LETA

How did people feel about your work during the occupation?

We never thought that someone was going to notice our work. It was always so much in the background… And people here have always considered morticians to be the “bad guys”: in Kyiv, a funeral costs 25,000 hryvnias [about $850], while right here it’s just 8,000. That includes the coffin, the cross, digging the grave, the hearse, carrying it in and out, and lowering into the grave. But it’s still very expensive for the people who live here, and we constantly heard complaints.

So, when they started thanking us for our work during the war… I thought to myself, “Wow, have they actually noticed you?”

Everyone in the village knew the location of our morgue. I’m using the word “morgue” figuratively here. We never had our own morgue in Nemishaieve. In the hospital, inside the emergency ward, there was a laundry room. It was the coldest room in the building. [When the war began], we broke the lock and stored the bodies there.

At times, locals themselves would bring the dead to the morgue. For example, this is what happened when a man was shot near “Fora,” and volunteers went out when no Russians were spotted in the area, picked up the body from the street, and brought him in. And then they messaged us: “Bury him.” We grabbed a coffin and did just that.

Generally, we’ve tried not to delay funerals; knowing we could be next, we don’t let things drag on. Or if, God forbid, lots of people are killed all at once.

Do you remember the first person you buried in this war?

It was my classmate. That day, we buried four people at once, because, just a few hours apart, an artillery shell had killed a good acquaintance of mine, the volunteer Serhiy Raskevich, and then my classmate was also killed. Then, one more man drove into a roadblock and died in the crash. And an elderly man passed away — just from natural causes.

My classmate, it seems, was stabbed in the throat. It’s all because of wartime alcohol: he came from a dysfunctional family, and after [February] 24, they kept warning him, “Don’t drink.” But he started to drink, and there was a Russian checkpoint on the Warsaw Highway [that passes through the Kyiv region]. He went up to them — and I don’t know, what sort of a situation took place there, but they say that he was simply stabbed.

To be honest, I had a question about that wound during his burial. Everyone keeps saying that they stabbed him, but I see that it’s not a cut wound — it’s from a shard. Because the wound is wide, and there’s burned flesh along the edges.

His brother and his friends say that they saw him being struck with a knife, but the knife wounds I’ve seen look completely different. I don’t have any medical training, but I have some experience — even in peacetime, I pick up the bodies of people who have been killed.

One of the volunteers who exhume bodies in Bucha. April 12, 2022.
Rodrigo Abd / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Is it hard to bury people you knew well?

It’s very painful. I’m really grieved about Serhiy — he was a volunteer and had done so much to help. He had a daughter a little younger than me, and a son who is a little older. It hurts that such a person died. He was a really great guy.

We had a bunker at our school, and during the war as many as 700 people gathered there to shelter. Sometimes, we’d show up there with all the provisions we had: food, medications — anything we could get our hands on. When people started being wounded, we had to break into a pharmacy to get the medicines we needed. That day [when Raskevich was killed], we took some of them to the town’s community center (there was an operating room set up there), and then took the rest to the bunker. We loaded two cars, our own and Serhiy’s. Our car got there first, and we unloaded everything and left. Fifteen minutes later, they called us and said that Serhiy, who was driving the other car, was dead. This was the same place we’d just left, 15 minutes earlier. The artillery shell had crashed 10 meters [about 33 feet] away from him.

We wanted to pick him up right away, but they told us not to come: “Don’t, there are Russians here now.” It began to get darker, bit by bit, and he was still lying on the road all this time. Then our priest volunteered: “Why don’t I put on my cassock and go pick him up. Maybe they won’t touch a priest?”

In the end, his relatives rolled him up in a blanket, put him in a car, and drove off. Serhiy’s wife helped dig his grave.

What do wartime funerals look like?

During the war, you do everything so quickly that… Well, while my guys are digging at the cemetery, I’m driving to the home, picking up the deceased, and geetting him into a coffin, and by the time I’ve brought him to the graveyard, the hole is ready. We lower him down, dig him in, and leave. So much for the ceremony. We have to bury the person inside an hour.

Burials under fire are scary at first: an artillery shell comes down and explodes, and you’re afraid even to go there. But after a week or two, you begin to sort out what’s falling, where it’s coming from, and you can guess whether it’ll reach you or not. The grave takes a couple of hours to dig. To do this in the open and right under fire… Well, you just dig as much as you can while it’s quiet.

We’ve tried to bury every person in a coffin. My store in Mykulichi, the neighboring village, was always open — if I couldn’t be there, people would just come in and take the coffins themselves.

If they could pick up a coffin, they’d also grab a cross. Sometimes, I’d just toss a couple of coffins into the car, just in case, to save that extra trip of five kilometers [about three miles]. If there were no crosses left, I’d just remember who was buried where, and later I’d come back and put up a cross.

When crosses began to run out, we put one cross for two people on the mass graves. In peacetime, the plaque [attached to the crucifix] has place for four lines: surname, name, patronymic, and the dates of birth and death. We would use two lines for one person, and two more for the other.

If we didn’t have all the information about a person (for example, with the bodies brought from Bucha), we’d write simply, “Bucha, (last name), (initials).” And we’d mark an arrow on the plaque to show that the person from Bucha was buried on the right. This one man from the village of Klavdiievo had such an unusual patronymic that we wrote just that on the plaque and marked with an arrow that he is placed on the left.

I made those marks on temporary burial sites so I could remember. So, later on, I can understand who’s being exhumed.

Exhumation of civilians killed in Bucha. April 13, 2022
Efrem Lukatsky / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Did the Russian troops try to control the funerals? 

We didn’t ask. We didn’t go to them for permission to dig a grave. We just went at our own risk.

But once, two women called us from [the village of] Myrotske. A mother and a daughter. “Can you come and do a burial?” they asked. I said, “You have Russians over there. How am I supposed to come?” So, she went to them and made arrangements at a nearby checkpoint for them to let me through.

When we got there, they stuck letters “V” all over our car and all sorts of white ribbons. We entered the house, and the Russians came to supervise us while we placed the old man in his coffin.

They escorted us to the graveyard; we were driving ahead, and an APC [armored personnel carrier] followed us. While we dug the grave, three soldiers with machine guns stood behind us, not letting us look up, saying, “You digging there? Keep digging.” So, there you are, digging a hole and wondering whether it’s for you or for someone else, in the end.

Those killed during the Russian occupation often had to be buried not by professionals, but by their own relatives. Graves began to appear in people’s courtyards and gardens. Do those bodies need to be exhumed now?

Yes, we are now exhuming those bodies to give them a proper burial. If we couldn’t reach somewhere (some villages were cut off completely [by the Russian army]), people would bury their own dead.

Some people buried those bodies in large plastic bags. Others hammered together boxes — homemade coffins. Some bodies were just buried in bedspreads, wrapped in plastic. Sometimes, boards from a cabinet were placed over those wrapped-up bodies. The people who did this knew they’d have to open these graves later, and they knew the boards would prevent damage from shovels. Only a few people thought of this, but it’s really helping us now, of course.

Those who made their own coffins often made things only worse. The soil there is wet and heavy, the coffin weighs about 60 kilograms [132 pounds] — and there’s a body inside. When two of us arrive on site, it’s very hard for us to lift it out. Sometimes, we just break open the cover and remove the body.

Still, with all this, people of course place little stick crosses over the graves. They plant flowers, leave candies [for the deceased], and toys for children. They treat it like it’s a graveyard.

A Hostomel resident by the graves on his garden plot. April 2, 2022
Mikhail Palinchak / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

After the liberation of the Kyiv region, you began to work in Bucha, to collect bodies, exhume mass graves, and bury the dead anew. Do you remember your impressions on the first day of this work?

Well, it was a shock at first. Because we were out of communication and had no idea what was going on in Borodianka and Bucha. We thought that everyone had it the way we did. And we had up to 20 people killed [in our village]. And we thought that was a horror of horrors — that it was bloody murder.

And then you show up at the hospital, and they rattle off a list of addresses all over Bucha: “You’ll collect the bodies. I’ll tell you where, so write it down.” I sat down, opened my notebook, wrote it down, and then I said, “Alright, off I go.” And the guy goes, “Hold on, that’s not all” and names 20 more sites. Every day, we worked from seven in the morning until late. I’d get up in the morning, drink my coffee, and wouldn’t come back until after dark. For the first couple of weeks, all we did was drive the deceased from one place to another.

Each address had between one to seven bodies. You’re given an address, and you don’t know what you will find there. No idea how many bodies. You don’t have a clue. Thank goodness, at least, that I never came upon any children.

Do you remember the first time you saw Bucha’s Yablonskoi Street, strewn with bodies?

The only thing running through my head were obscenities. You’d never see such a thing in peacetime. Police and soldiers driving by, and the bodies are just lying there. And not just one body — there are hundreds of them. We moved them by the hundreds! I would load 16 at a time into my car! Sixteen in one trip.

They travel with you in the car, just a foot or two behind you. That smell cannot be compared to anything — not with a dead animal, not with spoiled food. There’s nothing like it. It’s a very specific smell.

In peacetime, you go and pick up an elderly woman or an old man, often right out of their beds. Here, first we collected bodies from the streets, and then we’re digging them up in people’s courtyards. Bodies that were torn apart and broken. They were still covered in blood or already decomposed. You remove one from a mass grave, and the arms are already separated from the rest. The legs, too.

It’s just that, when you see such a quantity of dead people… Like three trucks completely filled with stacks of bodies. It’s something you have to see for yourself — it’s indescribable. When your morgue simply cannot hold that many bodies, and you have to move them straight to the cemetery and pile them up, a hundred here, 150 there. This is not normal. This cannot be. 

So, try to estimate that total number of bodies that we dug up [more than 1,000, according to officials in Kyiv]. They were killed in that quantity — they didn’t just die; they were killed. Six morgues. Each with two refrigerators. And each refrigerator is filled with about 100 bodies. This is at least 1,000 people dead.

This footage contains disturbing images.

Video made by Igor Sereda at work during the war
Courtesy of Igor Sereda

Were you able to learn something about the deceased while exhuming them?

Occasionally, we could tell the exact age of the deceased. This was shocking. People the same age as me, sometimes a little older. Disabled people. Elderly grandmothers simply shot in the head.

We dug up two guys in Bucha, born in 1993 and 1995, and a woman born in 1996. I knew them all. They were volunteers. They’d go around in a BMW X5, and they were all shot right next to their home. Their father got their bodies out of the car, brought them inside, dressed them and buried them himself in the woods behind the courtyard. We dug them up [to bury them anew], but this was already in late April.

There was a mass grave in Bucha where we dug up an elderly woman who was wearing а diaper. And I can only wonder: So, you’re a real tough guy. You went to war. And you kill a woman, this elderly grandma? What threat could she have posed, this old lady in a diaper?

The mass grave by the St. Andrew’s Church was among the first discovered in Bucha. As of this moment, 117 bodies have been exhumed there.

That site was dug up, bit by bit. This began on April 1, and our work progressed slowly, little by little. It took some time before we grasped the scale — only when we started to extract them from way down below.

That trench was about 50 meters [164 feet] long and two meters [6.6 feet] across. In peacetime, it might have held no more than 55 people, with each coffin taking up at least 80 centimeters [2.6 feet].

Without coffins, though, people can be placed much closer together, much more compactly, one over the other. And there were a lot more people in this mass grave; many of them on top of each other.

Exhumation of bodies from the mass grave by St. Andrew’s Church in Bucha. April 11, 2022
Carol Guzy / ZUMA Press / Scanpix / LETA

How did you manage to find the burial sites that people living in Kyiv’s suburbs made themselves? And the unmarked graves?

People who buried their own relatives would call the police [after the suburbs were liberated]. The bomb technicians came in, too. They would look for mines and sometimes discover graves: a little mound, a little cross.

Some burial sites were uncovered completely by accident. The police told us: “Some Bucha locals told us that an arm is sticking up from the ground in the strip of woods behind the Yablonske cemetery.” We go there and, sure enough, there it is. A shallow grave. We started digging and found not one but six people dead.

We picked up those bodies later. It’s still unclear who they were. Only one guy there had a passport with him. I went to lift him up by his jacket and felt something in the pocket. I opened it, and there it was — a passport. He was born in 1991.

Do you find burial sites created by the Russian troops?

I haven’t been to any, and I don’t know if they tried to hide the bodies, but I think we’ll keep finding new mass graves for a long time still. That there’s a bit less work now — this won’t last.

Right now, no one is going into the woods very much. There are landmines there, there are tons of [unexploded] artillery shells there, and people are afraid. But we often find burials out there. Now we’re starting to get calls from people who went somewhere and found bodies.

Someone I know found a grave in the forest, about a week ago: a civilian, killed by a gunshot to the head. Entry and exit wounds: one in the cheek, and the other at the back of his head. And just yesterday we dug up another body in the woods. But I don’t know who buried him; it could have been the Russians or the locals.

A grave in Bucha. April 6, 2022
Roman Pilipey / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

While your town was occupied, what did you come to understand about the Russian soldiers?

We understood that they come from dire poverty. They would say, “You live so well in Zahaltsi [a village northwest of Kyiv], with plasma TVs everywhere — we’ll conquer it all and then settle down here.”

But this is just an ordinary town outside Borodianka.

Their uniforms dangle on them; it’s all very shabby. Their helmets look like they’re Soviet-made. When they came to Nemishaieve, they went to the second floor of the “Fora” supermarket and stole a bunch of clothes for themselves. But it was all just fishermen’s clothes.

What happened here, though [in Kyiv’s suburbs], wasn’t war — it was the deliberate murder of unarmed people. After encountering strong resistance in Irpin and Hostomel, they were simply looking for revenge. And maybe there was also some kind of envy that we live better here than they do over there.

But still, I cannot explain why a man would behave this way with civilians. With women and children.

How has a month of exhuming the bodies affected you?

I can’t make sense of it. The same question swirls in my head all the time: “Why were they killed? What for?” And then there’s anger, and there’s hatred against all this.

Okay, [the dead] are in bags now, but plenty of the bags are defective. A head slips out here or blood oozes out there. You look at all this and… How do I put this? This sense of horror seizes you. We’re constantly doing this mortuary work, but when you see this mountain of corpses… This cannot be a normal experience for a person.

I bumped into an acquaintance of mine: an oldclassmate’s mom. She works as an MC, organizing events. She asked me how I was doing. “I’m alright,” I told her. And she just looks at me and says, “I see the way you smile. I see your eyes, and I can tell that you’re smiling out of sheer despair. When you’ve had enough, and you’re at rock bottom, and you smile because there’s nothing else to do.”

As I said, my father warned me against this work. It’s bad for the nerves.

Interview by Lilya Yapparova

Translation by Anna Razumnaya

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