By Max Hunder
HROZA, Ukraine (Reuters) – In a burial plot next to a field outside the remote Ukrainian hamlet of Hroza, residents removed undergrowth and cleared away litter to make space for more graves.
Working quietly, it was something to distract them from the horror of what happened the day before.
As dozens of people gathered in the local cafe for a meal to honour a soldier who died in the war against Russia, a missile struck, killing at least 52 people.
It was one of the most deadly attacks during 20 months of fighting, and one that has devastated the tiny, tight-knit community.
Shock is giving way to grief, as well as questions about how the Russians could have known about the gathering in what some Hroza residents say was a deliberate attack.
Among those killed was Olya, 36, who is survived by three children. Her husband died too.
Her father, Valeriy Kozyr, was at the cemetery preparing to bury her and his son-in-law.
“It would have been better if I had died,” he said quietly as he wept. “Oh God, you cannot punish me like this. To leave the father and take the children!”
Wiping tears from his face, the 61-year-old explained that he must now work out how to care for his three grand-children aged 10, 15 and 17. Kozyr wants to bury Olya and her husband side-by-side in a single grave.
He told Reuters he was not in the cafe on Thursday because he worked night shifts as a security guard, and so was spared.
Nearby, three brothers were readying a plot in which to bury their parents, both killed in what President Volodymr Zelenskiy has called a deliberate Russian assault on civilians.
Moscow denies targeting civilians in its full-scale invasion, a position it repeated on Friday in response to the Hroza strike. Thousands have been killed in a bombing campaign that has hit apartment blocks and restaurants as well as power stations, bridges and grain silos.
One brother began to dig while another picked up discarded plastic bottles.
“We lost 18 people on one street, where our parents lived,” said the third, 41-year-old Yevhen Pyrozhok. “On one side, the neighbours are gone, and on the other side a woman is gone.”
The men said they did not know when they would be able to have the funeral because their parents’ bodies were still being examined by investigators in Kharkiv, the closest big city in northeastern Ukraine.
Not all of the victims have been identified. Regional police investigator Serhiy Bolvinov told reporters late on Thursday that authorities would have to use DNA to identify some of the victims, because their remains were beyond recognition.
“Corpses lay there in that yard, and nobody could identify them,” said Valentyna Kozienko, 73, speaking near her home close to the site.
‘HALF THE VILLAGE GONE’
As darkness fell on Thursday, dazed emergency crews carried bodies placed in white bags on to the back of a pickup truck. A local man knelt down and wept as he lay his hand on the remains of a loved one before they too, were taken away.
Local resident Oleksandr Mukhovatyi said he lost his mother, brother and sister-in-law.
“Someone betrayed us. The attack was precise, it all landed in the coffee shop.”
On Friday, rescue workers continued to sift through the rubble of the flattened cafe and nearby shop, while diggers pushed away debris.
On a low table set up a few metres (yards) away, members of the emergency services and local community laid flowers and lit candles in small coloured jars to commemorate the dead.
At the cemetery, one grave stands out.
Freshly dug earth is piled beneath bright blue and yellow bouquets that match the colours of a large Ukrainian flag fluttering above them in the breeze.
This is the final resting place of Andriy Kozyr, a soldier in the Ukrainian army and distant relative of the newly-grieving father, Valeriy.
Andriy had been killed earlier in the conflict, but his family wanted to bury him in his native village when they discovered his remains in an area that had been occupied by Russians before they retreated late in 2022.
Just as local friends and relatives sat down to celebrate his life, the missile landed.
“Half the village is gone, families are gone,” said Kozyr, standing beside his wife as she wept. “All the time they miss. Well, this time, they hit.
“Now I’ll have to cross out half my phone book.”
(Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)