Two bulldozers and a dozen workers with chainsaws and hoes were working against the clock on Friday to expand the cemetery grounds in the Ukrainian village of Hroza. The cemetery will double in size to accommodate the remains of 52 of its residents, who were killed on Thursday by a Russian missile. The tragedy is exceptionally painful because the attack killed half of the inhabitants of this village in the Kharkiv province, in the east of the country. The United Nations Human Rights Office in Ukraine believes that it was an intentional shelling and is investigating the episode as a war crime. On Friday, a day after the massacre in Hroza, Russia attacked several municipalities in the same province, including the capital, with missiles, killing two people and wounding about thirty.
Tatiana Buks cannot remember a time during the war when so much pain was concentrated in a single place, as is happening in Hroza. Buks is the director of the team of psychologists at Proliska, an NGO assisting Hroza survivors under the auspices of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). She was working on the largest massacre of civilians to date since the invasion began in April 2022, the Russian Army’s shelling of the Kramatorsk train station, in which over 60 people died. “But Kramatorsk is a city, and there were people from the entire Donetsk province at the station,” Buks notes. “[Hroza] is a town that had just over 300 inhabitants before the war, and now only a little over 100″ remain.
Other residents this newspaper spoke to corroborate the fact that in a matter of seconds, Hroza was left without half of its population. Many survivors are aimlessly wandering the streets, still in a state of shock. A married couple and their two daughters sit silently on a bench in front of their house. “See the house next to ours? They are all dead,” the mother says between sobs. The data and testimonies EL PAÍS collected in Hroza confirm that a Russian precision strike deliberately ended their lives.
After 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, a missile hit a municipal building that also served as a restaurant and cafeteria. The Kharkiv province Prosecutor’s Office has indicated that the weapon used was an Iskander ballistic rocket, known for its supersonic speed and huge explosive charge. At the time of the attack, a lunch was being held in that building’s dining room to commemorate serviceman Andrii Kozir, who was killed in action in the Dnipro province on March 29, 2022. According to Hroza municipality sources, Kozir’s son Denis requested that his father’s remains, which were in Dnipro, be exhumed so that he could be buried in his native town. After the burial on Thursday, a meal was organized to bid farewell to the municipality’s well-known son. The Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office suspects that a Russian collaborator in the area provided the coordinates of the meeting place to be attacked. Denis Kozir and the rest of his family were also killed in the attack.
“The Russians must have believed that there were high-ranking army officers at the funeral, but there weren’t any. All of the dead are residents of the village,” says Volodymyr Shudravii, the head of infrastructure at the Hroza municipal council. Shudravii is coordinating the repair of damaged buildings and assistance for emergency services at the site. Emergency and police teams with dogs search the area for evidence of the crime. Amid the rubble of the bombed building, crews of firefighters are carefully lifting debris to collect remains of the victims that can be used for DNA identification tests. Fingers, limbs and what look to be pieces of charred flesh lay on towels and plastic sheeting.
A precise strike
Shudravii also believes that a collaborator provided the information to the enemy. “The hit was so precise, exactly in the center of the building, where they were eating.” Kharkiv, like the rest of Eastern Ukraine, is one of the regions that historically has had a large part of the population with an affinity for Russian culture and identity. A military unit stationed in Hroza told EL PAÍS that it is very unlikely that Russia would have obtained information on the attendance of the funeral through spy drones like the Orlan, because these do not move so far away from the combat zones; the village is located 32 kilometers (20 miles) from the Kupiansk war front. As in most of the rear villages, in Hroza soldiers are lodged in now empty houses. Another possible hypothesis is that the Russian Army mistook the funeral for a military gathering.
The missile hit the facade of the building facing northeast, meaning that it came from the direction where Russia or Russian-occupied territories in Lugansk province are located. The fact that it was a Russian attack is “demonstrable,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy emphasized on Thursday. The press has interpreted that comment as a veiled reference to the doubts that emerged over the cause of death of 16 people on September 6 in Kostiantinivka, in Donetsk province. Ukrainian authorities were quick to point out that the massacre was caused by a Russian missile, but an investigation by The New York Times concluded that the tragedy was caused by a malfunctioning Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile. Unlike the Kostiantinivka case, UN representatives in Ukraine lean toward Russian responsibility for the attack. “Our thoughts are also with the people of Ukraine, who have once again borne witness to another barbaric consequence of the Russian invasion,” Denise Brown, the coordinator of the UN Office in Ukraine, said in a statement.
As of Friday, 16 bodies were still unidentified and four people were missing, including two minors. The head of the municipal council of Hroza, a district of neighboring Shevchenkove, was also missing. His son, Dmitro Nechvolod, went to the scene of the massacre to retrieve what little was left of his father’s car, which had been parked in the courtyard of the building. The air raid warning sirens sounded again as Nechvolod removed what was left of his father’s old utility car. In Shevchenkove, 500 meters (310 miles) away, a Russian missile was falling.
In Kharkiv province, the day had already begun with a new attack in the center of the regional capital. Two missiles, also Iskander, according to the military authorities, killed two people, a grandmother and her 10-year-old grandson, and left about thirty wounded. Because of Kharkiv’s proximity to Russia — the border is 40 kilometers (25 miles) away — Russian cruise and ballistic missiles can reach their targets in a matter of minutes, giving anti-aircraft defenses little time to act. In the municipality of Vovchansk, on the province’s border with Russia, the invader’s artillery left six wounded, the province’s governor said.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, has symbolized the country’s resistance against the invader, which tried unsuccessfully to occupy it in the early stages of the war. The Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated virtually the entire province in a surprise counteroffensive in September 2022. Towns like Hroza were under Russian control for seven months. The former occupiers returned to the village with a missile attack that left it strewn with death.
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