In Hroza, Ukraine, ‘All My Relatives Are Dead’


Beside newly dug graves in a cemetery, villagers had propped cardboard signs on sticks.

“Taken,” one sign said simply of an open grave.

“Taken, three people from the Mukhovaty” family, read another.

Days after a Ukrainian village lost a sixth of its population in a missile strike, nearly every resident was grieving lost relatives, houses were suddenly empty, the cemetery had been expanded and the villagers were left grappling with the challenge of burying a large portion of their community at once.

The missile struck on Thursday, hitting a wake being held in a cafe in the tiny farming village of Hroza, killing 52 people in one of the deadliest single missile strikes of the war. Ukrainian authorities said that a Russian Iskander ballistic missile had hit the building.

At the wake, families were mourning the death of a soldier, but most in attendance were civilians, among them three teachers, 18 residents of one street and nearly all of the members of the family of the soldier, who had died earlier in fighting at the front line.

“All my relatives are dead,” said Yulia Hryb, a second cousin of the slain soldier’s wife, who is a refugee living in Ireland.

Why the Russians seemingly targeted the cafe is unclear: Hroza is a tiny hamlet of 330 people, only a few blocks of homes in an expanse of wheat and sunflower fields in eastern Ukraine about 25 miles from the front lines. One theory was that the Russians expected that a lot of soldiers would attend the wake.

The first daunting task was to identify and bury the dead.

On Saturday, body bags were stacked in the hallways of a morgue about 50 miles away in Kharkiv, the nearest city, as the authorities set about identifying the bodies. Dr. Oleh Podorozhny, a chief examiner, said the missile strike was the largest mass casualty incident the morgue had handled.

Complicating the effort, many of the bodies had been mutilated in the powerful explosion, and emergency workers had packed some of the body bags with fragments of many different bodies.

In a parking lot behind the morgue, doctors had laid out a tarpaulin on which they were sorting the fragmented remains, amid a stench. A bare foot lay on the tarp.

People had died from shrapnel from the explosion, from flying shards of glass and shattered bricks and from the powerful blast wave, Dr. Podorozhny said.

“It’s been almost two years of war, and we got used to it,” he said. “But this was the worst I have seen.”

Back in Hroza, as a rainstorm blew over Saturday afternoon, residents nailed particle board over windows blown out by the explosion and hung plastic sheeting over damaged roofs.

The blast killed the entire immediate family of the soldier whose wake had drawn the crowd, Andriy Kozyr, including his widow, daughter, son, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law and many other relatives.

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Mr. Kozyr had lived with his family in Poland, where his wife managed a hotel and his son worked in construction. He and his son, Denys, returned to volunteer as soldiers in the Ukrainian Army, while his wife and daughter, Alina and Liza, remained abroad.

Mr. Kozyr was killed in fighting a year ago, when his village was under Russian occupation. After Ukraine retook Hroza, his family decided to rebury him in the cemetery there.

After the attack on Thursday, surviving neighbors and friends had wondered who would bury the Kozyr family, as all known members in the village had died. But Ms. Hryb, in a telephone interview, said she intended to return to Hroza, claim the bodies and bury them all in the village’s cemetery.

In Ireland, she said, an acquaintance had shared with her a photograph from the scene of the strike, showing a hand of one of the deceased. She recognized it from the manicure as the hand of her second cousin, the widow of Mr. Kozyr, Ms. Hryb said. “I will identify them, I am coming, I will bury them,” she said.

Local authorities who expanded the cemetery on Friday, by leveling an acre or so of land, had on Saturday dug a few dozen new graves. Several were reserved, via cardboard sign, for the Kozyr family members.

Oleksandr Soroka, a worker clearing ground for the graveyard’s expansion, said that the village was close-knit, and that the survivors would care for one another.

“This village was very friendly,” Mr. Soroka said. “They all married one another. They were all relatives.” Most of the victims, he said, were women who had been working in the kitchen preparing dishes for the wake.

As the village mayor, Oleksandr Nechvelod, had died in the blast, a regional administrator of several villages, including Hroza, had stepped in to help organize the burials.

“We try to look after ourselves,” said the administrator, Serhiy Starykov. “But how can we look after ourselves under these circumstances?”

He has arranged for a temporary village store to be set up in a shipping container, replacing the cafe and a shop that was also obliterated in the strike.

In the village, Mr. Starykov said, 10 homes are empty because all of their occupants died. Who will now care for the livestock or pets they left behind is uncertain, he said.

“Life goes on,” Mr. Starykov said. “Those who remain will go on living. What else can they do? Unfortunately, we have war in our country.”

Over the weekend, funerals, which seemed likely to stretch for some time given the difficulties in identifying the dead, were just beginning.

Under an overcast sky, as families gathered in the cemetery, a priest blessed the open graves and undertakers lowered two coffins, those of a husband and wife, draped in green velvet.

Mr. Starykov said he feared crowds gathering at the funerals might become yet another target for the Russians. Mourners nonetheless turned up, picking up handfuls of earth and dropping them onto the coffins.


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