KIEV, Ukraine – The body pulled from a pit in Izium was in a poor state of decomposition, the skin peeling from the bone and losing color. But one thing stood out: the blue and yellow bracelet around the dead man’s wrist.
The colors of the Ukrainian national flag had barely faded.
The body, one of hundreds exhumed after Ukraine retook Izium from the Russians this month, was another reminder of the war’s cruel toll. But the bracelet conveyed something else: the steadfastness and individuality amid a grim tableau of mass extinction. And it seemed to send an almost defiant message: Ukraine lives on, even if some of its residents don’t.
The picture quickly captured the nation’s imagination.
It was widely shared on Facebook and the Telegram messaging app. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, wore a similar bracelet on his wrist while addressing the United Nations Security Council on Thursday as evidence of Russian atrocities.
“I wear one too,” he said, referring to the bracelet. “And Russia should know one thing,” Mr. Kuleba said. “It will never be able to kill us all.”
When Oksana Sova saw the picture, she noticed something else. The bracelet looked like the one her children gave her husband Serhiy in 2014 when he first fought for Ukraine. She looked at the full image of the corpse, studied the tattoos, and knew instantly it was him.
“Serhiy’s latest tattoo is a samurai with a sakura branch above him,” she said in a phone interview Thursday as she was about to pick up his remains. “Samurai is a warrior who goes to the end. And Sakura is a symbol of hope and recovery.”
Her husband, she said, had the spirit of a samurai.
On Friday, Ms Sova gave her husband’s funeral, this time with a proper burial in her hometown of Nikopol in southern Ukraine.
Serhiy is one of 338 bodies recovered from the mass grave in Izium on Friday the Kharkiv Prosecutor’s Office. Among them are 320 civilians and 18 soldiers like Serhiy. Ukrainian troops retook the city two weeks ago, the most notable success of their offensive in the northeast that routed Russian forces.
Oleksander Filchakov, the chief prosecutor for the Kharkiv region, said Thursday there were 445 graves in the cemetery where Serhiy was exhumed. In some pits, four people were buried at the same time. Large numbers pulled from the ground have mine and blast injuries.
“There are also signs of torture,” he said.
He said he expected exhumations at that one site to be completed by Friday, but investigators would then move on to other burial sites they found around the city.
For months, Ms Sova thought she was one of the many Ukrainians who would wonder what happened to a loved one because she suspected her husband was dead but was never sure.
The last time she spoke to him, she said, was on the morning of April 19.
Serhiy, 36, had described to her how Russian planes bombed their position outside of Izium. Russian artillery bombarded them from all directions and Russian tanks closed in. He said they had fewer guns and six of his comrades were “two hundred,” military jargon for killed.
They were ordered to stand their ground and he told her he would obey the order. Then the line went dead.
About a week later, she asked the military command for information and gave them a DNA sample. She was informed that his body was not found at his unit’s last known location and he was officially declared missing.
For five months, she said, she searched morgue images every day. She hoped he might be captured; Eventually, others were captured and survived, she argued. Why not Serhiy?
The couple married 15 years ago and she still calls him her soulmate. He was trained as a cynologist – a breeder and trainer of dogs – and they turned their love of dogs into a small business.
They had two children: Marat, 14, and Elina, 9.
After Russia instigated a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, he was mobilized to fight Russian-backed separatists and joined the 93rd Separate Mechanized Brigade known as “Kholodny Yar”.
Marat had just started the first grade and his daughter was only one year old. When he went to the front, they gave him the bracelet with the colors of the national flag, his wife said.
He never took it off. He wore it when he fought in battles in Pisky and in front of Donetsk airport. After a year he was demobilized and returned to civilian life. But he still wore the bracelet.
On the eve of the Russian invasion, Serhiy, like so many other former soldiers, reported back and began training as a combat medic. But when war came, he was sent to the front lines to protect the border region in northeastern Kharkiv province.
“You know, he was always so stubborn,” said his father, Oleksandr Sova, 60, in an interview. “I’ve often tried to talk him out of military service,” but to no avail. “So I had to accept his choice.”
He last spoke to his son in April when Serhiy asked him to take care of the house, his wife and children.
“I would do it anyway, but why would he ask?” he said. “I had such a strong premonition. And after that the connection was lost.”
Mykhaylo Onufrienko, a comrade who has known Serhiy since 2003, joined the family in their search after he went missing. They often combed Russian social media, examining images of captured or killed Ukrainian soldiers.
“I saw photos of his passport and ID cards of his comrades,” said Mr. Onufrienko, “I think he was captured,” he said. “In another photo, I could see him with his hands tied and a bag on his head. They definitely interrogated and tortured him, I’m sure he never said what they wanted to hear. So they killed him.”
Serhiy’s wife also believes he was captured and tortured.
The forensic report said Serhiy died as a result of a gunshot wound, but the pathologist could not give a time of death. So the family doesn’t know for sure if he died on the battlefield or was captured and then killed.
But he was found.
His former colleagues, military comrades and local residents stood at his grave on Friday afternoon. Despite heavy shelling overnight and early in the morning near Nikopol, many people came to see Serhiy’s burial, his wife said.
“It was tough for all of us, but we all stood firm as Serhiy has done throughout his life,” she said.
However, the bracelet was not buried with him. It remained in Izium, evidence in the criminal investigation into his death.
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