KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) — The outskirts of Kharkiv resemble an open morgue, where the dead lie unclaimed and unexplained, sometimes for weeks, as Ukrainian and Russian forces battle for control of swaths of land.
There is the charred body of a man, unidentifiable, leaning on an anti-tank barrier made of crossed I-beams outside a town that has been under control from both sides for the past few days. There are the dead, apparently Russian soldiers, four of them arranged in a Z like the military symbol found on Russian armored vehicles, visible to the Russian drones constantly buzzing above our heads. The door to an apartment opens to reveal three bodies inside.
Exactly how it all happened will probably never be known.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has been under sustained Russian attack since the war began in late February. With the intensification of the Russian offensive in the east, the Russian onslaught grew fiercer.
Seen as a strategic and industrial prize, the territory on the eastern outskirts of the city has been back and forth between Russian and Ukrainian forces for weeks as the fighting shifts from village to village. Many, but not all, of Kharkiv’s 1 million residents have fled.
Associated Press reporters saw the bodies formed in a Z, wearing the white armbands commonly used by Russian soldiers and with Russian medical kits by their side. They were found on a front line where fighting had been going on for days. They were taken, along with the burnt man, to the morgue on Monday. There was no explanation for the Z formation – a symbol of the Russian invasion – nor for the burned body leaning on the barrier. Either could be considered a war crime, for disrespecting the dignity of the dead.
Next will come the investigation of their identity, perhaps an attempt to inform the family.
But even that is difficult to disentangle. The body of a man wearing Ukrainian insignia turned out to have the identity papers of a Russian soldier. The apartment where the three bodies were found had been badly bombed, but it is unclear what killed them.
Bombings and airstrikes are a daily threat everywhere here, for everyone. And, as long as that remains true, death can occur at any time, with no one answering why.
It was a rare glimpse into the death and atrocities of war. Getting a full picture of the battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine has been difficult as airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel. Russia has severely limited reporting from the combat zone; The Ukrainian government has imposed fewer limits, mainly on how quickly documents can be released or on military installations.
In Washington on Monday, a senior US defense official said Ukrainian forces had succeeded in the past 48 hours in pushing Russian forces away from Kharkiv, even as it came under Russian aerial bombardment. The Russians have now been pushed back some 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the city, further into the Donbass region, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the military assessment American.
According to the Red Cross, the mutilation of corpses in international armed conflicts is covered by the war crime of “committing outrages upon personal dignity” under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, which, according to the Elements crimes, also applies to deceased persons.
Associated Press Pentagon writer Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.