KYIV, Ukraine – The body extracted from a pit in Izyum was in a poor state of decomposition, with the skin peeling off the bone and discolouring. 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 corpse, one of hundreds exhumed after Ukraine reclaimed Izium from the Russians this month, was another reminder of the savage toll of the war. But the bracelet conveyed something different: courage and individuality amid a grim tableau of mass death. And it seemed to send an almost provocative message: Ukraine lives, even if some of its people don’t.
The image 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 when he spoke to the United Nations Security Council on Thursday as evidence of Russian atrocities.
“I’m wearing one too,” he said, referring to the bracelet. “And Russia should know one thing,” Kuleba said. “He can never kill us all.”
When Oksana Sova saw the picture, she noticed something else. The bracelet resembled the one her children gave to her husband, Serhiy, in 2014 when he first left to fight for Ukraine. She looked at the full image of the corpse, studied the tattoos, and knew in an instant it was him.
“Serhiy’s most recent tattoo is of a samurai with a sakura branch above him,” she said in a phone interview Thursday as she went to collect her remains. “The samurai is a warrior who goes all the way. And sakura is a symbol of hope and recovery.
Her husband, she said, had the spirit of a samurai.
On Friday, Ms Sova buried her husband, this time with a proper funeral in their hometown of Nikopol in southern Ukraine.
Serhiy’s is one of 338 bodies found in the Izyum mass grave on Friday, according to Kharkiv prosecutor’s office. They include 320 civilians and 18 soldiers like Serhiy. Ukrainian troops recaptured the town two weeks ago, the most striking success of their northeast offensive that routed Russian forces.
Oleksander Filchakov, the Kharkiv region’s chief prosecutor, said on Thursday that there were 445 graves in the cemetery where Serhiy was exhumed. In some pits he said people were buried four at a time. A large number of people pulled from the ground are injured by mines and explosions.
“There are also signs of torture,” he said.
He said he expected exhumations at that site to be completed by Friday, but then investigators would move on to other burial sites they located in the city.
For months Ms Sova thought she would be one of many Ukrainian women wondering what had happened to a loved one, suspecting her husband was dead but never sure.
The last time she spoke to him, she said, was on the morning of April 19.
Serhiy, 36, had described to him how Russian planes were bombing their position outside Izyum. Russian artillery was pounding them from all directions and Russian tanks were closing in. He said they were outgunned and six of his fellow soldiers were “two hundred”, military jargon meaning killed.
They were ordered to hold their ground and he told her he would follow the order. The line was then interrupted.
About a week later, she requested information from the military command and gave them a DNA sample. He was told that his body had not been found at his unit’s last known location and that he had been officially declared missing.
Every day for five months, she said, she searched for images of morgues. She held out hope that he might be taken prisoner; after all, others had been captured and survived, she told herself. Why not Serhiy?
The couple got married 15 years ago and she still calls him her soul mate. He was trained as a cynologist – a dog breeder and trainer – and they made a small business out of their love of canines.
They had two children: Marat, 14, and Elina, 9.
In 2014, after Russia fomented a war in eastern Ukraine, he was mobilized to fight against Russian-backed separatists and joined the separate 93rd Mechanized Brigade, known as “Kholodny Yar “.
Marat had just entered first grade and his daughter was only one year old. As he walked to the front, they gave him the bracelet in 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 outside 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, like so many other former soldiers, Serhiy re-enlisted and began training to become a combat medic. But when the war came, he was rushed to the front to protect the border region in the northeastern province of Kharkiv.
“You know, he was always so persistent,” his father, Oleksandr Sova, 60, said in an interview. “Several times I tried to dissuade him from doing his military service”, but in vain. “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 anyway, but why would he ask?” he said. “I had such a heavy feeling. And then the connection was lost.
Mykhaylo Onufrienko, a fellow soldier who had known Serhiy since 2003, joined the family in their search after his disappearance. They often scoured Russian social media for images of captured or killed Ukrainian soldiers.
“I saw photos of his passport and ID cards of his comrades,” Mr. Onufrenko said, “I think he was taken prisoner,” he said. “In another photo I could recognize him with his hands tied and a bag over 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 says Serhiy died from a gunshot wound, but the pathologist could not give a time of death. The family therefore does not know for sure if he died on the battlefield or if he was taken prisoner and then killed.
But he was found.
His former colleagues, military comrades and residents stood by his grave Friday afternoon. Despite heavy shelling during the night and early morning near Nikopol, many people came to see Serhiy buried, his wife said.
“It was tough for all of us, but we all stood firm, like Serhiy has throughout his life,” she said.
The bracelet, however, was not buried with him. He remained in Izium, evidence in the criminal investigation into his death.