Pravdin, Ukraine – Small pieces of bone appeared first. Then he tied a pair of arms to the wrists with a rope.
Then the shovel discovered a skull with a bullet hole in it, a cracked mouth, and teeth covered in thick black mud.
Although such scenes are repeated across Ukraine wherever Russians retreat, the group of villagers and police officers looked stunned on Monday as they stood at the edge of a common grave in the village of Pravdin, near the city of Kherson.
A cold rain fell on their backs but they did not move as the grave was exhumed. None of the villagers even knew the last names of the six men who were killed, execution style, and then buried here, but it didn’t matter.
“They were Ukrainians,” said Kostyantyn Podolak, a prosecutor who came to investigate.
And now their remains lie in a shallow grave because of that.
Kherson and nearby villages in southern Ukraine were liberated after a brutal eight months of occupation, when the beleaguered Russian forces suddenly withdrew more than two weeks ago. Residents poured into the streets, waving flags, embracing soldiers and knocking glasses of cognac.
But as the days passed, that jubilation gave way to mounting evidence of the atrocities, the grim reality of battered, barely livable communities from which most civilians fled months ago and may not return any time soon. On their way out, the Russians blew up power plants, shutting down electricity, running water, heat, and telephone service and setting the population back more than a century.
And although the Russians are gone, they are still killing people in and around Kherson, a city that was home to about 280,000 people before the war. Almost every morning, Russian cannonballs rock the city from miles across the Dnipro River. More than a dozen civilians have been killed in the past week, including four men whose fatal mistake residents said was to stand together outside and have some coffee.
Along the banks of the Kherson River, people rush past the walls. Hiding a mile or so away, officials say, Russian snipers take shots at civilians who dredge water from the river to wash.
“They are trying to terrorize us,” said Oleksandr Samoilenko, politician and head of the Kherson regional council. “Until we liberate the area around Kherson, Kherson will not be truly liberated.”
At night, there is another harsh reminder that the Russians are still close. Kherson stands almost completely dark but right across the river the lights glow on that bank. Cities on the other side of Dnipro are much smaller than Kherson and much less important to the economy and the country. But the Russians are controlling them, so those small towns still have electricity.
Like almost all Ukrainian-controlled towns and villages near Kherson, Pravdin—pre-war population 1,222, according to the village chief—has no electricity or running water. It has become a desolate landscape of leafless trees, deserted houses, and long muddy roads.
A small caravan of war crimes investigators walked down one of those roads on Monday, after hearing of the murders of several security guards who came from town, worked for an agricultural company, and lived in a pale blue house.
According to the villagers, one of the guards, a friendly man named Vlad, had an affair with a teenage girl who had been abused by her stepfather. The stepfather was worried that he might get in trouble, the villagers said, so he began cooperating with the Russians and made up a story that Vlad and the other security guards were spying on the Russians.
One morning in mid-April, a neighbor, Anatoly Sykoza, heard an explosion in the house. When he ran over, he found it destroyed. Lying on the ground, half buried in the rubble, are the bodies of six of the seven security guards and the teenage girl. Mr. Sequosa said he’s a hunter and knows a thing or two about death.
“And I can tell that it wasn’t the explosion that killed them,” he said.
Come closer. He saw that many of the men had their hands tied behind their backs and that their eyes were being blindfolded. He said the girl looked as if she had been strangled.
Such revelations have been a frequent horror in Ukraine. In April, after the Russians withdrew from the Kyiv suburbs, the authorities found hundreds of corpses of civilians, particularly in the town of Bucha, and residents said that Russian soldiers had executed many of them, most often without cause.
To the east, there were similar discoveries at Izyum in September and Leman in October after the Russians withdrew from a Ukrainian offensive.
In Pravdin, Mr. Sykoza said he begged Russian soldiers to let him bury the dead. They refused. Many people fled the village, letting their dogs roam the roads. They found the corpses and began to dismember them.
Mr. Sikza begged again. Finally, after five weeks, the soldiers allowed him to prepare a grave for six security guards; He was unable to find the body of the seventh, and the young woman’s family buried it separately.
For the next six months, the Russians dug in at Pravdin. They cut trenches along the irrigation canals. They made holes along the way. They built concrete-reinforced bunkers that turned this small farming town into a fortress.
Ukrainian commanders said they lost hundreds of men in waves of attacks while trying to take Pravdin. It stands in a secluded position halfway between Kherson, one of the largest cities ever taken by the Russians, and Mykolaiv, about 30 miles to the northwest, which they never managed to take.
In early November, the Russians began to move out. Ukrainian forces flooded a few days later. War crimes investigators, aid workers, and more soon followed suit. A tip from a journalist who spoke with the villagers led the investigators to the shared grave on Monday. Investigators transport the bodies to analyze the cause of death and seek to use the evidence in war crimes trials for Russian forces.
“I knew it was going to be hard but I wasn’t ready for it,” said Serhiy Rybizenko, a handyman who was recruited by the village elders to exhume the common grave. “I knew these people. I had just joked with them. Now look at them.”
Even the veteran police officers looked shaky. They cataloged body parts, barely uttering a word. Their eyes remained on the skulls.
Ihor Motrich, a medical examiner with 28 years of experience, witnessed many of the dead. On Monday, after pulling the decomposing remains from the grave and placing the pieces on sheets of clear plastic, he sat in the front seat of his car, staring straight ahead. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I don’t get any emotion,” he said.
But then it stopped. His lip started to tremble. I turned away.
“My nephew was just killed on the front lines,” he said in a voice full of sorrow.
“This war….” He said, eyes closed on the road.
He never finished his sentence.
Evelina Ryabenko And the Oleksandra Mikulyshin Contribute to the preparation of reports.