MYKULYCHI, Ukraine >> This was not where Nadiya Trubchaninova thought she would find herself at 70 years old, hitchhiking daily from her village to the shattered Ukrainian town of Bucha, trying to bring her son’s body home for burial.
The questions wore her down, heavy like the winter coat and boots she still wears against the chill. Why had the 48-year-old Vadym gone to Bucha, where the Russians were so much harsher than the ones occupying their village? Who shot him as he drove on Yablunska Street, where so many bodies were found? And why did she lose her son just one day before the Russians withdrew?
After word reached her that Vadym had been found and buried by strangers in a yard in Bucha, she spent more than a week trying to bring him home to a proper grave. But he was just one body among hundreds, part of an investigation into war crimes that has grown to global significance.
Trubchaninova is among the many elderly people left behind or who chose to stay as millions of Ukrainians fled across borders or to other parts of the country. They were the first to be seen on empty streets after Russian troops withdrew from communities around the capital, Kyiv, peering out from wooden gates or carrying bags of donated food back to freezing homes.
Some, like Trubchaninova, survived the first weeks of the war only to find it had taken their children.
She had last seen her son on March 30. She thought he was taking a walk as part of his long recovery from a stroke. “It would be crazy to go farther,” she said. She wondered whether he went driving to search for a cellphone connection to call his own son and wish him a happy birthday.
She wondered whether Vadym thought the Russians in Bucha were like those occupying their village, who told them they wouldn’t be harmed if they didn’t fight back.
More than a week later, she found his makeshift grave with the help of a stranger with the same name and age as her son. The following day, she spotted the body bag containing Vadym at a Bucha cemetery. He always stood out for his height and his foot stuck out from a hole in the corner. Anxious not to lose him, she found a scarf and tied it there. It was her marker.
She believed she knew where her son’s body was held for days, in a refrigerator truck outside Bucha’s morgue. She was desperate to find an official to hurry the process of inspecting her son and issuing the documents needed to release him.
“I get worried, where he’d go, and whether I’d be able to find him,” she said.
Once she collected his body, she would need a casket, which equals a month of her pension, about $90. She, like other elderly Ukrainians, hasn’t received her pension since the war began. She gets by selling the vegetables she grows, but the potatoes she meant to plant in March withered while she was hiding in her home.
Her aging cellphone keeps losing battery life. She forgets her phone number. Her other son, two years younger than Vadym, is unemployed and troubled. Nothing is easy.
“I would walk out of this place because I feel it’s so hard to be here,” Trubchaninova said, sitting at home under a tinted black-and-white photo of herself at 32, full of determination.
She recalled watching her television, when it still worked, in the early days of the war, as broadcasts showed so many Ukrainians fleeing. She worried about them. Where are they going? Where will they sleep? What will they eat? How will they remake their lives again?
“I felt so sorry for them,” she said. “And now, I’m in that situation. I feel so lost inside. I don’t even know how to describe how lost I am. I’m not even sure I’ll put my head on this pillow tonight and wake up tomorrow.”
Like many elderly Ukrainians, she worked without taking time for herself, determined to give her children an education and a better life than her own.
“Those were my plans,” she said, agitated. “What plans do you want me to have now? How do I make new plans if one of my sons is lying there in Bucha?”
On Thursday, she waited outside the Bucha morgue again. After another long day without progress, she sat on a bench in the sun. “I just wanted to sit in nice weather,” she said. “I’m going to go home. Tomorrow I’ll come again.”
Across town that day was the kind of closure that Trubchaninova wanted so badly. At a cemetery, two 82-year-old women rose from a bench and crossed themselves as the now-familiar white van arrived carrying another casket.
The women, Neonyla and Helena, sing at funerals. They have performed at 10 since the Russians withdrew. “The biggest pain for a mother is to lose her son,” Neonyla said. “There is no word to describe it.”
They joined the priest at the foot of the grave. Two men with handfuls of tulips attended, along with a man with cap in hand. “That’s it,” a gravedigger said when the exhausted-looking priest was finished.
Another man with a gold-ink pen wrote basic details on a temporary cross. It was for a woman who had been killed by shelling as she cooked outside. She was 69.
A row of empty graves lay waiting.
Finally, on Saturday, Trubchaninova was reunited with her son. In a small cemetery in a field in her village under a cast-iron sky, she clutched at a donated casket. She knelt and she wept. And Vadym was buried.