By Samya Kullab and Illia Novikov
December 28, 2023
The Washington Post
MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — They recognized the TV repairman. The residents of Oleshky in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine could not identify many of those they buried after a catastrophic dam collapse in June sent water coursing through their homes and shattered their lives. The bodies were too bloated and discolored, volunteer rescuers and health workers said. They described seeing faces that resembled rubber masks, frozen in that last frenzied gasp for air. But to those secretly keeping count of the drowned, Yurii Bilyi was no stranger.
The cheerful 56-year-old was a town fixture. He had serviced many homes and spent his days working from a shop just across the street from the churchyard where he was buried, in a hurriedly dug mass grave, The Associated Press has learned.
Anastasiia Bila, his daughter, remembers his last words clearly over the unstable phone connection. “Nastya,” he affectionately called her, hoping to soothe her anxieties as flood waters rose quickly, inundating 600 square kilometers (230 square miles), submerging entire towns and villages along the banks of the Dnipro River, the majority in Russian-occupied areas. “I’ve seen worse under occupation.”
Over six months since the catastrophic explosion that destroyed the Kakhovka Dam in the southern Kherson region, an AP investigation has found Russian occupation authorities vastly and deliberately undercounted the dead in one of the most devastating chapters of the 22-month war. Russian authorities took control of the issuance of death certificates, immediately removing bodies not claimed by family, and preventing local health workers and volunteers from dealing with the dead, threatening them when they defied orders. “The scale of this tragedy, not just Russia, but even Ukraine doesn’t realize,” said Svitlana, a nurse who initially oversaw the process of collecting death certificates and later escaped to Ukrainian-controlled territory. “It’s a huge tragedy.”
Russia, which didn’t respond to questions for this article, has said 59 people drowned in the territory it controls, roughly 408 square kilometers (160 square miles) of flooded areas. But in the Russian-occupied town of Oleshky alone, which Ukrainian military officials estimate had a population of 16,000 at the time of the flooding, the number is at least in the hundreds. An exact figure for the dead — in Oleshky, the occupied area’s most populous town before the war, and beyond — may never be known, even if Ukrainian forces retake the territory and are able to investigate on the ground.
The AP spoke to three health workers who kept records of the dead in Oleshky, one volunteer who buried bodies and said she was later threatened by Russian police, and two Ukrainian
informants passing intelligence from the area to the Ukrainian security service. According to their accounts, mass graves were dug, and unidentified bodies were taken away and never seen again.
Nearly a dozen interviews were conducted with other residents, rescue volunteers and recent escapees from the area. The AP also gained access to a closed Telegram chat group of 3,000 Oleshky residents who posted about bodies lying on the streets, bodies collected by police and the many missing.
Most spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity or, like Svitlana, on condition only their first names be used, fearing reprisal from Russia on family members still in occupied territory.
Together, these accounts reveal a calculated attempt by Russian authorities to cover up the true cost of the dam collapse, which the AP has found was likely caused by Moscow. Residents of Oleshky fear their enduring traumas risk being forgotten as the war grinds on, and their beloved once idyllic home is gradually depopulated.
The dam burst in the early hours of June 6, causing extensive flooding along the lower Dnipro River, submerging entire communities across the Ukraine-controlled right and Russian-occupied left banks in a matter of hours.
At first, the Russian-appointed administration in Kherson told residents not to be alarmed. In a post on its official Telegram channel, it stressed the “situation is not critical.” So most went about their normal day — walking dogs, going to work, staying at home. Choices that would later prove fatal.
By the afternoon the water levels were rising quickly, inundating two-story homes as the powerful current swept everything away. The elderly struggled to climb up to roofs, people clung to their chimneys waiting to be saved by local rescue crews, most of them civilians who owned boats.
For the first three days of the floods occupation authorities were nowhere to be found, locals said, having apparently fled, despite initially reassuring residents. Conspicuously absent were police and prosecutors, both Russian-appointed officials authorized to deal with the deceased.
Bodies were piling up and decaying in the summer heat, their stench wafted in the air. Wailing relatives approached the town’s medical workers, not knowing where to take the dead. “A lot of people drowned,” said Svitlana, the head nurse at the Oleshky District Multidisciplinary Hospital, the city’s main primary health center, which later transformed into a shelter for people forced out of their homes. The putrefaction of flesh caused many corpses to inflate. “People were floating around the city like balloons.” They needed to be buried. “We took the responsibility,” the nurse said.
They had the authority to issue death certificates both under Ukrainian law and Russian rule. The health center functioned as a main hospital for Oleshky residents after Russia occupied the town in March 2022, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine. Health workers continued to receive salaries from Ukraine, deposited electronically into their bank accounts, a crucial link tying them to their
homeland as the occupation’s draconian laws began to transform everything else before their eyes.
Russian rubles replaced Ukrainian hryvnias in the market. Some residents accepted Russian passports to make life under occupation easier. Keeping record of the Ukrainian dead, largely caused by shelling before the floods, became a last vestige of Ukrainian control.
For health workers in the hospital, it was a matter of national necessity. After occupation authorities forbade the issuance of death certificates in the Ukrainian language on Jan. 1, health workers continued to do so in secret to ensure the Ukrainian medical database was up to date in Kyiv, the capital. Residents were given two certificates, one to satisfy their new occupiers, and the other to keep moored to their homeland. Health workers told residents to hide the latter. The same procedure was followed immediately after the dam collapse. In total, around 15 death certificates were electronically sent during the first week after the flood to Svitlana Serdiukova, the health facility’s medical director in exile, who was keeping track of the registry remotely in government-controlled Ukraine. The cause of death for all 15 was asphyxia by drowning. Everything came to a halt on June 12.
The Russian state emergency rescue service workers were back in Oleshky by the afternoon of June 9, and three days later, they began reasserting control. They brought large trucks and road-clearing equipment and offered to evacuate people first to Radensk, in Kherson region, and from there relocate them to Chelyabinsk and Tula in Russia. The residents refused to be taken that far, asking only to be taken to a dry patch in Oleshky. They were refused. Many stayed put.
Russian authorities had strict orders for the hospital: Doctors were now forbidden from issuing death certificates for flood victims. They were still permitted to issue certificates for other causes of death, however. The new rule was issued verbally, said Svitlana and Yelena, a fellow nurse at the hospital.
From that moment on, they said, flood victims would have to be referred for autopsies in facilities elsewhere in Kherson region, in Kalanchak, Skadovsk, and Henichesk, where doctors approved by occupation authorities would be in charge of issuing the certificates after conducting forensic examinations. Relatives could not bury their family members without the crucial document.
Svitlana said she pressed the police for an official order proving the old policy in place since March had changed. They didn’t have it, and responded to her queries with threats, she said. “They said: ‘You will suffer the consequences for doing this.’ I said, ‘Alright, I am ready, and the doctor, too.’” The order deprived doctors of responsibility for flood victims. It also took away their ability to keep records of the dead for Kyiv.
Serdiukova’s record-keeping could go no further. The last Ukrainian death certificate she received was on June 14.
The police came to the hospital daily to make copies of death certificates issued by doctors, to ensure the rules were being obeyed. “You need to understand under what circumstances we
worked there — under the FSB, police, prosecutors,” Svitlana said, using the acronym for the Russian security service that is the main successor agency of the Soviet-era KGB.
The hospital referred just under 50 bodies to the new autopsy centers, but this doesn’t reflect the total dead. Residents were given specific numbers to call police who dispatched workers to collect discovered bodies, circumventing the hospital altogether. Family members were charged 10,000 rubles (equivalent to about $108) as a service fee, a hefty sum for many under occupation. Those who couldn’t afford that begged doctors to write a different cause of death, such as “heart attack,” so they could be buried quickly, both nurses said. Bodies without relatives to claim them were never seen again. The rescue service also patrolled Oleshky’s streets to collect the dead.
On June 15, the hospital began giving vaccines against hepatitis A, dysentery and typhoid amid rising concerns of water-borne diseases. A worker from the town’s municipal “Pobut” service, responsible for cleaning streets, arrived visibly inebriated, Svitlana said.
Svitlana told him to return when he was sober. But the man, in his early 40s, replied, he could not but drink after what he had seen. He had been ordered to dig out the dead from under their collapsed homes, he said, and bury them in mass graves. He recognized some. “The TV guy has drowned, the ginger, Yura,” he told her, referring to his hair color, according to Svitlana’s account. She knew him, too.
Anastasiia Bila, Yurii’s daughter, was in Lviv in western Ukraine, where she had fled before the invasion, when she spoke to her father for the last time. It was on June 6, at around 3 p.m. He had refused to evacuate their family home. He had two German shepherds he could not abandon. The connection was intermittent. She urged him to go to the second floor of the house if the water levels continued to rise. She tried to call again a half-hour later, but there was no reception.
She made a plea on the private Telegram chat: “Bilyi Yurii Anatoliyovych, does not get in touch for a second day,” she wrote, adding his last known location, his home’s address: Dniprovska, 85. “Please help me find my father, maybe someone saw or knows his whereabouts, any information.”
On Sunday, five days later, Bila’s uncle was able to check on his brother by hiring a boat with his wife and son. They found Bilyi’s lifeless body. He told Anastasiia she could stop looking for her father.
The body was buried in a mass grave in the yard of the Orthodox Pokrovska Church in the center of Oleshky. It was not possible to bury him and others anywhere else, as most places were still flooded, Bila said. Bilyi’s shop has been on the same street. The grave was doused with chlorine, Bila’s uncle, who witnessed the burial, recounted to her, she said. The priest prayed over the dead.
Pobut workers, made up of local Ukrainians and acting on orders of occupation authorities, were responsible for collecting and burying the dead, according to health workers. They dug on a daily basis between June 10-20. The bodies were buried without coffins, not even bags to cover them. As the unit was acting on orders of occupation authorities, the decision to bury people in mass
graves likely came from those authorities, health workers said. “The first bodies were buried in the city center (church), as 90% of the city was underwater,” said Bila. “Those bodies were not processed by a hospital, no autopsy or time of death, they were buried right away,” she said.
Serdiukova later confirmed Bilyi was not in Ukraine’s registry. Officially he is considered a missing person.
The exact number of bodies in the grave where Bilyi was buried is not known. Bila said her uncle did not tell her a precise number. He is living under occupation and did not respond to questions from the AP.
But the hospital workers the AP interviewed estimate the number to be between 10 to 20. For a time, they tried to document who was buried where. They asked relatives to fill out forms detailing where bodies were found, how they were clothed, and later, which plot of which grave they were buried in. “The bodies were collected and buried in a mass grave to ensure they don’t start decomposing on city streets. After de-occupation there will be an exhumation. That’s when we’ll be able to investigate everything,” said Serdiukova. With the return of the Russian state emergency service, the process became more orderly. They arrived with trucks to carry bodies and a special rescue team.
The fate of unidentified bodies, those without relatives to claim them, carted away by the Russian rescue service is also not known. Yelena, the nurse, approached a truck driver and asked him what would happen to them. He told her casually that the bodies with no relatives were buried in a mass grave, she said. Without caskets, in black bags.
While several people interviewed referred to more mass graves than the one where Bila’s father was buried, the AP was unable to determine the precise number of such graves or how many people were buried in them.
Bila considers herself lucky. At least her father is buried in the town he loved and refused to leave, even under the threat of death. Like many, she’s waiting for Ukraine to liberate the town. Then, she said, “I’ll be able to re-bury him in a proper cemetery.”
The volunteer was not afraid of dead bodies. When the floods inundated her neighborhood in Oleshky, the sight of the floating dead did not stir her like it did the others. She had witnessed her best friend’s death when she was a teenager. “It’s the living that frighten me,” she said.
On June 7, she, her husband and three neighbors went about evacuating trapped residents inside homes. By June 9, she witnessed dead bodies for the first time. They were “bloated and partially decomposed. They were floating. I often couldn’t recognize a person,” she said.
Some were trapped under the sticky mud and had to be dug out. Those she knew, around 20, she took to the hospital with the hopes that relatives could claim the bodies. The rest were taken to another church in the city, blessed by a priest and buried in the town’s cemetery. She said she collected “more than 100” dead. The health workers estimate 200 to 300 people drowned in Oleshky. “I’m even afraid to say it out loud,” said Yelena.
Many were older, unable to physically leave their homes or climb up to the roof, according to the accounts of rescue volunteers, residents who reported relatives dead, and health workers. “I buried them with my own hands,” the volunteer said. There was no money to hire diggers, she said, but people volunteered to do it for free. The graves were dug shallow, 1 meter (3 feet) deep. Any more and they would flood. The volunteer said she used bedsheets to cover them. When those ran out, she said, she found plastic film. Pits were dug for each person, but sometimes for up to three, the volunteer said.
But this work was put to a stop when the Russian rescue service returned. Occupation authorities prohibited volunteers from collecting or burying the dead, telling them this was a job for the police only.
Russian emergency service trucks arrived. Workers in white bodysuits put the dead in black bags, witnesses said. One driver told the volunteer they were destined for autopsies in Henichesk, an occupied port city about three hours away.
Some days later, several police officers came to the volunteer’s home. She said they told her that an informant had told them she had been involved in burying people without death certificates. They interrogated her about why she had transported bodies, and how many she had recovered. She explained there was no other option, the bodies were smelling.
They reprimanded her, telling her she did not have the right to collect bodies and eventually forced her to sign a document promising she would stop collecting the dead because she didn’t have the right qualifications, she said. “They told me that if I continue doing so they’ll ‘cage me’. That’s when I stopped,” the volunteer said. “I was scared for myself and my family.” The police visited her home almost every day after that, she said. “They had video journalists coming here to show how Russia helps here. They wanted to conceal the consequences of the dam explosion, so that people don’t talk about how many people suffered and how many needed help. They wanted to hide it,” she said. “That’s why they prohibited us.”
The evidence is still hidden in Oleshky: documents detailing the dead, plots where they are buried, photos, the death certificates collected in secret. “I hid all these papers behind closed doors so that no one knew,” Svitlana said. “With time everything is forgotten, some people might leave, their life will change, but with those papers — no one will forget. It was important to save them.”
She is waiting for Ukraine to liberate the territory so the truth can come to light. She cleared her phone and left documents behind to keep them out of the hands of Russians who routinely stop Ukrainians leaving occupied areas and conduct thorough security checks.
Residents, speaking to the AP after they returned to Ukraine-controlled territory, said most of the town is no longer habitable. Many remain missing since the floods, while battles inch closer. Ukrainian forces are reportedly advancing near the Krynky area, which lies 40 kilometers (24 miles) from Oleshky. There was a pause during the flooding from shelling, which resumed with ferocity, residents say.
Both Russia and Ukraine have traded blame for bringing down the dam, but analysts agree that Russia had motive. The dam’s collapse occurred right as Ukraine launched what would develop into a disappointing counteroffensive. The flooding altered the geography of the Dnipro River, complicating plans set out by Ukrainian military leaders.
Now, two-thirds of Oleshky is gone, entire districts and homes are destroyed, according to the accounts of half a dozen residents who left. “There are two Ukraines,” said Svitlana. “One is at war, many people are left homeless. And the other is living life well and flourishes.”
In Oleshky, divisions between the townspeople have deepened, sometimes within members of a single family. The volunteer’s sister moved to Russia. Bila’s uncle and his family are estranged from hers because he harbors pro-Russian views, she said. Svitlana said colleagues still in Oleshky told her that her office was ransacked after she left in August. But she is confident the documents are still hidden. “It’s a durable book,” she said.