Precision missile strike on cafe hosting soldier's wake decimates Ukrainian village

AP , Saturday 7 Oct 2023

The cafe had been closed throughout the war but reopened especially for a dead soldier’s wake, and almost every household in the village sent someone to mourn the native son.

A local resident passes by a crater caused by a Russian rocket attack, which hit several buildings i
A local resident passes by a crater caused by a Russian rocket attack, which hit several buildings in central Kharkiv, Ukraine, Friday, Oct. 6, 2023. AP

 

When the gathering to honor Andrii Kozyr was struck by a precision missile that Ukrainian officials said was fired by Russia, almost every household in Hroza in eastern Ukraine lost someone. The cafe was obliterated. Entire families perished in an instant. In all, 52 people died out of a population of 300. Many villagers now suspect that a local may have tipped off Russian forces.

On Friday, a day after the strike, an earth mover extended the graveyard to make room for them all. Among the dead were a couple who left behind four children, a community leader and three generations of the soldier’s family, including his wife, mother and son, who also fought for Ukraine and had requested leave to attend the funeral held shortly before wake.

It could be months before DNA identifies most of the remains. For now, the names are scrawled on cardboard or white plastic squares, and string marks the boundaries of the fresh graves.

Only six people in the cafe survived, and the town is trying to fathom why and how the wake was targeted.

Like much of the region east of the regional capital of Kharkiv, Hroza was under Russian occupation for six months, until September 2022, when Ukrainian troops liberated the area.  

Locals say it is strictly a civilian area. There has never been any military base, whether Russian or Ukrainian. They said only civilians or family came to the funeral and wake, and residents were the only people who would have known where and when it was taking place.

Ukrainian officials said the weapon was a precision Iskander-style missile, which is said to have an accuracy of 5 to 7 meters (yards).

Dmytro Chubenko, spokesman for the regional prosecutor, said investigators are looking into whether someone from the area transmitted the cafe’s coordinates to the Russians — a betrayal to everyone now grieving in Hroza.

Many share that suspicion, describing a strike timed to kill the maximum number of people. The date of the funeral was set a few weeks ago, and the time was shared throughout the village late last week.

Valerii and Liubov Kozyr lost their daughter and son-in-law in the attack, along with their son-in-law’s parents, who had been childhood friends of theirs. That makes them the sole guardians of three of their four grandchildren, ages 10 to 19. They said the 19-year-old had been taken to Russia during the occupation and was trapped there.

Their daughter, Olha, married Anatolii Panteleiev when she was just 16, and the two had been married for two decades and lived next door to her parents. Their son-in-law was friends with Andrii Kozyr, and though they shared a last name, he wasn't related to the dead soldier.

The couple’s red Niva was still parked in the driveway Friday, but their home was empty. And the morning ritual of a cup of coffee shared among generations was shattered. In the hallway was a portrait of Olha, taken two years ago in the cafe where she would later die.

When Liubov heard the explosion, she ran outside and looked toward the source of the sound.

“The children are gone. That’s all, they’re gone,” she told her husband. Valerii rode his bicycle to the cafe but refused to let his wife accompany him. What he saw was unbearable, he said.

That night, house after house along the village's main street was empty and unlit.

Not all bodies could be identified. Valerii went to the cemetery nonetheless to reserve a space, marking “Panteleiev family: 4 people” on a cardboard sign.

The pair gathered in a courtyard Friday with a friend who had lost two siblings in the missile strike, the men crying and cursing the war. Then, they recalled each person they knew who was killed in the strike. The list was long.

Further down the street, 15-year-old Ksiusha Mukhovata skipped class to go with her older brother to give a DNA sample. Their parents were at the wake, along with their paternal grandmother.

The desk where their father had been teaching online since the bombing of his school was still scattered with his papers. Ksiusha's grandmother, Tetiana Lukashova, said she still had the feeling that the darkened homes would spring to life, as though everything had just been frozen in time.

“I hardly even cried,” Ksiusha said of her first night without her parents. “We looked at photos on the laptop. Tried to get some sleep.”

She sat on the floor surrounded by photographs documenting decades of her family’s history and of the village. From time to time, she took out a new photo and pointed to the smiling faces of people who were somehow related to her family: “This one died” or “She was there too.”

When the explosion happened, Ksiusha was attending online class at school. She immediately messaged her best friend, Alina, because she was surprised that her parents hadn’t called her, as she was home alone.

At first, her 23-year-old brother went to the site of the attack. She followed him with Alina, whose mother and sister died in the blast, and whose grandmother is in critical condition. Ksiusha walked among the crowd, trying to focus her attention on the faces of those who were alive.

When evening came, Ksiusha went to sleep in her brother’s room. To reach her own, she would have to walk through the room where her parents slept.

“I don’t want to sleep there,” she said.

After the missile strike, the Kharkiv region declared a period of mourning and ordered flags flown at half-staff.

Asked about the strike on Hroza, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian military doesn’t target civilians, despite ample evidence to the contrary over the course of the war.

“The strikes target military infrastructure and troop locations,” Peskov said.

Liubov Kozyr is still trying to figure out what the future could hold for her and her husband. They expected their daughter and son-in-law would be there through their old age, along with his parents, who had been friends and now were family.

For now, “I’m holding onto pills,” she said. “I take them, calm down a bit. I scream, scream, and then calm down.”

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