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Ukraine: In my homeland, the smell of death on a summer afternoon

There was a mass grave that held 300 people, and I was standing at its edge. The chalky body bags were piled up in the pit, exposed. One moment before, I was a different person, someone who never knew how wind smelled after it passed over the dead on a pleasant summer afternoon.

Ukrainian soldiers at their frontline position the frontline in the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. (Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times)

In mid-June, those corpses were far from a complete count of the civilians killed by shelling in the area around the industrial city of Lysychansk over the previous two months. They were only “the ones who did not have anyone to bury them in a garden or a backyard,” a soldier said casually.

He lit a cigarette while we looked at the grave.

The smoke obscured the smell.

It was rare to get such a moment to slow down, observe and reflect while reporting from Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. But that day, the Ukrainian soldiers were pleased after delivering packets of food and other goods to local civilians, so they offered to take reporters from The New York Times to another site that they said we should see: the mass grave.

Ukraine, Kyiv, Russian shelling in Ukraine, An artillery unit from Ukraine’s 58th Brigade fires toward advancing Russian infantry from a frontline position near the town of Bakhmut, Ukraine on Aug. 10, 2022. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)

After leaving the site, I naively thought the palpable presence of death in the air could not follow me home — over all of the roads and checkpoints separating the graves in the Donbas — to my loved ones in the western part of Ukraine.

I was wrong. (Read more)