The Hroza Missile Strike in Ukraine Killed a Family in Mourning

Wreaths and a yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag still festooned the freshly cut grave in a village cemetery.

Words written on decorative ribbons still expressed grief from a wife, children, uncles and aunts.

All of those relatives, just a day later, would soon be placed in their own graves a few dozen yards away.

They were among at least 52 people killed by a missile that hit the wake for a Ukrainian soldier, Andriy Kozyr, in the village of Hroza in eastern Ukraine on Thursday. In an instant, the missile wiped out every known member of the soldier’s immediate family in the area.

Even by the standards of Russia’s war in Ukraine, in which missile, artillery and rocket strikes routinely kill a dozen or more people, the attack on Hroza village stood out as one of the single deadliest strikes of the war, killing a high proportion of a small community.

The United Nations estimates Russian attacks have killed or wounded more than 25,000 civilians, and Ukraine’s weekly civilian casualty counts are often higher than the losses in Hroza. But 19 months into Russia’s invasion, the deaths in ones and twos often pass as private tragedies for families, rather than calamities on the scale of an entire town.

As in other sites hit in Ukraine, the village residents were left searching for answers to why their community center had been targeted and how they could help one another cope. Some were also gripped by paranoia about whether a possible Russian spy was in their midst and had called in the strike.

On Friday, emergency workers were examining the rubble for body fragments from the explosion, and collecting them on a stretcher. Well-wishers had lain flowers, and votive candles burned nearby.

Scattered around the strike site were the detritus of the wake ceremony — a dress shoe, a handkerchief, jackets, abandoned purses.

Police officers collected cellphones, wallets, watches and other valuables in plastic bags, to hand over to relatives if any survived.

The village had a population of 330 people, according to a census, but a municipal employee said its wartime population had fallen closer to 150, meaning the community lost between a third and a sixth of its inhabitants in the attack on Thursday.

“Everybody died,” said a resident, Petro Krasevych. He pointed to several houses on one street that he said were left ownerless by the strike. “Now it’s an empty house with a cow.”

Mr. Krasevych had turned to his faith to carry on, he said.

He and his wife were friends of the dead soldier’s family and had planned to attend the wake. His wife, however, had recently been diagnosed with cancer, a misfortune that he said had saved their lives. They had been at a hospital appointment during the wake. “God protected us,” he said.

The village is only 25 miles from the front line, and paranoia about Russian spies has also surfaced there. The police, Mr. Krasevych said, were going house to house asking if any resident might have told the Russians about a wake for a soldier. “I don’t know what type of person would kill his neighbors,” Mr. Krasevych said.

The strike hit as relatives, friends and neighbors of the Kozyr family were sitting down for a meal in a village cafe. A 6-year-old boy was among the dead, a regional governor said. When workers reached the bottom of the rubble pile Friday, four people — two adults and two children — remained missing and only genetic testing of the fragments could determine if they had died in the cafe, the regional police said on Facebook.

In a nightly address Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to struggle for words to denounce the attack. To call it “beastly,” he said, would be an affront to beasts.

“It was not a blind attack. People had gathered there for a memorial meal, a Christian memorial meal. Who could launch a missile at them? Who?” he asked.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, repeated a denial on Friday that the Russian military strikes civilian targets, although the strike fit a longstanding pattern of Russian missile attacks on civilian centers.

In Hroza, the missile killed at least a dozen residents of one street, Samarska Street, according to neighbors who pointed out home after home that had lost inhabitants.

Anatoly Horbenko, 26, a tractor driver, said he had run to the cafe to help the wounded and that what he saw was so disturbing he did not sleep Thursday. People who had lost many relatives stood outside the cafe in shock, he said. “I just want it all to end,” he said of the violence in his village, and the war.

Early Friday, less than a day after the strike, workers were already busy building an expansion to the village cemetery, grading an acre or so of ground with backhoes to accommodate the new graves.

Anticipating the rush of burials, one family had reserved a plot with tape, wooden stakes and the names of those who would be buried there, Mykola and Tetyana Androsovich.

“Every one of us knew somebody who died, a godfather, a sister, a brother,” said Volodymyr Shudravy, a village employee working to expand the graveyard. “Now we need to bury these people somewhere,” he added

The toll was high, he said, because Mr. Kozyr — a village boy who died in the war — was well-liked and many came to pay their respects. As well-wishers gathered for the wake, Mr. Kozyr’s widow and daughter had been gripped by grief.

They were “crying so much they were almost screaming” said Tetyana Vorobyova, the wife of the village priest, who left the wake before the strike. The deceased soldier’s son and daughter-in-law were holding up better, she said.

The missile killed the soldier’s entire immediate family, including his widow, daughter, son, daughter-in-law, the parents of the daughter-in-law, uncles, aunts and other relatives, according to surviving neighbors.

“They are all gone,” said Mr. Krasevych, standing outside a home where the soldier’s son, Denys, had lived with his wife and her parents.

On benches, neighbors discussed the tragedy, pondering who would mourn the dead as they had mourned the soldier on the day of the strike, now that there were no known family members alive in the village. In the yard, a black-and-white dog, which another neighbor said was named Pirate, barked wildly and tugged at a chain.

And at the cemetery, a cold wind fluttered the flag on the grave of the soldier, Mr. Kozyr, who died in an artillery strike along the front last year. Killed while his home village was under Russian occupation, he had been temporarily buried elsewhere, until after Ukrainian troops reclaimed Hroza and other parts of the Kharkiv region in a counteroffensive a year ago. The wake on Thursday marked his reburial.

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