Ukraine’s push to prosecute Russian war crimes leaves a Kharkiv mother to bury her son twice


VILHIVKA, Ukraine — When Russian tanks rolled into this small village just outside Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in March, Olga Kotenko pleaded with her son, Volodymyr, that it was too dangerous to keep delivering food and medicine to elderly people in the neighborhood.

As the shelling got worse, she became exasperated with her 35-year-old son. She would shout and swear at him, while trying to physically block him from leaving the house they shared.

“He wouldn’t listen,” said Olga, 68. “Sometimes, he would come home and say, ‘Mom, you can’t imagine the bombing we were under today.’”

On March 15, she said, Volodymyr was driving home after helping people in the neighboring town of Malaya Rohan when his car was hit by fire from a Russian tank. She said a witness to the attack called the Kotenkos to let them know Russian soldiers had killed Volodymyr.

Volodymyr Kotenko pictured in his 20s. His mother described him as a "kind and loyal friend."
Volodymyr Kotenko pictured in his 20s. His mother described him as a “kind and loyal friend.”Courtesy Olga Kotenko

It wasn’t safe to leave the house due to the fighting, but Olga and her husband, Vladimir, went to look for their son anyway. When they found his charred car, it didn’t look like anyone was inside. “We thought that maybe someone made a mistake, and he was still alive,” Olga said.

But as they got closer, the couple saw their son’s body had been seared into the driver’s seat. Some limbs had been blasted across the road. Only a foot was still intact.

“We put him back together in pieces,” Olga said.

By hand, they carried the bits of Volodymyr’s body that they were able to scrape out from the car and walked 9 miles back to their home. “I sometimes knocked on houses, asking for a bag or a wheelbarrow, but we couldn’t find anything,” she said.

Back at their house, the Kotenkos packaged Volodymyr’s body parts into white tarps, dug a grave in their back garden and said goodbye to their son. They put a wood crate on top of the grave to keep the dogs from digging it up.

Olga said she didn’t need a prosecutor to tell her that the killing of Volodymyr was a war crime. She said that part was obvious to her. But when Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops out from the region in early May, liberating Vilhivka for the first time in weeks, she saw an ad on television encouraging people to come forward with information about Russian aggression. She thought it was important to report what happened.

When Olga agreed to let a team of war crime investigators come to her house last week, she didn’t realize that would mean digging up Volodymyr’s remains and taking them to a morgue in Kharkiv so that forensic analysts could collect evidence.

“Can’t you tell from him what happened?” she said through tears as investigators lifted the tarps from the hole in the ground, Volodymyr’s decaying remains leaking out through the seams. “That’s all that’s left of him,” she said. “Please don’t take my boy.”

She’d already buried her son once. She didn’t want to do it again.