Friends and family mourn the loss of Bucha, who became a symbol of years of war in Ukraine
By Stefaniia Bern and Janis Laizans
BUCHA, Ukraine/VILNIUS (Reuters) – The brightly painted nails were what revealed the body’s identity.
Iryna Filkina was 52 years old when she was killed in Ukraine in the first days of the war.
Almost four weeks after her death, believed to be March 5, journalists gained access to the town of Bucha near Kiev after invading Russian forces fled.
Filkina was among the dead left unattended on the side of the road, and photos taken of her muddy, upturned hand with bright red fingernails spread around the world and became a powerful symbol of civil suffering.
A year after the full-scale invasion, her family and friends have split up and her life has been turned upside down by the conflict. But they remain united in their grief for a woman whose death still seems so pointless to them.
“For me, the world ended on March 5,” Filkina’s older sister Svitlana Safonova said as she sobbed beside her grave in a cemetery on the outskirts of Bucha.
“It’s one thing when someone dies after a long illness and has a funeral. It’s another when someone is killed unexpectedly and for no reason,” said the 60-year-old, who brought 12 pink roses with her on a cold snowy day in early February.
“And if you don’t even know how to find her, to bury her so that she has a resting place, a place that we can visit,” she added, referring to the accidental discovery of Filkina’s body and identity.
Safonova regularly visits the conspiracy at one of five new burial sites that residents say have appeared in the past 12 months to house the war dead.
Bucha was on the Russians’ route to the prize city of Kiev, and although they were eventually pushed back, the extent of the destruction and loss of life means it is now tantamount to the brutality of the invading forces.
Bucha’s mayor said more than 400 civilians had been killed there by Russian forces, some with their hands tied behind their backs.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of war crimes in Bucha, a claim the Kremlin denies. She has claimed pictures of corpses on Bucha’s streets are fake and characterizes the war as a special operation to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine.
“The Day God Died”
According to Filkina’s relatives, she was shot dead by Russian soldiers while cycling through Bucha to get home. Reuters could not independently verify this account.
She died on Yablunska Street, a long, now infamous, thoroughfare on the southern edge of Bucha where much of the search for war crimes evidence has focused.
It wasn’t until early April that media images of her remains and those of other dead civilians began circulating on websites and social media, and it was there that the beautician who painted Filkina’s nails realized who she was.
“It was a normal evening,” recalls Anastasiia Subacheva, a former Bucha resident who moved to Vilnius, where she has found a new home and works in a beauty salon.
“Scrolling through my Instagram feed, I saw a post with pictures of Iryna and the picture of the hand. I stopped breathing,” she told Reuters in the Lithuanian capital earlier this month.
Someone had linked the image of the corpse to a photo previously posted by Subacheva of a smiling Filkina showing off her freshly painted nails. Four were red and the fifth had a small purple heart outlined in silver lacquer.
“I went through our messages and compared the pictures I had taken of her to this picture. And she was. I started screaming…I cried on my mother’s shoulder, I felt very empty and hurt.”
Safonova learned about what had happened from her nieces, Filkina’s daughters; Photos that have been circulating, including from Reuters on April 2, helped the family locate the body. The daughters have set up a charity fund called Mama Ira to raise money for children affected by the violence in Bucha.
Subacheva recalled how Filkina, at the time of her death a heating attendant in a popular Kiev shopping mall, was training to be a makeup artist and attended several courses with her in February.
The two became close and Subacheva said her older friend inspired her to live life to the fullest.
“When I think of her, I want to smile,” she said.
When asked what February 24, the first day of the full-scale Russian invasion, meant to her as the first anniversary approaches, Subacheva took time to think before answering.
“This is the day God died… This was the day my life was stolen. February 24 is the day all Ukrainians’ lives were taken, but we are trying to get it back.”
(Additional reporting by Yiming Woo in Bucha; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Alexandra Hudson)