Despair and Denial Amid Search for Ukrainian Mall Victims

KREMENCHUK, Ukraine (AP) -- How do you grieve when there is no body to be found? How do you move forward when the person you loved vanished into the dust in a matter of seconds? These are some of the unthinkable questions many in Kremenchuk are now grappling with after a Russian airstrike obliterated a busy shopping mall.

Many hoped the war would not reach as far as their city. Since the invasion, checkpoints had been erected at the entrance to the town. Air raid sirens wailed occasionally. There had been two strikes, without casualties, on a oil refinery on the outskirts of town. But for the citizens of Kremenchuk, a breezy city on the banks of the Dnipro river in central Ukraine, hundreds of kilometers from the front lines, the town offered them a sense of relative safety.

Then a Russian cruise missile crashed through the Amstor shopping mall, igniting a fierce blaze that burned through the building and those trapped inside within minutes.

Some had just stopped by the mall on their way home from work, to fix their phone or shop for clothes. But before they could register what was happening, the building became a black, choking inferno, the fire inside so hot it melted the metal and glass.

Survivors told the AP that at the time of impact there were "hundreds" of people inside the building. So far 18 people have been confirmed dead, at least 20 other people have been reported missing, while dozens are in intensive care. In the hours after the strike, local Telegram groups were filled with panicked messages asking for information about missing daughters, brothers, friends.

Among those still searching for their relative is Oleksandr Baybuza, whose brother-in-law Kostiantyn Voznyi was working inside Amstor at the time of the attack.

Baybuza told the AP that the family had no information about Voznyi's whereabouts.

"Everyone hopes he is alive, that he is injured somewhere. Nobody is losing hope. Everyone is waiting for good news. We are very worried" said Baybuza, his face pale and exhausted.

When the war started, Voznyi had sent his wife and children to safety abroad. He stayed in Kremenchuk, unable to leave the country due to martial law, and wound up working at an electronics store on the central aisle of the Amstor mall. Oleksandr says witnesses saw him working there that afternoon.

The family has not been able to find him at any local hospitals. DNA samples have been taken from Voznyi's children and his father. Now begins the terrible wait.

Fourteen emergency service psychologists are currently working at the blast site with families like Voznyi's and with survivors. The psychologists are up against a difficult task: The explosion was so powerful it is possible relatives may never find any trace of their loved ones.

Svitlana Rybalko, a press officer for the State Emergency Services, told the AP that alongside the identified dead, investigators had found the fragments of 8 additional bodies. "The police cannot say for sure how many (victims) there are. So we are finding not the bodies but the fragments of bodies. Now we are clearing at the very epicentre of the blast. Here we practically cannot find bodies, as such."

The psychologists are working to help families come to terms with the idea that they may not ever find their relatives.

"The main thing is: we do not give them extra hope. We do not say that everything will be all right. That your loved ones will be taken out of the rubble alive after several days. If we say so, they will have false hope, false expectations" says Yuliia Falieva, a State Emergency Service psychologist.

"It's important that they accept this reality as soon as possible" said another psychologist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "It's better to release the emotions now rather than store them up for later."

Falieva says that the psychologists' main job is to remain close to those who are suffering, to listen, to help them through this deeply traumatic period. She says that mostly people do not approach the psychologists to ask for help, so it is their job to identify who needs support.

"We visually select people who need help most of all. It could be a person who is too excited, is trembling, cries too much or behaves aggressively" says Falieva, adding that she has helped people looking for their children, former mall employees concerned about colleagues and anxious citizens alike.

On Wednesday morning, several people still hoping for news of their loved ones stood by the wreckage of the mall. A young woman sat cross-legged on the ground and wept, concealing her tears with dark sunglasses. Another woman was comforted by one of the psychologists. One, man who did not want to give his name, appeared distressed as he stood staring at the ruins. He had brought yellow flowers to lay at the nearby memorial. "I was in there, I almost died" he said "I shouldn't have come here, it was a bad idea -- I can't even look at this… I want to kill these Russian scumbags."

Like many of the residents who now come to stare in silent disbelief at the wreckage of Amstor, Falieva, an experienced crisis psychologist, is still in shock.

"I've been working for 20 years but this is the first experience of the kind. Before we had crisis situations connected with nature, road traffic collisions. ... Throughout these long days all of us are feeling this kind of shock, confusion, and anger."

Kremenchuk, Ukrainian officials say, must serve as a reminder that while the country is at war, nowhere is safe. Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine's Prosecutor General, who visited the blast site on Tuesday, said that all citizens should expect incoming missiles "every minute" and "be ready".

Psychologically it is difficult for many to accept the tragedy that struck their quiet, riverside town.

One resident, Denys Ipatov, says, "I still can't believe the war came to our city. ... Why do all that? To peaceful citizens, to a peaceful facility. I don't understand the sense of this war. … What drives these barbarians?"