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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky examines the site of a recent battle in Bucha, close to Kyiv, Ukraine, on Apr. 4th.Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press

As images of brutality in the suburbs of Kyiv stirred global horror and demands for war-crimes investigations, a Russian retreat that has left behind corpses on streets also brought new hope to Ukrainians returning to parts of their country.

The Canadian government on Sunday joined in condemnation of what Human Rights Watch has called “apparent war crimes” in Bucha, a satellite city of the Ukrainian capital. In that small centre and others nearby, now abandoned by Russian forces after weeks of intense fighting, civilians have been found dead, with their hands tied and gunshots to the backs of their heads. Bucha’s mayor told AFP that a recently discovered mass grave contained nearly 300 bodies, including women and a 14-year-old boy.

Canada’s Foreign Minister, Mélanie Joly, said on Twitter that the killings amounted to “senseless murder of innocent civilians in Ukraine.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called them “unspeakable horrors.”

“I am deeply shocked by the images of civilians killed in Bucha, Ukraine,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement. He called for an independent investigation that “leads to effective accountability.”

In a video address on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called Russian troops “murderers, torturers, rapists, looters.”

“Concentrated evil has visited our land,” he said.

Communal workers carry body bags to a waiting van (unseen) following Russian shelling of Bucha on April 3.SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, at the Polish border, Ukrainian mothers held hands with their children as they walked back into a country they had fled just weeks ago. The exodus from Ukraine continues – more than four million residents have now left – but victory over Russian forces in key parts of the country has made people want to return. About 537,000 Ukrainians have come back, the country’s interior ministry said Sunday. In the past week, 144,000 people left Ukraine, and 88,000 entered.

“I just want to be home,” said Kristina Matviychuk, who embraced her husband in the Ukrainian border town of Shehyni on Sunday after arriving from Poland with her two young daughters. The situation in her hometown, Ternopil, is not bad at the moment, she said. And while she was grateful to the family in Poland that had housed her for two weeks, she added, “my heart is with my country – Ukraine.”

Volodymyr Burka, a volunteer at the railway station in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, has opened his home to 25 people fleeing the country in the weeks since the start of the war. Five have now returned, he said. Some have described difficulties securing overseas employment, or even proper showers. “They say, ‘we are tired,’” Mr. Burka said. “A lot of people are coming back.”

But it has been a fraught return. The Ukrainian military’s success in taking back more than 30 towns and villages in the Kyiv region has been joyless, blackened by the gore and destruction left by Russian troops. In Bucha, Ukrainian soldiers extracted corpses with cables, fearful that they had been booby trapped by the Russians.

President Zelensky, in his video address, used a series of questions to describe the senselessness of the recent discoveries: a man lying dead on a road, his legs still astride a bicycle; a woman whose fingernails still glowed with fiery red polish on a lifeless hand.

“Why were ordinary civilians in an ordinary peaceful city tortured to death? Why were women strangled after their earrings were ripped out of their ears? How could women be raped and killed in front of children? How could their corpses be desecrated even after death? Why did they crush the bodies of people with tanks?” he asked.

“How did all this become possible?”

The Kremlin denied any responsibility for atrocities, instead blaming Ukrainian forces, without evidence, of staging the deaths of civilians.

“During the time this settlement was under the control of the Russian armed forces, not a single local resident was hurt,” the Russian Ministry of Defence said.

Communal service workers collect a body of a man killed by Russian troops shelling in Bucha.SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian authorities have removed the bodies of 410 civilians from towns around Kyiv, said the country’s prosecutor-general, Iryna Venediktova. Across the country, 158 children have been killed since the beginning of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, and a further 258 injured, authorities said.

Ukrainian forces regained control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Saturday, and Dmytro Zhyvytskyi, the head of the country’s Sumy region, said Russian forces were withdrawing from his area. But air raid sirens once again sounded across Ukraine on Sunday night, as the Russian offensive continued. Over the weekend, missiles struck a college in Vasylkiv, to the south of Kyiv. Other missile strikes hit the Black Sea city of Mykolayiv, destroyed an oil refinery in Poltava and damaged what local authorities called “critical infrastructure” in Odesa. Russia claimed the destruction of an oil refinery and fuel storage facilities around Odesa.

Roughly 70 per cent of Chernihiv and 80 per cent of Izyum have been destroyed, municipal officials said.

Oleksii Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, warned that Russian troops are regrouping for new attacks on eastern areas of the country, including Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv. “They are not going to stop,” Mr. Danilov said.

Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city, situated near the Russian border. It has come under heavy attack, including over this weekend, when it was struck by Russian artillery, mortars and tank fire. Even so, the Ukrainian military has claimed fresh success in the area, saying Sunday it had killed most members of a Russian tank regiment operating nearby.

Such signs of success have been enough to convince some people to return to the city. On Sunday, Natasha Goncharuk, a government bookkeeper, waited on a chilly platform in Lviv for a train to Kharkiv with her husband and two children. “It’s a quieter place now,” Ms. Goncharuk said. “So we decided Kharkiv is now the best option for us.” She acknowledged that parts of the city had been turned into “hell,” with destruction reaching within two kilometres of her family home. “We feel fear and nervousness, but it’s normal to go back,” she said. “We have a grandmother there.”

Natasha Goncharuk, second from left, waits with her family for a train to Kharkiv from Lviv on April 4. The retreat of Russian forces from some parts of Ukraine has prompted some people to return to their homes, despite a continuing Russian military offensive.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Hopes for peace have kindled hopes for happiness. Svitlana Maistruk returned to Ukraine from Poland on Saturday to be reunited with her husband in Lviv. The couple were legally married last year, but are planning to hold a church wedding in coming days. Ms. Maistruk has only jeans and sneakers for the ceremony, but “it’s a sign that life continues,” she said. “And we have to organize something to celebrate this life.”

Still, she said, re-entering Ukraine had stirred difficult emotions, particularly because her return coincided with the grisly revelations from Bucha and elsewhere. Being on Ukrainian soil once again – and being awoken by air raid sirens on her first night back – has thrust her into the reality of a country deeply scarred by war.

“When we crossed the border,” she said, “I understood that I have to face my grief, and I have to face this pain.”

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