Tears welled up under Viktoria Volya’s oversized sunglasses as she carefully placed a flower in one of 16 buckets lined up near the burnt-out husk of the Amstor shopping centre Tuesday morning. Each bucket represented one of the dead recovered from the mall after a Russian missile strike on Monday, a number that has since risen to 18.
Ms. Volya said she still didn’t know the fate of the friendly, pregnant young woman who worked at the mall’s lingerie kiosk. They chatted often, but she didn’t know her name.
She now fears that the conversation they had last week, when she visited Amstor with her two children, was their final one. “I’m really worried about her. She was working in exactly the part of the building where the rocket had hit,” the 50-year-old psychologist said. “It’s very, very painful.”
Kremenchuk was a city in agony on Tuesday, as cranes and excavators pulled at the rubble of the mall, where many people may yet lie buried.
Regional governor Dmytro Lunin told reporters that 36 people were still missing, with hopes fading that they would be found alive. Fifty-nine others had been injured in the attack, including 25 who were hospitalized.
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Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Irina Venediktova visited this quiet mid-sized city on Tuesday and said the air strike on the mall qualified as the latest in a long list of war crimes committed by the Russian military since it launched its invasion of Ukraine four months ago.
“I am sure that it is a war crime under Ukrainian legislation,” she said. “And I am sure that it is a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute. “We see it systematically – shelling Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, hospitals, kindergartens, malls, as we see now. Why are they doing [this]? I’m sure that Russians know very well that they are just killing civilians … but they are doing it again and again.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said there were 1,000 people near and in the mall at the time of the attack, called for Russia to be declared a state sponsor of terrorism.
Russia’s Defence Ministry denied that it had attacked the mall. In an official statement Tuesday, it instead claimed to have struck “a weapons depot storing arms received from the United States and Europe,” causing an explosion that started the fire at Amstor – which Moscow falsely described as “a non-functioning shopping centre.”
Mr. Lunin dismissed Russia’s claim that there was a military target anywhere near the Kremenchuk mall. “You can come with me, and I can show you this is an absolutely civilian object,” he said, standing in front of a table of burned stuffed animals and a sign that said “bread” that had been recovered from the ruins of the mall. “There are no weapons here, there is no warehouse.” He said Ukraine knew the name of the Russian pilot who had fired the pair of X-22 cruise missiles that struck the shopping centre, adding that his country “would not forgive” what had happened.
Monday’s attack came as the G7 was concluding a summit in Germany, where leaders vowed to continue sending financial and military aid to Ukraine.
Tuesday marks the opening of a NATO meeting in Spain, where the military alliance will formally announce a major enlargement of its high-readiness force to counter the threat of Russian expansionism.
One of the reasons so many people died inside the mall was that many shoppers and staff did not heed an air-raid siren that sounded several minutes before the missiles hit.
“Unfortunately, those people who died have died because they ignored the rule of going to the shelters,” Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky said.
“I would like to appeal to state-owned companies, privately owned companies, everyone: If you hear air-raid alarm, you need to react immediately because it’s about the safety of your staff and everyone around.”
An air-raid siren sounded in Kremenchuk minutes after Mr. Monastyrsky spoke. While rescue work was suspended, and police and firefighters moved away from the mall, only a small minority of those around the disaster scene headed into a nearby bomb shelter.
After four months of war, many Ukrainians have stopped taking cover each and every time they hear the alarm. Local residents said the Amstor mall had actually picked up business from its bigger rival in town, the New Line Mall – which would immediately suspend operations for a siren, occasionally irritating customers who were moments away from completing their shopping – precisely because shoppers knew that Amstor would remain open.
“Even I would go to Amstor because it wouldn’t close during alarms. We would just look at our phones, and if we saw it was an alarm for all of Ukraine, we would keep going,” said Olga Maslova, a lawyer who was helping a family look for their missing daughter on Tuesday. Ms. Maslova said she feared the young woman was dead, since police had asked the family for DNA samples.
Amstor’s policy of staying open during air-raid sirens made it difficult for those who worked there to abandon their posts if they felt unsafe.
Alyona Makarenko, a local psychologist, said her aunt Olga worked alone at a kiosk that sold lottery tickets. She was financially responsible for the tickets and couldn’t leave the kiosk unattended with people still in the mall, so Olga only fled after the missiles hit the building on Monday.
Ms. Makarenko said her aunt described a nightmarish scene of stumbling through a thick cloud of black smoke, past the injured and dying, some of them missing limbs, as she tried to find the exit. “It’s a mystery how she managed to escape. Somehow, blinded in the smoke, she found her way out.”
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