Friends, family mourn Bucha victim who became symbol of Ukraine's year-long war

BUCHA, Ukraine/VILNIUS, Feb 22 (Reuters) - The brightly painted nails were what gave the identity of the body away.

Iryna Filkina was 52 when she was killed in the first days of the war in Ukraine.

Nearly four weeks after her death, believed to be on March 5, journalists gained access to the town of Bucha near Kyiv after invading Russian forces fled.

Filkina was among the dead left untended on the side of the road and photographs taken of her muddy upturned hand, with bright red fingernails, spread around the world and became a potent symbol of civilian suffering.

A year on from the full-scale invasion, her family and friends have parted ways, their lives upended by the conflict. But they remain united in grief for a woman whose death still seems to them so pointless.

"For me the world ended on March 5," Filkina's older sister Svitlana Safonova said as she sobbed next to her grave in a cemetery on the outskirts of Bucha.

"It is one thing when someone dies after a long illness and is buried. It is another if 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 when one doesn't even know how to find her in order to bury her, so that she has a resting place, a place for us to come and visit," she added, referring to the chance discovery of Filkina's body and identity.

Safonova, regularly attends the plot in one of five new burial grounds residents say have appeared in the last 12 months to accommodate the war dead.

Bucha lay on the Russians' path to the prize city of Kyiv, and, while they were pushed back eventually, the level of destruction and loss of life mean it is now synonymous with the brutality of the invading forces.

The mayor of Bucha has said more than 400 civilians were killed there by Russian forces, some shot with their hands tied behind their backs.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of war crimes in Bucha, an allegation the Kremlin denies. It has claimed images of dead bodies on Bucha's streets were fake, and characterises the war as a special operation to demilitarise and "denazify" Ukraine.

'THE DAY GOD DIED'

According to Filkina's relatives, she was shot by Russian soldiers when riding her bicycle through Bucha to get home. Reuters could not independently verify that account.

She died on Yablunska street, a long, now infamous thoroughfare on Bucha's southern edge where much of the search for evidence of war crimes has been focused.

It was not until early April that media images of her remains and those of other dead civilians began to circulate on websites and across social media, and it was there that the beautician who painted Filkina's nails recognised who she was.

"It was a regular evening," recalled Anastasiia Subacheva, a former Bucha resident who has moved to Vilnius where she has found a new home and is working in a beauty salon.

"When I was 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 made the connection between the picture of the body and a photograph Subacheva had posted earlier of a smiling Filkina showing off her newly painted nails. Four were red and the fifth had a small purple heart bordered by silver varnish.

"I went through our messages and compared the pictures I took of her to that picture. And it was her. I started screaming ... I cried on my mother's shoulder, I felt very empty and hurt."

Safonova discovered what had happened from her nieces, Filkina's daughters; the photographs that had circulated, including by Reuters on April 2, helped the family find the body. The daughters have launched a charity fund called "Mama Ira" to raise money for children affected by the violence in Bucha.

Subacheva recalled how Filkina, a heating operator at a popular Kyiv shopping mall at the time of her death, had been training to be a makeup artist and took several classes with her in February.

The two became close, and Subacheva said her older friend had inspired her to live life to the full.

"When I think of her I want to smile," she said.

When asked what Feb. 24, the first day of the full-scale Russian invasion, meant for her as the first anniversary approaches, Subacheva took time to think before replying.

"This is the day when God died ... This was the day my life was stolen. February 24 is the day when life was taken away from all Ukrainians, but we are trying to get it back."

Additional reporting by Yiming Woo in Bucha; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Alexandra Hudson

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