Death in Ukraine:
A Special Report

From battlefields pockmarked by artillery shells to basements and backyards filled with civilian corpses, the war has exacted a staggering toll in lives lost. New York Times reporters who have covered the war present accounts of the many ways that death arrived in Ukraine.

Credit...Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

Death in Ukraine:
A Special Report

From battlefields pockmarked by artillery shells to basements and backyards filled with civilian corpses, the war has exacted a staggering toll in lives lost. New York Times reporters who have covered the war present accounts of the many ways that death arrived in Ukraine.

The metric of the war: Deaths.

A little boy blown up by a mine at the beach. A young mother shot in the forehead. A retired teacher killed in her home. Soldiers killing and dying every day by the hundreds. Older people and young people and everyone in between.

A war can be measured by many metrics. Territory won or lost. Geopolitical influence increased or diminished. Treasure acquired or resources depleted. But for the people suffering under the shelling, who hear the whistling of incoming missiles, the crack of gunfire on the streets and the wails of loss out of shattered windows, the death toll is the most telling account of a war.

  1. Lviv, Ukraine - April
    Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times
  2. Sloviansk, Ukraine - June
    Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
  3. Kharkiv, Ukraine - April
    Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
  4. Lviv, Ukraine - April
    Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
  5. Lviv, Ukraine - June
    Emile Ducke for The New York Times
  6. Kyiv, Ukraine - March
    Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
  7. Mykolaiv, Ukraine - May
    Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
  8. Irpin, Ukraine - April
    David Guttenfelder for The New York Times
  9. Near Bucha, Ukraine - June
    Nicole Tung for The New York Times
  10. Bucha, Ukraine - April
    Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
  11. Mykolaiv, Ukraine - March
    Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Many of the articles on this page contain graphic images that readers may find difficult to view.

In Ukraine, no one is quite sure exactly what that toll is, except that many many people have been killed.

An “endless caravan of death,” said Petro Andryushchenko, an official for the devastated city of Mariupol.

In its latest updates, the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said 4,509 civilians had been killed in the conflict. But it is clear that many thousands more have been killed. Ukraine’s chief of police, Ihor Klymenko, said this past week that prosecutors had opened criminal proceedings “for the deaths of more than 12,000 people who were found, in particular, in mass graves.”

And in Mariupol, the Black Sea city flattened by Russian bombardment, Ukrainian officials in exile have said that examinations of mass graves using satellite imagery, witness testimony and other evidence have led them to believe that at least 22,000 were killed — and possibly thousands more.

The casualty figures exclude the thousands believed killed in territories held by Russian forces. And even where Ukraine has regained control, Mr. Klymenko said, it was premature to calculate the dead in mass graves, as more are found every week.

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Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Indeed, finding and identifying the dead is such a daunting challenge, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said in a statement on Saturday, that it required global coordination beyond Ukraine’s national efforts. The prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, said she had met with the International Commission on Missing Persons, based in The Hague, to develop avenues for cooperation.

International and Ukrainian authorities have little access to embattled cities to take accurate counts, and the urban targets, the constant artillery fire and the static nature of the fighting in the contested south and east only adds to the death and horror.

“People are killed indiscriminately or suddenly or without rhyme or reason,” said Richard H. Kohn, a professor emeritus of history and peace, war and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He said the incessant artillery fire “kills and maims people.”

“It creates enormous psychological stress on populations,” Mr. Kohn said, “as it does on the combatants,” and “it lasts for a very long time.”

The Russians, eager to preserve an aura of competence, underreport their battlefield losses. The Ukrainians, desperate to maintain morale as the shells fall, do the same. Civilian casualties are an unknown variable, multiplied by grisly factors like collapsing buildings and the unreported victims of occupied towns.

Children are not protected from the indiscriminate violence. The United Nations’ agency for the protection of children in emergency situations has estimated that at least three children have died each day since the war started in February. That is only an estimate.

Mariupol — the city that has become symbolic of Ukraine’s resistance, Russia’s unrelenting shelling and the war’s savagery — is still burying corpses.

“In our city, there are a lot of mass graves, a lot of spontaneous graves, and some bodies are still in the street,” Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, said last Monday.

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Credit...Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

That toll has heightened dread about the losses in the 20 percent of Ukraine now under Russian occupation. Some places, like Sievierodonetsk, have been basically reduced to rubble by advancing Russian forces.

Early in the war, as Russia tried, and failed, to take the capital, Kyiv, its forces added to the death toll with shocking brutality. In Bucha, they shot civilians dead in their cars, homes and gardens, left corpses in the street and even burned them and dumped them in a parking lot. And when the Russian armored columns retreated, they left more dead in their wake.

At least 1,500 civilians were killed in the Kyiv region alone, according to Mr. Klymenko. They included two sisters in Bucha — one a retired teacher and the other disabled.

“Why would you kill a grandma?” asked Serhiy, a neighbor of the sisters.

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Credit...Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

The Ukrainian army is taking heavy losses. By the government’s own estimates, as many as 200 soldiers are dying every day. In towns and cities across the country, even those far from the front lines, military funerals take place nearly daily for Ukrainian soldiers killed in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where the fighting is now heaviest.

The dead are often buried quickly, and in shallow graves.

“I feel numb,” said Antoniy, a morgue worker in Lviv, in western Ukraine. “Even when someone is telling me a joke that I know is funny, I can’t laugh.”

Regardless of when or how the war ends, Professor Kohn said, trauma, loss, displacement and fear all become “part of the culture of a country.”

Many of the Russians ordered by President Vladimir V. Putin to invade Ukraine under the false pretenses of liberating the country from Nazis are not coming home, either. In April, Western countries estimated that Russia had lost about 15,000 soldiers in Ukraine; on Friday, Ukraine put the estimate at 33,000.

The true toll is unknown, and will not be coming from Moscow: Its last announcement, on March 25, said that a total of 1,351 Russian soldiers had died.

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Credit...Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

In the months after the invasion began, local news websites across Russia compiled “memory pages” that listed the names of hometown soldiers who had died. Then, this month, they deleted them: A court ruled that such lists were state secrets.

“We apologize,” said the site 74.ru in Chelyabinsk in Siberia, “to the mothers and fathers, wives and children, relatives and friends of the servicemen who have died during the special military operation in Ukraine.”

June 18, 2022, 9:29 a.m. ET

The battlefield: A kaleidoscope of death.

Ukrainian soldiers along the front line in the east.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times; Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times; Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Outgoing, incoming, the whistle, the screech and the bang.

The violence of war descended on Ukraine when Russian forces surged across their borders. The killing and dying seemed to happen so quickly that it almost felt mechanical.

Suddenly, some of the most lethal weapons ever used were massed on the battlefield and unleashed on both sides in appalling quantities: cluster rockets, self-detonating mines, battle tanks, howitzers, thermobarics and incendiary munitions. The list goes on.

The skies above the quaint neighborhoods of cities like Kharkiv or the coal mines of the Donbas were an unseen kaleidoscope of death as artillery fired from a distance ruled the day after the Russian retreat in early April from the Kyiv area. Moscow had decided to try to win by attrition.

What did that look like?

Soldiers cowered in trenches, pressing their faces into the cold earth, trying to shrink into the ground as shrapnel and debris cut through the air around them. Neighborhoods were transformed into wastelands. Apartments burned, and the sides of homes were sheared off like post-apocalyptic dollhouses.

The dead soldiers are called 200s, the wounded 300s. The terms are repackaged jargon from the Soviet era when dead soldiers being sent home in zinc-lined coffins from Afghanistan were called “Cargo 200.”

The frontline is the “zero line,” and going there means being sent to “zero” or, to some, “the meat grinder.”

Airstrikes and gun battles are rare compared with the immense amount of shells flying through the air, so soldiers call them “aviation bombs” and “rifle battles.” One soldier who spent less than a month on the front line in the country’s east never fired a shot. But his company of 106 men had four 200s (killed) and 23 300s (wounded), he said.

“People can’t fight artillery with machine guns,” he added matter-of-factly.

Those caught in the middle, the civilians, have fared the worst.

Their senses become finely attuned. Every sound, at all hours of the day, is analyzed. Is it an incoming shell?

They rely on split-second calculations about whether to stay or go. Run or walk. Sleep upstairs or head to the basement.

The routine is exhausting, but they quickly begin to understand the acoustic differences between a 120-millimeter mortar and a 152-millimeter howitzer shell. They use words like “horror,” “nightmare” and “unimaginable” to describe daily routines. The cold damp nights in their basements end at first light.

They emerge and survey the damage around them, glad they are still alive and hoping their neighbors are, too.

June 18, 2022, 8:29 a.m. ET

The workers who handle the dead.

Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

LVIV, Ukraine — For many Ukrainians facing Russia’s invasion, there is hope that the daily battles can be won: A soldier may beat back his enemies. A rescuer might miraculously pull a survivor from rubble. A doctor could save a life.

But in one line of work, also deeply affected by this war, grief seems like the only sure end: the handling of the dead.

From gravediggers to embalmers, funeral directors to coroners, these workers carry deep psychic wounds of war — and have few others who can relate to them.

“Nowadays, I feel numb,” said Antoniy, a morgue worker in Lviv, Ukraine. “Even when someone is telling me a joke that I know is funny, I can’t laugh. My emotions are too numbed.”

June 18, 2022, 7:56 a.m. ET

The count: 115 days, tens of thousands dead.

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Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Counting the dead in times of tragedy is grueling, emotionally wrenching and time consuming. It took 28 months after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City to arrive at the toll of 2,749, which investigators thought settled the matter. But a decade later, the toll had grown by four people, to 2,753.

In Ukraine, where fighting rages along a front line that stretches across more than 1,500 miles, it is impossible to get a true tally of those killed.

So many people have been killed in the past 115 days — and so many bodies buried in mass graves by Russian forces — that international organizations the West has relied on for an impartial accounting acknowledge that their tallies fall woefully short.

Mariupol. Volnovakha and Saltivka. Popasna and Rubizhne. And now Sievierodonetsk. All cities that have basically been reduced to rubble by advancing Russian forces. The death toll in these places is as yet unknown, and Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of taking measures to destroy evidence of the slaughter to ensure that it never will be.

Even by conservative estimates, tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers have died. By the Ukrainians’ own count, as many as 3,000 of their troops had been killed as of April 16. Two days later, Russia launched its eastern offensive, and by the end of May, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said that as many as 100 fighters were dying every day. More recently, his government put the number closer to 200 a day.

The death toll for the two nations’ militaries is shrouded in uncertainty. While the Ukrainian government is cautious in releasing information about its own casualties, Russia has a history of keeping such information secret. As of Friday, the Ukrainian military claimed that more than 33,000 Russian soldiers had been killed since the war began. Like so many numbers in this war, their claims are impossible to independently verify.

The last time a Western official offered a public assessment of Russian losses was in April, when the British said at least 15,000 Russians had been killed in action.

As far as civilians are concerned, Ukraine’s chief of police, Ihor Klymenko, said on Monday that prosecutors had opened criminal proceedings “for the deaths of more than 12,000 people who were found, in particular, in mass graves” just in the areas controlled by the Ukrainian government.

Roughly 75 percent of all the bodies recovered so far were men, he said. About 23 percent women. And 2 percent were children.

At least 1,500 civilians were killed in the Kyiv region alone, Mr. Klymenko said, many found lying on the streets after Russians were forced to retreat. “Snipers shot them from tanks, from armored personnel carriers, despite the white armbands that the Russian military forced people to wear,” he said.

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Credit...Nicole Tung for The New York Times

It may take years before the true number of dead is known. But it is already clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II.

June 18, 2022, 7:27 a.m. ET

Bucha: The epicenter of Russian atrocity.

More than 1,300 people were killed in the wider Kyiv region during the Russian occupation — 86 percent of them in Bucha district, and 419 people in the suburb of Bucha itself.Credit...Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

The overwhelming majority of the dead were civilians, shot in their cars as they tried to escape, in their homes and gardens as they dared to venture outside, usually just to fetch bread or water. Scores were executed in yards and on the street, or in cellars where they had been detained.

This was Bucha. A pretty northern suburb of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, with weekend cottages and new apartment complexes set among fir-tree forests, it emerged as a haunting ground zero of Russian atrocities.

When Russia withdrew its troops from the northern suburbs of Kyiv at the end of March, it granted Ukrainians a great reprieve from the daily bombing and shelling. But the Russians left a trail of destruction and many, many dead. The scale and manner of the killings became apparent only in the days and weeks after the Russian withdrawal, shaking the country and outraging the wider world.

Occupied by Russian troops for a little over one month, Bucha suffered waves of violence first as fighting raged in its streets and left the burned carcasses of Russian tanks blocking a whole avenue.

Later, as the frontline shifted further south, Bucha became a second line of defense. Russian troops parked their vehicles in the yards of houses and occupied homes. They ordered residents off the streets or into basements. They detained men of fighting age, and assaulted women.

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After the withdrawal of Russian forces from a Kyiv suburb, officials examined and documented the bodies of those killed in the war.CreditCredit...The New York Times

Most were local residents, men and women, young and old, families, and even children. Their bodies were often left where they had fallen, or were buried by families or neighbors in their backyards.

More than 1,300 people were killed in the wider Kyiv region during the Russian occupation — 86 percent of them in Bucha district, and 419 people in the suburb of Bucha itself, Andrii Nebytov, the head of the regional police, said this past week.

The dead included the mother of Tetiana Sichkar, 20, shot in the forehead as she walked with her family from fetching a thermos of hot water; and two sisters, a retired teacher and her disabled sibling, who lived together on a small side street.

They also included Dmitrii Shkirenkov, 38, a Moldovan builder, stranded by war at his construction site and executed on video by Russian soldiers; and Roman Havryliuk, 43, a welder, and his brother Serhiy Dukhli, 46, and a third man, shot in their yard when Russian troops took over their house.

“They were not able to defeat our army,” Mr. Havryliuk’s son, Nazar, 17, said, “so they killed ordinary people.”

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.

June 18, 2022, 7:00 a.m. ET

Russia: Deaths veiled in secrecy.

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Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In Russia, news of death arrives stealthily.

On state television, the war dead are rarely mentioned. The Defense Ministry hasn’t announced a death toll for nearly three months. Lists of hometown casualties published by local websites were declared state secrets.

But through social media, the horrors of war are trickling through. Ukraine, on the social network Telegram, has been publishing images of enemy corpses, hoping to stir dissent in Russia. Photos of devastated Russian positions, like the failed crossing of the Siversky Donets River last month, where at least 400 soldiers died, offer hints of the violence incinerating untold numbers of young men’s lives.

“You stand there, and your tears don’t even flow anymore,” Aleksandr Kononov, whose brother was killed fighting in Mariupol, told The New York Times in April, recalling the dozens of black body bags he had seen lined up on the floor of a warehouse by a military morgue. “There is no more water left in your body.”

Many relatives of Russian soldiers have gone weeks or even months not knowing whether their sons, husbands and brothers are dead or alive. The Russian military bureaucracy, soldiers’ advocates say, appears to have been unprepared for the scale of the casualties in Ukraine. The Defense Ministry, in its last casualty announcement on March 25, set the count at 1,351 deaths. Western officials say the true toll now could be more than 10 times that.

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Credit...Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Some families of the sailors who died aboard the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which had a crew of more than 500, are still struggling to learn the truth two months later. Dmitri Shkrebets, the outspoken father of one conscript aboard, published an angry Telegram post on Monday directed at President Vladimir V. Putin.

“Why are you pretending that nothing happened?” Mr. Shkrebets asked. “We will all die, but not all will be martyrs, someone will have to answer for the blood!”

It was a rare public expression of anger and frustration with the government from a military family. But for much of Russian society, the deaths “are not making such a stunning impression,” Sergei Krivenko, who leads a rights group that provides legal aid to Russian soldiers, said in a telephone interview. In most cases, professional soldiers, rather than conscripts, are dying. They come disproportionately from poor regions, according to Russian journalists who have analyzed death notices.

“They are perceiving deaths as — it’s hard to say ‘normality’ but, in some sense, normality,” Mr. Krivenko said.

June 18, 2022, 6:32 a.m. ET

Mariupol: The ‘deadliest place in Ukraine’.

Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine — To be from Mariupol these days is to be consumed with death. More than a month after Russian forces took full control of the Ukrainian city, the dead are still being buried.

“In our city, there are a lot of mass graves, a lot of spontaneous graves, and some bodies are still in the street,” the city’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, said this past week at a briefing in Kyiv.

They are being taken to morgues, landfills and mass graves, in an “endless caravan of death,” according to Mr. Boichenko’s adviser, Petro Andryushchenko.

Mr. Andryushchenko said that officials were finding 50 to 100 bodies beneath every collapsed building.

Over a period of 12 weeks, as Russian shells fell indiscriminately on apartment complexes, hospitals and town squares, Mariupol became a symbol of Russia’s willingness to bring devastation and death to Ukrainian cities and the civilians who inhabit them. The bombing of a theater where an estimated 1,000 people were sheltering is still viewed as one of the most brutal single attacks of the war. According to a reconstruction of the attack by The Associated Press, 600 people died.

On Thursday, the top United Nations human rights official said that Mariupol was probably the “deadliest place in Ukraine” in the first three months of Russia’s invasion.

And the dead are being found all the time.

“The body of six-year-old Liza remained in a car for 10 days,” a message posted on the “Mariupol Now” Telegram channel on Tuesday night read. “She was shot along with her family when she tried to get out of Mariupol. Her mother lost both legs and was unable to attend her daughter’s funeral.” A picture of Liza showed a blue-eyed child with wavy curls.

The channel contains thousands of other painful images — buildings destroyed, announcements of people killed, apartments ransacked by Russian forces when they took over the city.

The government estimates that 22,000 people died in Mariupol, a figure that cannot be confirmed because neither international organizations nor Ukrainian officials can access the area. But Mr. Boichenko and others believe it is far higher.

When Mariupol was surrounded, people improvised morgues in local post offices and pharmacies. They buried the dead wherever they could, in playgrounds and yards. Often the graves were not deep enough, or the burial was interrupted by shelling. There were bodies everywhere.

Mariupol’s City Council released photos on Wednesday of what officials said was a morgue improvised near the Metro supermarket.

The photos showed rows of bodies laid out in the open. “The bodies are just lying on the asphalt, absorbing the full heat of the sun,” the officials wrote.

Stacks of wooden coffins were shown leaning against the wall of a warehouse.

The omnipresent corpses are creating a public health crisis, Mr. Boichenko fears.

“Doctors say thousands of people might die in Mariupol because of infectious diseases,” he said.

Occupying Russian forces have halted the process of exhuming the bodies in Mariupol, Mr. Andryushchenko said.

“The occupiers made the process of reburial of Mariupol residents as complicated as possible, shifting all the problems to the citizens,” he said. “Now it is necessary to wait for the investigator with the prosecutor to carry out the exhumation, take the corpse to Donetsk for a medical examination and only then bury it in a specially designated place. And at each stage we will have to pay.”

June 18, 2022, 5:58 a.m. ET

The children: Lives cut short.

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Credit...Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

LVIV, Ukraine — Among the many innocent victims of the nearly four-month-old war, perhaps the most innocent are the children.

On average, nearly three children have been killed in Ukraine every day since the war began. The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office reported on Friday that some 322 children had died during the war.

They include a 6-year old Ukrainian boy who was sitting on a swing on a playground in Lysychansk on Monday afternoon when shrapnel tore through his body.

Through tears, a neighbor in that eastern town described to local news outlets how he had run to the child after hearing an explosion. When he arrived, he realized that it was too late to save the boy’s life. He made a cross, and the child was buried that day.

His death was later mentioned by President Volodymyr Zelensky. In an address to the nation, he reflected: “This is it: A 6-year-old boy on Moskovska Street is also, as it turned out, a dangerous enemy for the Russian Federation.”

For the children of Ukraine, just like other victims, the difference between life and death often amounts to chance.

Shells have torn through their homes. The convoys of cars driven by parents eager to evacuate their families have been riddled with bullets. Train platforms where they awaited passage to safety have been targeted.

Death can also come suddenly from the sky, as it did one Saturday in April when a Russian cruise missile struck the home of Valerie Glodan, 27, and her three-month-old daughter, Kira, in Odesa, killing them both.

“This use of explosive weapons in populated areas and attacks on civilian infrastructure must stop,” Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s regional director for Europe and Central Asia, said during a press briefing this past week. “It is killing and maiming children and preventing them returning to any kind of normal life in the towns and cities that are their homes.”

June 18, 2022, 5:11 a.m. ET

The bridge: A photo immortalizes a family’s deaths.

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Credit...Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

KYIV, Ukraine — They died as thousands of others have died in Ukraine, from the spray of metallic shards that burst from an artillery shell. When it hit, Tetiana Perebyinis, 43, and her two children, Mykyta, 18, and Alisa, 9, along with a church volunteer who had been helping the family flee from fighting, were only a dozen or so yards away. They didn’t stand a chance.

All four slumped to the pavement, dead or unconscious and dying. The family dog, also hit and wounded, yelped in terror. Blood splattered on the face of the church volunteer, Anatoly Berezhnyi, 26. But the scene of the bodies, lying motionless by a bridge they had crossed seeking safety, was eerily calm.

The deaths were typical in a war fought largely with artillery in which civilians are cut down daily, but also stood apart for resonating far beyond the Kyiv suburb of Irpin where they died. A photograph of the family and Mr. Berezhnyi,taken by a New York Timesphotographer, Lynsey Addario, encapsulated the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by Russian forces.

The family’s lives and their final hours were later described in an interview with Ms. Perebyinis’s husband, Serhiy. The family had fled war once before, escaping to Kyiv from the Russian-backed separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Since then, they had built a solidly middle-class life; she worked as an accountant, he as a computer programmer.

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Credit...Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Since the first days of the war in February, the bodies of the dead are seen regularly but usually anonymously, lying on sidewalks after shelling, lined up in body bags at collection points, as hands or feet sticking out of the dirt in mass graves.

The deaths of Ms. Perebyinis and her children were documented from the moment of their death and in subsequent interviews with family members. Breaking down in tears for the only time in the interview about his dead family, a few days after the artillery strike, Mr. Perebyinis said he had told his wife the night before she died that he was sorry he wasn’t with her.

“I told her, ‘Forgive me that I couldn’t defend you,’” he said. “She said, ‘Don’t worry, I will get out.’”

As for Ms. Addario’s photograph, she later said that it had felt almost disrespectful to stop and take it, but that it was important to record the moment. Reprinted on the front page of newspapers and news sites around the world, it became a watershed for the argument of accurately portraying the costs of war on innocent civilians.

Asked whether he supported showing the deaths of his family in this way, Mr. Perebyinis said he did. “The whole world should know what is happening here,” he said.