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Scouring the battlefields of eastern Ukraine for the dead
On one of my days in eastern Ukraine I set out with Black Tulip, a small volunteer organisation that collects bodies from the battlefield. Nowadays they mostly find dead Russians. They bag and document the bodies in the hope that they can then swap them for their own dead on the Russian side of the frontline. But it is a perilous business.
NEAR DOVHENKE - The Russian soldier lay where he had fallen. His plastic combat belt and flak jacket were still intact, but his legs were splayed at an unnatural angle, and where his face and scalp had once been there was now only a skull with dark stains on it.
Oleksiy, leader of the Black Tulip, a small team of men who collect bodies from Ukraine’s eastern battlefields, gingerly tied a rope around the decaying corpse. “These bodies are sometimes booby-trapped,” he said. “We have to be careful.”
We all walked fifty or sixty yards up the muddy track we had come down and crouched. Then Oleksiy, bending low, gave the rope a tug. This time there was no explosion. Denys, 21, who was wearing a baseball cap with Donbas written on it, picked up the skull which had detached from the body and reunited the two.
Soon the Ukrainians - six volunteers who had all been part of the same kick-boxing team before the war – had arranged the dead Russian and his equipment neatly onto a white plastic body bag. They catalogued and photographed him. He was the 299th body they had found.
The collection of soldiers’ bodies has a long history in the fields of eastern Ukraine. During World War 2 fighting in this area was intense and hundreds of dead Germans were found, the Ukrainians told us, many along a line of birch trees at the edge of the field we were now in.
One foxhole we passed, we were told, had originally been dug by soldiers of the Wehrmacht and then excavated again during intense fighting last summer.
Recovering the dead is an important part of any culture, but on the much-fought-over steppes on the eastern marches of Europe it has particular resonance.
A song by the Russian crooner Aleksandr Rosenbaum about the Antonov-12 transport planes that flew the Soviet dead out of Afghanistan – the original Black Tulips - achieved cult status in the Soviet Union, and is still popular in Russia today.
Andriy, 21, one of the modern-day Black Tulips, said: “This job is very important – the guys who died protecting our country need to be able to go home, home to their mothers, fathers, daughter and sons.”
These days, however, for every fallen Ukrainian soldier, the team are finding, on average, two dead Russians. And that has added a twist to their work.
When they have photographed the Russians, they bag them, and take them to a morgue where DNA samples are taken. Those samples, along with supporting evidence, are then forwarded to Russian authorities.
If the Russians accept the veracity of the submission, they are added to a list and eventually a body swap is set up. In this way hundreds of dead Russians and Ukrainians have been returned across the frontlines to their own side, and eventually to their families.
“Most of the time the families are happy to have them back,” Oleksiy said. “Occasionally they simply refuse to accept what has happened. If they are not claimed then the bodies are buried in unmarked graves.”
I had met up with Black Tulip earlier that morning on a side road, a half hour’s drive east of Slovyansk and about an hour from the current frontline. The sound of shelling was still just audible in the background.
I was travelling with a Canadian journalist, a friend with whom I had worked in Moscow in the early 2000s. We drove through the tiny shattered village of Dovhenke. It had been on the frontline for much of last year and every house was damaged, most beyond repair.
At the end of a muddy lane, we parked up and and began a long walk through an open field in single file. Mines were scattered on both side of the narrow path and we did our best to warn each other when we spotted them, but the Ukrainians were moving quickly.
Some were green anti-tank mines - about the size of a dinner plate and the depth of a hefty book. But there were also plastic butterfly mines, designed to wound or maim soldiers on foot, known as “petals” in Russian.
Eventually we came to a place where military debris was scattered around – old food packs, medical supplies, a discarded water bottle, and a camouflaged flak jacket.
On our left was a tank that had been blown up. It appeared to be a Soviet-made T-72. Its tracks had come off and it had burned. Oleksiy approached it carefully, using a long metal prod to test the ground for mines.
A few hundreds yards further on we found the dead Russian soldier with his legs splayed. Judging by his uniform he had been a member of Rosgvardia, a paramilitary force put together by Russian President Vladimir Putin to crush dissent at home, but whose whose rank-and-file had been drafted to bolster the Kremlin’s military effort in Ukraine.
The Ukrainians checked the dead man’s pockets. They found a lighter with the inscription ‘my heart wants romance, but my arse wants adventure.’ “Well he certainly found that,” one of them muttered sardonically.
The men were careful with the body, almost delicate. But when we asked Vasily, 55, how he felt about the dead Russian, his face hardened. “He is a stain and we need to remove him from our land,” he said.
The second body we found that day was in an armoured personnel carrier (APC) partially hidden in a line of trees, about a mile from the first. The APC had been incinerated, burning so hot that even some of the metal had deformed. Oleksiy crawled inside and began to root around in the place the driver would have sat.
“Is there anyone in there?” I asked.
Oleksiy explained how he had learned to distinguish between different body parts even when they have been burned to a crisp. “If you are looking for a body that has burned inside armour you have to use your imagination,” he said. “You have to imagine how a body will burn.”
An hour later Oleksiy had collected a metal tray of charred remains. He added the blade of a knife – the plastic handle had melted away - and a few deformed parts of the soldier’s flak jacket. I noticed a small piece of jaw bone.
At first the team was unsure if they were looking at a Ukrainian or a Russian corpse. The model of APC was in use by both ex-Soviet armies. But finally they found an obscured serial number and then a Russian-made boot.
As Oleksiy prodded around inside the APC, I spoke again to Denys, the 21-year-old with the baseball cap, who was perched on top. I asked him how he felt about his job.
“Everybody has a role to play in this war,” he said. “This is mine. We’ll be doing this for years to come, there is so much work left to do.”
In 15 years covering wars I had seen hundreds of dead bodies. Corpses, especially as they decay, have a pungent, almost sweet, smell, and I had always been grateful when it was cold outside. With the temperature hovering around zero the first Russian we had found had smelled but only faintly.
“Is it not worse in the summer?” I asked Denys. “The smell…”
“Ah, you get used to it,” he replied casually. “Worse is when we get shot at.”
By the time we had finished documenting the second body it was early afternoon. The Black Tulip had a third body to collect, but it was several miles away and they were going on foot.
We decided to walk back the way we had come. I led way through the field, straining to keep my eyes sharp and struggling to remember the location of the mines we had seen on the way out.
An hour later we were back at the vehicle. That night we were far away and in relative safety.
A week later the Black Tulip took time off work, a rare event. They gathered for a funeral in nearby Slovyansk. As a van arrived and a coffin was carried out and prepared for burial, Lyudmila Sosnenko cried out in anguish: “Why? My son…”
In the coffin was Denys, the 21-year-old Black Tulip with the Donbas baseball cap. A few days after we parted he was killed when his van hit an anti-tank mine.
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NEWS & UPCOMING
+ I have now returned from Ukraine and next week I will begin teaching students again in Budapest. One of the courses I will teach will be about my recent reporting trip and the war in Ukraine. I still have one or two stories in my notebook which I hope will offer illuminating glimpses into this most brutal of wars.
+ In the coming days the Russians are expected to launch a vigorous offensive in eastern Ukraine. They have been building up their troop numbers for some time now. I will try and give you my best analysis as this spring offensive unfolds. Unfortunately the fighting looks set to get even worse, at least in the short term. Several of the towns I visited now look likely to fall to the Russians.
+ In early May I will be returning to Canada and the bears. This year we will be running both a spring and autumn bear-viewing season. If you think you might be interested in visiting please check out Wild Bear Lodge.