In an abandoned village north of Donetsk, a group of volunteers prepares for the grueling task of removing the rotting corpses of two Russian men from a basement next to a ruined house.
The two Russians, who were wearing summer uniforms, were probably left there by their comrades. The city of Krasnopilia is not far from the city of Izium, which fell from Ukraine to Russian hands several times before Ukrainian forces recaptured it in September. The two carcasses are so decomposed that they barely smell and can only be identified by their dog tags.
The goal is to collect Russian corpses for exchange in Ukraine, because the state cannot declare a soldier dead until there is a corpse. However, the mining process is extremely risky. Like most of the unoccupied territories, Krasnopilia is littered with landmines. Russia uses remote mining systems that drop small mines from the air. Similarly, on several occasions Russian troops left bullet traps in houses and bodies before beginning their withdrawal.
“The mines are launched from rockets, so they can be anywhere. They can even get caught in the trees and be blown away by the wind,” explains Arthur, a volunteer who flies a donated drone that he uses to document the recovery of bodies.
The Ukrainian volunteers collecting the corpses belong to a group called Black Tulip. According to them, since February, 311 Russian soldiers have been dug up in non-occupied areas. Comprised of about 10 volunteers, it is one of several groups that, like the Ukrainian military, scours captured territories and front lines in search of bodies.
Oleksii Yukov, the leader of Tulipán Negro, says that until February of last year, he visited the village often. A military enthusiast, he digs up World War II skeletons and in 2014 began working in the inhospitable land between the Russian and Ukrainian fronts.
Remember the six families who lived in an abandoned street today. According to Yukov, most of the villagers managed to leave, but several died. The couple, who returned to find their home destroyed, saw the helmet from the basement and called Yukov.
The volunteers explain that the two Russian soldiers – whose remains will be examined and their personal belongings (such as money, ID cards and documents) identified – will be exchanged for the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers after a forensic examination.
The exchange of bodies between Russia and Ukraine is carried out with utmost discretion and neither side has disclosed the total number of bodies so far. A source familiar with the process, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said that “there have been at least 20 exchanges of soldier bodies between the two countries since the beginning of the Russian invasion.”
According to this source, the exchange of corpses takes place at the border or front line, under the supervision of the military authorities of both countries.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announces its participation in various operations. “Through this work, we have managed to bring back hundreds of dead soldiers who will later be identified and their families notified for burial,” said Achille Despres, ICRC representative in Ukraine.
But identifying the bodies can be difficult. Russian bodies found are sometimes cremated: some by local residents for hygienic reasons, others by the Russian military in an apparent attempt to cover up the damage.
“We found five Russians whose bodies were burned in the Liman region,” Yukov says, referring to the town that was occupied by Russian forces until early October. There are those who try to hide the loss so as not to carry it with them, and in other cases, the neighbors burned the bodies because of the unpleasant smell.
“It was like World War II. Once we also found Soviet soldiers in a big pit, there were 10 to 15 people there. It was obvious that they were burned on purpose,” Yukov says, describing some operations before 2014. in which he participated.
Ukrainian security services believe the bodies of thousands of Russian soldiers registered as “missing” by the Kremlin are being treated informally.
In a phone call in May, the soldier said his comrades were buried in a “dump” near Donetsk. “There are so many Cargo 200s [código militar para los soldados muertos] that the mountains of corpses reach two meters,” he said in the summons. “It’s not mortal, it’s a dump. It’s huge.”
“They’re just throwing it there,” a Russian soldier said on another call. “And then it’s easier to pretend they disappeared without a trace. It’s easier for them to think they just disappeared.”
Last November, The Guardian spoke to dozens of Kherson residents and workers who said Russian forces had used a local landfill to burn the bodies of Russian soldiers killed during the six-month occupation.
Translated by Julian Knochaert.
Source: El Diario