In eastern Ukraine, the delicate collection of the bodies of soldiers

Oleksiï Yukov and his army of volunteers are busy recovering the bodies of soldiers killed in the fighting in Ukraine, a delicate and perilous mission.

That day, they wander through a deserted street in Dolina, 25 kilometers northeast of Sloviansk, in the Donetsk region, in eastern Ukraine.

A few months ago, fierce fighting opposed Ukrainians and Russians there, before the latter withdrew at the end of the summer.

The body of a Russian soldier lies in the basement of a small house, left there when troops retreated from Moscow. It was only recently discovered by locals.

Surrounded by his volunteers, Oleksiï Ioukov tells them precisely the procedure to follow, because in the liberated areas, mines, unexploded ordnance and booby traps can still cause victims.

He was seriously injured in September. While recovering the body of a Ukrainian soldier, he had heard the click of a mine on which he had just set foot.

He had dived to the side, but not fast enough to escape unscathed. He lost an eye in the explosion and his leg was riddled with 18 metal fragments.

This injury did not keep him away from combat zones for long. Three weeks later, he came back, on crutches.

“There is no time to lose: animals and nature are already consuming bodies. And if we don’t hurry, we won’t be able to bring all our soldiers home,” he said.

Ukrainian volunteers carry the body of a Russian soldier killed in the fighting, which they have just exhumed, on January 18, 2023 in Dolina, in the Donetsk region (AFP – Anatolii Stepanov)

Oleksiï Yukov had launched his organization in Sloviansk in the early 2010s, with the idea of ​​finding the remains of soldiers killed during the two World Wars.

But, driven by the ongoing conflict in the region since 2014, he is now looking for the bodies of Ukrainian or Russian soldiers, a project called “Black Tulip”.

– Risk of mines –

He thus knows very well this moment of tension, when the body is there, under the eyes, but that it is necessary to take important precautions to avoid being surprised.

Ukrainian volunteers exhume the body of a Russian soldier killed in the fighting on January 18, 2023 in Dolina, in the Donetsk region (AFP - Anatolii Stepanov)
Ukrainian volunteers exhume the body of a Russian soldier killed in the fighting on January 18, 2023 in Dolina, in the Donetsk region (AFP – Anatolii Stepanov)

“We look under our feet and we raise our hand if we see anything suspicious,” he explains to four of his men, in front of the devastated house in which the body is located.

“Before I check that everything is OK, no one moves forward,” he says again.

The bomb crews have already gone through the house and around it, but the risk of an explosive under the body still exists. According to Oleksii, the body has been there since last summer.

Before lifting it, a volunteer takes care to attach the remains of the decomposed body with straps.

The entire team then closes in, stepping over piles of debris formed from tangled bricks or other pieces of wood.

“One, two, three, hop!”, orders Oleksiï. Suddenly his men pull hard on the straps.

“Stop!” he shouts, his gaze focused. Everyone is silently waiting for a possible suspicious noise betraying a danger.

– “Crucial” –

Once the risk of falling on a mine has passed, the Black Tulip team transports the body outside the house.

Ukrainian volunteers exhume the body of a Russian soldier killed in the fighting on January 18, 2023 in Dolina, in the Donetsk region (AFP - Anatolii Stepanov)
Ukrainian volunteers exhume the body of a Russian soldier killed in the fighting on January 18, 2023 in Dolina, in the Donetsk region (AFP – Anatolii Stepanov)

Oleksii searches for any clue — a cross, a ring, a watch — that might help determine the identity of the slain soldier.

“We all treat the dead the same way,” he says. He notes that recovering the bodies of Russian soldiers is “crucial” because they could then be exchanged for those of Ukrainians who fell in areas under Russian occupation.

In the perspective of such an operation, “it is important to find identity documents”, insists Artour Simeïko, 26 years old. “It motivates us.”

After closing the body bag, the young volunteer notes on it the figure “298”, the number of bodies of Russian soldiers found by the team since last April.

Since the arrival of winter, the frozen ground has made mine clearance operations difficult, but this has not dampened the motivation of Oleksiï and his men.

A Ukrainian volunteer marks the bag containing the remains of a Russian soldier killed in the fighting on January 18, 2023 in Dolina, Donetsk region (AFP - Anatolii Stepanov)
A Ukrainian volunteer marks the bag containing the remains of a Russian soldier killed in the fighting on January 18, 2023 in Dolina, Donetsk region (AFP – Anatolii Stepanov)

For Artour’s brother, Andriï, 21, each mission is a source of pride.

“We are not afraid of the bodies. They are already dead, they are not going to do anything to us”, he affirms.

Once the body is on board, they are already on their way to a new site where another body was discovered, but this time, grenades and anti-personnel mines were spotted on the spot.

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