A fine collection of corpses of soldiers in eastern Ukraine
Heleksiï Youkov and his army of volunteers work to recover the bodies of soldiers killed in action in Ukraine, a delicate and dangerous mission.
That day, they are walking down an empty street in the town of Dolina, 25 kilometers northeast of Slovyansk, in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A few months ago, there were fierce battles against Ukrainians and Russians there, the latter retreated at the end of the summer.
The body of a Russian soldier lies in the basement of a small house where the troops were left when they retreated from Moscow. It was recently discovered by local residents.
Surrounded by his volunteers, Oleksii Youkov tells them the exact procedure they must follow, as mines, unexploded ordnance and booby traps can still cause casualties in the liberated areas.
He was seriously injured in September. While removing the body of a Ukrainian soldier, he heard the click of a mine he had just stepped on.
He had dived over the side, but was not fast enough to escape unhurt. As a result of the explosion, he lost an eye and his leg was pierced by 18 pieces of metal.
This injury did not keep him away from the battlefield for a long time. Three weeks later, he was back on crutches.
“There is no time to lose: animals and nature are already eating the bodies. If we don’t hurry, we won’t be able to bring all our soldiers home,” he said.
Oleksii Yukov founded his organization in Slovyansk in the early 2010s with the idea of finding the remains of soldiers who died during the two world wars.
But because of the ongoing conflict in the region since 2014, it is now searching for the bodies of Ukrainian or Russian soldiers, a project called Black Tulip.
So, he is very well aware of this moment of tension when the body is under scrutiny, but important measures must be taken in order not to be surprised.
“We look under our feet and raise our hand if we see anything suspicious,” he explains to his four men in front of the ruined house where the body is located.
“No one moves forward before checking that everything is in order,” he said.
Bomb squads have already gone through the house and the surrounding area, but there is still a risk of explosives under the body. According to Oleksi, the body has been there since last summer.
Before lifting it up, the volunteer takes care to tie the remains of the dismembered body with straps.
Then the whole team enters, walking over piles of debris made of bricks or other pieces of wood mixed together.
“One, two, three, hop!”, Oleksii commands. Suddenly his men tighten the straps.
“Stop!” he shouts, concentrating his gaze. Everyone silently waits for a possible suspicious noise that betrays danger.
After the risk of falling into a landmine has passed, the Kara Lala team takes the body out of the house.
Oleksii is looking for any clues – a cross, a ring, a watch – that could help identify the murdered soldier.
“We all treat the dead the same way,” he says. He notes that the removal of the bodies of Russian soldiers is “crucial” because they can later be replaced by the bodies of Ukrainians who died in Russian-occupied territories.
26-year-old Artour Simeiko says that in the prospect of such an operation, “it is important to find the identity documents”. “It motivates us.”
After closing the body bag, the young volunteer writes the number “298” on it, the number of bodies of Russian soldiers found by the team since last April.
Since the arrival of winter, the frozen ground has made demining operations difficult, but this has not dampened the motivation of Oleksii and his men.
For Arthur’s brother Andriï, 21, every mission is a source of pride.
“We are not afraid of the corpses. They are already dead, they will not do anything to us,” he affirms.
After the body is on board, they go to a new area where another body is found, but this time a grenade launcher and anti-personnel mines have been discovered.
19.01.2023 13:48:00 – Dolina (Ukraine) (AFP) – © 2023 AFP