War dead in Russia cared for by Ukrainian soldiers

KHARKIV, Ukraine — They’re in white and black bags at 20 degrees below zero Celsius, but the stench is still overpowering. Filled with the bodies of 62 Russian soldiers, the bags are secretly stacked in a refrigerated train car location on the outskirts of Ukraine’s second largest city. A spry, elderly train worker opened the safe door and revealed the bloodied bags as the smell hung in the moist air.

“We collect these bodies for hygiene reasons, because dogs have eaten them,” said a Ukrainian soldier who only wanted to give his call sign Summer. “Eventually we will return them to their loved ones.”

Summer said many of the bodies had been out in the open for a month or more before his unit found them. His two-man team works to identify the soldiers by their faces, tattoos and possessions. They also take a DNA swab from each corpse to determine if there may be any war crime suspects among them.

In the darkness of the darkened car, some traces of humanity can be seen, from the soldiers who once brought the Russian war to Ukraine. A pair of mud-baked boots peek out of a bag. In the corner, the collar of a camouflage coat is visible through an opening, but no face.

Summer’s colleague, who refused to even use his first initial due to the sensitivity of the subject, said they were the only two men in their unit charged with finding and preserving the enemy’s bodies. He said identification was possible about fifty percent of the time, while in other cases the corpses were too deteriorated. Most of the bodies were found in villages around Kharkov.

“This is the best work in the world,” he said of the stark satisfaction one could find in collecting the intruder’s corpses.

In recent weeks, the Ukrainian army has successfully counter-attacked Russian forces, pushing them further away from Kharkov and giving the city a sense of calm, at least until the shelling resumed on Wednesday.

When the Russians withdrew, they left behind some of their fallen, and as the people of Kharkov began to cautiously return to villages that had been in the firing line, some have found the bodies in their homes or encountered them elsewhere.

The train conductor sleeps in the car next to the refrigerated truck and guards the corpses. Colleagues have taken on similar tasks in other cities, including Kiev, Zaporizhzhya and Dnipro, where other refrigerated trucks contain hundreds of bodies.

Ukrainian authorities have complained that the Kremlin has been reluctant to engage in the repatriation of its dead.

Ukraine says 30,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the invasion began on February 24; those numbers are impossible to independently verify, and Russia rarely gives casualty toll. Last week, a British intelligence assessment put estimated Russian losses at half that number. Thousands more Russians are missing or held by the Ukrainians, Western intelligence services estimate.

Russia has not released any casualties since late March, when it said 1,351 soldiers had been killed and 3,825 injured. Estimates based on publicly available evidence suggest that more than 400 Russian soldiers were killed or injured in one incident earlier this month in northeastern Ukraine.

Last week, President Vladimir V. Putin visited a military hospital in Moscow for the first time since the invasion of Russia to visit wounded soldiers. He donned a white lab coat and called everyone who served in Ukraine “heroes.” Mr Putin also announced further pay increases for those serving there, a sign that he may be trying to quell bubbling public discontent with victims. Russia also abolished the age limit for signing a military service contract.

Ukraine has not shared any information about its own military casualties, but President Volodymyr Zelensky said in Davos last week that as many as 100 soldiers could die every day in the brutal fighting in the eastern Donbas region.

Ukraine’s allies were also reluctant to comment on the losses suffered by the country’s troops, but US intelligence estimates by mid-April that between 5,500 and 11,000 soldiers had been killed and more than 18,000 wounded.

One of the soldiers who treated the Russian corpses in Kharkov said he hoped Ukraine’s decision to protect the Russian war victims would increase its chances of getting its own back from behind enemy lines.

“For me,” he said, “it’s paramount that we return our boys’ bodies to their families. So we treat these bodies with respect.”

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