PRUDANKA, Ukraine (AP) — Four soldiers lay on the grass with sleeping bags and canned food, some open, scattered around them. Under a nearby tree, their car was smashed and torn apart by shrapnel. These people have been dead for months.
This rolling field and woodland near the Russian border is the site of intense fighting during the summer months. Only now, after Ukrainian forces have retaken the area and pushed Russian troops back to the border with a fierce counteroffensive, has it been possible to retrieve the bodies scattered across the battlefield.
Colonel Vitalii Shum, deputy commander of the 3rd brigade of the Ukrainian National Guard, said the area was of strategic importance because its high ground was one of the positions where Russian artillery could easily attack Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which was hard-hit. For days, he had been collecting the dead on the battlefield — including Ukrainians and Russians.
For soldiers’ families, news of physical recovery will be final, with undisputed confirmation that their sons, brothers, fathers or husbands will not be returning home.
Even if they were told that their loved ones were killed in the fighting, none of them could mourn a silver lining.
“They will want him to be captured, which is the worst,” Shen said. Once the identity of the body has been verified by DNA testing, “it will be a difficult and difficult process,” he added: notifying the family that the body has been found, their hopes of a loved one walking through the front door again are dashed.
During Monday’s retrieval mission, Shum’s team photographed evidence at the scene and opened body bags, and soldiers examined the surroundings and the bodies themselves for booby-traps and mines. One of the dead soldiers had a grenade on him – he never had time to use it as the Russians approached.
After the search was completed, a soldier took out the ID card and belongings from the pocket of the deceased’s uniform, put it in a plastic bag, and then carried the decomposing body into the body bag.
The task is practical, quiet, and gentle. Body bags were zipped, numbered and transported down muddy tracks to waiting trucks.
The fighting here, which took place in June, was fierce and bloody. These included close-quarters combat and the use of tanks and artillery, said Lt. Mikita Sidorenko, a 24-year-old commander of the anti-tank unit who took part in the battle and is now returning to help collect the remains of his comrades.
In all, the Ukrainians have four positions in the region and are determined to control them. The Russians attacked and captured four Ukrainian soldiers, and the Ukrainians launched a rescue operation. A full day of fighting ensued, Sydorenko said. Ukrainian reinforcements came in, but the Russians kept coming.
“They came like ants, I just don’t know how to describe it another way,” he said.
Both sides suffered heavy losses. At least 16 Russian soldiers were killed, Sydorenko said, and the Russians used artillery to keep the Ukrainians at bay while collecting the dead and wounded.
Among the Ukrainians, all six were captured in one position and all eight were wounded in another, he said. Of the approximately 17 or 18 people at the Sydorenko position, 3 were killed and 2 wounded.
He wasn’t sure what happened to the six men occupying fourth place. He said the four bodies were found at an evacuation point for the wounded.
Eventually, facing the Russian onslaught, the surviving Ukrainians, including Sidorenko, were forced to retreat through minefields and swamps.
Returning to the place where he lost his comrade was not easy for the young officer. “It’s quite unpleasant, frankly,” he said. “There aren’t many good memories of this place.”
Nearby, a Russian tank was burned, the tracks on its wheels were blown off, and a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag now flew over it. A few days ago, Shum’s men found the body of a Russian soldier inside, which they collected and transported to the Kharkiv mortuary.
The cold wind blew wild grasses and withered sunflowers in the wilderness, and Shen and his men continued to search. There was another body of Ukrainian soldier next to the track, and another nearby that appeared to have been run over by a now-defunct tank.
Up another hill, a destroyed armored vehicle and a car, scattered ammunition boxes and pieces of equipment testify to the ferocity of the battle. Inside the armored vehicle was the body of another soldier.
The same procedure was repeated and the body was lifted from the broken windows of the vehicle. The soldier who lifted the corpse’s feet was gagged, but waited until his task was complete before heading to the bushes.
In total, Shen and his men collected the bodies of seven Ukrainian soldiers and found the hands of a Russian soldier among discarded Russian body armor and backpacks. All the remains were taken to the Kharkiv mortuary.
Families will be notified soon.