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grim chore ukrainian volunteers risk lives to retrieve soldiers remains for both sides
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Grim chore: Ukrainian volunteers risk lives to retrieve soldiers' remains — for both sides

As the war in Ukraine drags on into its third year, volunteers of a NGO named “Platzdarm” have taken it upon themselves to carry out one of war’s grimmest chores: recover and help identify the remains of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers left to die on the still-contested battlefield. On a recent Sunday along the outskirts of a small, unremarkable village in Ukraine‘s eastern Donetsk region, a van sporting the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag slowly makes its way up a dirt road before halting atop a hill overlooking a small cemetery. On the truck’s flanks, an inscription in bold lettering betrays the poignant nature of its load: “Gruz 200,” or “Cargo 200” — military code inherited from the Soviet era designating the transport of dead soldiers. The shot-up carcass of a Ukrainian armored personnel carrier lays further up the road, its body and windows riddled with bullet holes. Plumes of smoke can be seen rising over the horizon, a testament to the still-fierce fighting across the contested region. Upon reaching the top of the windswept hill, the occupants of the vehicle are greeted by a short, energetic man dressed in military fatigues. Despite his martial attire and commanding attitude, 37-year-old Alexey Yukov isn’t a soldier – though he, too, has witnessed the realities of modern warfare up close. A native of the nearby city of Slovyansk, in the oblast of Donetsk, Mr. Yukov founded and remains the head of Platzdarm, an organization whose members have volunteered to scour the battlefields of eastern Ukraine to recover and help identify the remains of both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers. Sporting a neatly trimmed beard and weighing his words carefully, Mr. Yukov explains that he is not new to the practice. He has been searching for war victims for nearly a quarter-century, an avocation that was first sparked when, as a teenager, he stumbled upon strange white spots in the lush forests surrounding Slovyansk. The spots marked the final resting place of an unknowable number of Soviet and German soldiers killed during the epic battles of World War II. When a Russia-backed separatist war broke out against in his native Donbas in 2014, Mr. Yukov and his organization set to work — now seeking fresh bodies instead of 80-year-old victims of another, long-ago war. Bodies and souls When Russian tanks and armored vehicles rumbled across the Ukrainian border in February 2022, few expected that their country could long survive the onslaught. Yet, two years in, the besieged country still stands, though bloodied and battered. But with the clash settling over time into gruesome positional warfare – its trench-lined pockmarked battlefields in eastern and southern Ukraine eerily reminiscent of scenes from World War I – the bodies keep piling up. And Platzdarm finds a constant demand for its grim yet necessary work. “Let’s open it,” says Mr. Yukov, gesturing towards the refrigerated van used by his team to ferry bodies back from the battlefield. As the doors open, the gathered volunteers grimace when hit with the faint smell of putrefaction. According to Mr. Yukov, all of the remains examined this day were retrieved near Klishchivka, a small village near the Donbas front lines that has been the site of fierce fighting since the fall of neighboring Bakhmut in May 2023. The surrounding area is still littered with the bodies of both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, but the constant shelling has impeded the work of the body collectors. Some have died while carrying out this work: In January 2023, 21-year-old Denys Sosnenko – a former Ukrainian national kickboxing champion and a Platzdarm volunteer – was killed when his van drove over an anti-tank mine. “We understand the risks that we are taking, and it is very dangerous at times, but it is a necessary work,” observes Mr. Yukov. “We not only bring back the bodies, but also the souls.” One by one, the black body bags are taken out of the truck and carefully laid down in rows on the grass. Putting on a pair of latex gloves, Mr. Yukov begins the examination process. A fellow volunteer, dressed all in black, jots down every relevant detail on a clipboard, while another records the proceedings with his phone. Methodically, Mr. Yukov inspects the remains of each and every soldier, emptying their pockets, gathering their personal belongings and documents, before finally trying to rearrange the grotesque puzzle of these barely recognizable bodies. Every detail is duly noted, from the color of a shirt to the size and location of the wounds sustained. Some corpses have rotten away almost entirely, and the volunteers’ best bet to identify them is to look for some kind of dental work. On others, however, the search occasionally yields identification papers and decaying traces of a lost life and a faded humanity: A burnt copy of the Quran and a handful of rubles on one corpse, while another yields up a rosary caked in mud, which the volunteers clean up with water before laying it down beside the body. From one of the best-preserved victims, Mr. Yukov retrieves a small notebook filled with children’s drawings. Seemingly lost in thoughts, he starts quietly singing the first verses of “Gruppa Krovi,” a song by Soviet rock band Kino, as he tears off a patch signaling the blood type of the deceased soldier. “My blood type mark is on the sleeve, my service number marked on the sleeve,” the note reads in part. “Wish me now some luck in the fight.” Forensic skills All of the information collected by the volunteers is passed on to the higher-ups in the armed forces, who then inventory the bodies of Russian soldiers to be exchanged for Ukrainian ones. One of the last corpses to be examined this long day gives pause to the volunteers: The hands are bound by duct tape and the uniform is unrecognizable, and the team’s forensic skills come to the fore. “He doesn’t have any documents on him, but the [camouflage] pattern that he’s wearing is unlike the ones usually sold in Russia,” notes Mr. Yukov. “His boots are also Western-made, so I think he’s one of ours.” The searchers speculate that the unidentifiable victim may have been an executed Ukrainian POW. On Sunday, as the Platzdarm team sifted through the decomposing remains of yet another dozen fallen soldiers, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy disclosed for the first time the losses sustained by Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion: “Thirty-one thousand Ukrainian soldiers have died in this war,” Mr. Zelenskyy revealed during one of his daily addresses to the nation. “Not 300,000 or 150,000, or whatever Putin and his lying circle are saying.” While Russian casualties are difficult to ascertain, a declassified U.S. intelligence report published in December, 2023 assessed that the war had so far cost Russia 315,000 dead and wounded soldiers. The Kremlin’s decision to conscript another 300,000 men in September 2022 seemingly confirmed that the Russian armed forces had been hemorrhaging personnel since February 2022. Yet the demographic difference between the two countries means that Russia can sustain much higher losses than its neighbor. “Each of these losses is a great loss for us,” confirmed Mr. Zelenskyy last week. This sentiment was echoed by Mr. Yukov as the day drew to a close, and the red-tinted sun slowly set over the rolling hills of Donbas, with a very personal appeal to the Russians themselves to stop the carnage. “Mothers, how can you accept to trade your child, who you have reared, fed and watched grow, for a plastic bag and an iron medal?” he asks, removing his surgical gloves. “You have buried your youth and ours, and what did you get in return? Ruins and misery, and the destruction of the country you claim to want to reunite with.”

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