PRUDYANKA, Ukraine (AP) — Four soldiers lay in the grass, sleeping bags and cans of food, some of them open, scattered around them. Beneath the nearby trees, their cars were crushed and torn apart by shrapnel. The men had been dead for months.
This area of rolling fields and forests near the Russian border was the scene of fierce fighting for months during the summer. Only now, after Ukrainian forces had retaken the area and pushed Russian troops across the border in a fierce counteroffensive, was it possible to retrieve the bodies strewn across the battlefield.
The area was of strategic importance because its high place is among positions where Russian artillery could easily hit Kharkiv, Ukraine’s hard-hit second-largest city, said Col. Vitalii Shum, deputy commander of the 3rd Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine, whose team for days he collects the dead on the battlefield — both Ukrainian and Russian.
For the soldiers’ families, news of the body’s recovery will be final, irrefutable confirmation that their son, brother, father or husband will not be coming home.
Even if they were informed that their loved ones had died in battle, there was no body to mourn over a glimmer of hope.
“You would hope he was captured, and this is the worst,” Shum said. Once the identity of the body is confirmed by DNA tests, “a difficult and difficult procedure will take place,” he added: informing the family that the body has been found, and any hope of their loved one walking through the front door again is lost.
During Monday’s recovery mission, Shum’s team photographed the site for evidence and unpacked body bags while soldiers checked the surroundings, as well as the bodies themselves, for landmines and mines. One of the dead soldiers had a hand grenade on him – he never had time to use it as the Russians approached.
After the search for explosives was over, the soldier went through the pockets of the dead’s uniforms for ID cards and personal belongings, placing them in plastic bags before the decomposing bodies were slipped into body bags.
The task was done correctly, quietly, gently. Body bags were zipped up, numbered and carried down a muddy path to a waiting truck.
The battle here took place in June and was as fierce as it was bloody. It involved close combat as well as the use of tanks and artillery, said 1st Lt. Mykyta Sydorenko, a 24-year-old anti-tank unit commander who took part in the battle and has now returned to help collect the remains of his comrades.
The Ukrainians had a total of four positions in the area and were determined to hold them. Russian troops attacked and captured four Ukrainian soldiers, and the Ukrainians launched a rescue operation. A day-long battle ensued, Sydorenko said. Ukrainian reinforcements were coming in, but the Russians just kept coming.
“They were coming like ants, I just don’t know how else to describe it,” he said.
Losses were heavy on both sides. Sidorenko said at least 16 Russian soldiers were killed and that the Russians were using artillery to keep the Ukrainians at bay while they collected their dead and wounded.
Of the Ukrainians, all six who were in one position were captured, he said, and all eight who were in the other were wounded. Of the approximately 17 or 18 men in Sidorenko’s position, three were killed and two were wounded.
He is not sure what happened to the six men holding the fourth position. The area where the bodies of the four men were found was an evacuation point for the wounded, he said.
Eventually, in the face of the Russian onslaught, the surviving Ukrainians, Sidorenko among them, were forced to retreat through a minefield and swamp.
Returning to the place where he lost his comrades was not easy for the young officer. It’s “unpleasant, frankly,” he said. “Not many good memories from this place.”
Nearby lay a burned Russian tank, its wheels blown off, and a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag flying on it. A few days earlier, Shum’s men found the remains of a Russian soldier inside, which they collected and delivered to the morgue in Kharkiv.
With the cool autumn wind swaying the weeds and wilted sunflowers growing wild in the Hungarian fields, Shum and his men continued their search. Next to the path was the body of another Ukrainian soldier, and nearby were the remains of another who appeared to have been run over by the now-disabled tank.
Further up the hill, a destroyed armored vehicle and a car, scattered boxes of ammunition and equipment testified 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 through the broken window of the vehicle. The soldier who picked up the body gagged, but waited until his task was complete before heading for the bushes.
In all, Shum and his men collected the bodies of seven Ukrainian soldiers and found the hand of a Russian soldier among discarded Russian body armor and rucksacks. All the remains were taken to the morgue in Kharkiv.
Notifying families will begin shortly.