PRODYANKA, Ukraine — Four soldiers lay in the grass, sleeping bags and food cans, some open, scattered around them.
Beneath nearby trees, their cars were rammed and ripped open with knives. The men had been dead for months.
This region of fields and forests near the Russian border was the scene of intense fighting for months during the summer. Only now, after Ukrainian forces have retaken territory and pushed Russian troops back across the border, has it been possible to recover bodies scattered across the battlefield.
Col. Vitaly Shim, deputy commander of Ukraine’s National Guard’s 3rd Brigade, said the area was of strategic importance because its high ground was among positions where Russian artillery could easily att*ck Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. can The battlefield has been piling up dead — both Ukrainian and Russian — for days.
For the soldiers’ families, the news of the recovery of the body would be final, an irrefutable confirmation that their son, brother, father or husband would not be coming home.
Even if they are informed that their loved ones have died in battle, a glimmer of hope is left without a body to mourn.
“They must be hoping he’s caught, and that’s the worst,” Shum said. After DNA tests confirm the identities of the bodies, “a difficult and rigorous process will take place,” he added: notifying the family that the body has been found, and reuniting with their loved one. All hope of walking through the door is gone.
During the recovery mission Monday, Shum’s team photographed the scene for evidence and opened body bags as soldiers examined the surroundings, and the bodies themselves, for booby traps and mines. One of the dead soldiers had a hand grenade – he never had time to use it as the Russians closed in.
After the search for explosives was over, a soldier went through the pockets of the dead men’s uniforms for identification cards and personal belongings and put them in plastic bags before lifting the decomposing bodies into body bags.
This work was done matter-of-factly, quietly, gently. Body bags were zipped up, numbered and carried along a muddy track to a waiting truck.
The battle here was fought in June, and it was as terrible as it was bloody. It involved close combat as well as the use of tanks and artillery, said First Lieutenant Makita Sydorenko, the 24-year-old commander of the anti-tank unit, who took part in the fighting and now returned to help collect the remains. was of his fellow soldiers.
In all, the Ukrainians held four positions in the area, and were determined to hold them. Russian troops att*cked and captured four Ukrainian soldiers, and the Ukrainians launched a rescue attempt. Sidorenko said the fighting continued for a day. Ukrainian reinforcements arrived, but the Russians kept coming.
“They were coming like ants, I don’t know how else to describe it,” he said.
Losses were heavy on both sides. At least 16 Russian soldiers were killed, Sydorenko said, after the Russians used artillery to dislodge the Ukrainians while they collected their dead and wounded.
Of the Ukrainians, all six in one position were captured, and all eight in the other were wounded, he said. Of about 17 or 18 men in Sydorenko’s position, three were killed and two wounded.
He is not sure what happened to the six men in fourth place. He said that the area where the bodies of four people were found was an evacuation point for the injured.
Eventually, facing a Russian att*ck, the surviving Ukrainians, Sydorenko among them, were forced to retreat through minefields and swamps.
It was not easy for this young officer to return to the place where he lost his comrades. It’s “unpleasant, frankly,” he said. “There are no better memories than this place.”
Nearby, a Russian tank burned, its wheels blown off its tracks, now flying a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. A few days earlier, Shim’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 blowing away the bushes and wilted sunflowers growing wild in the fields, Shum and his men continued their search. The body of another Ukrainian soldier lay on the side of the track, and nearby, the remains of another that had apparently been hit by a defunct tank.
Further up a hill, a wrecked armored car and a car, scattered ammunition boxes and pieces of equipment bore witness to the ferocity of the battle. Inside the armored vehicle was the body of another soldier.
The same process was repeated, and the body was lifted through the broken window of the car. The soldier carrying the corpse’s feet waited until he was done before heading for the bushes.
In all, Shum and his colleagues collected the bodies of seven Ukrainian soldiers and found the hand of a Russian soldier among discarded Russian body armor and a backpack. All remains were taken to Kharkiv Mortuary.
Notification of families will start soon.
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