By Anna Voitenko
BLAHODATNE, Ukraine (Reuters) - Wearing face masks, the Ukrainian soldiers poked sticks into the undergrowth along a deserted country road, searching for the bodies of Russian soldiers they hoped to exchange for their own comrades, living and dead.
They called it the "road of death" after the number of Russian soldiers killed there when Ukrainian forces retook the southeastern village of Blahodatne at the start of their counteroffensive in June.
Three months on, the frontline had shifted south and it was finally safe enough for the three-man team of Ukrainian soldiers to start their operation in this liberated part of Donetsk region.
"We're going to search," said Volodymyr, a 50-year-old marine, as artillery fire boomed in the distance. "Search with our eyes. And using smell."
The route was dotted with gutted vehicles and shattered buildings. At one point, they used a rope to tug a body to make sure it had not been booby-trapped by retreating Russian forces.
"Here's what we do. We gather up their bodies. We arrange exchanges for our prisoners who are alive. And for bodies. Our boys," Vasylii, a 53-year-old volunteer, said. "You know, so that a mother can go and visit the cemetery."
Russia and Ukraine have conducted regular exchanges of prisoners of war, as well as the bodies of dead soldiers, since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
The group recovered nine bodies in their day-long search on Friday. Each was loaded onto the back of a truck and taken for forensic examination.
Volodymyr said Russian forces had been forced to retreat rapidly from Blahodatne and that the only other route out had been unusable because it was heavily mined.
"There was probably an exchange of fire. But they retreated very quickly," he said.
"They left the wounded and killed on the way and escaped to Urozhaine. But they didn't stay in Urozhaine for long either. There was intense fighting for Urozhaine," he said, referring to a nearby village that was later retaken.
(Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Heavens)