The four soldiers lay in the grass, sleeping bags and cans of food, some opened, scattered around them. Beneath nearby trees, their cars were smashed and torn by shrapnel. The men had been dead for months.
This region of rolling fields and woodland near the Russian border was the site of fierce battles for months during the summer. Only now, after Ukrainian forces retook the area and pushed Russian troops back across the border in a blistering counteroffensive, has the retrieval of bodies scattered across the battlefield been possible.
The area was of strategic importance as its high ground is among the positions where Russian artillery could easily strike Kharkiv, Ukraine’s hard-hit second-largest city, said Col. Vitalii Shum, deputy commander of the 3rd Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, whose team has been collecting the battlefield dead — both Ukrainian and Russian — for days.
For the soldiers’ families, news of the body recovery will be final, incontrovertible confirmation that their son, brother, father or husband will not be coming home.
Even if they had been notified that their loved ones died in combat, without a body to mourn over a glimmer of hope remained.
“They would be hoping that he was captured, and this is the worst,” Shum said. Once the bodies’ identities are verified through DNA tests, “a difficult and hard procedure will take place,” he added: notifying the family the body has been found, and all hope of their loved one again walking through the front door is lost.
During the retrieval mission on Monday, Shum’s team photographed the site for evidence and unpacked body bags as soldiers checked the surroundings, and the bodies themselves, for booby-traps and mines. One of the dead soldiers had a hand grenade on him — he never had time to use it as the Russians closed in.
After the search for explosives was finished, a soldier went through the pockets of the dead men’s uniforms for identity cards and personal belongings, placing them in plastic bags before the decomposing bodies were lifted into body bags.
The task was performed matter-of-factly, quietly, gently. The body bags were zipped up, numbered and carried along a muddy track to a waiting truck.
The battle here occurred in June, and it was as ferocious as it was bloody. It included close-quarters combat as well as the use of tanks and artillery, said 1st Lt. Mykyta Sydorenko, a 24-year-old commander of an anti-tank unit who participated in the fight and was now back to help collect the remains of his fellow soldiers.
In all, the Ukrainians had four positions in the area, and were determined to hold them. The Russian troops attacked and captured four Ukrainian soldiers, and the Ukrainians launched a rescue bid. An all-day battle ensued, Sydorenko said. Ukrainian reinforcements came in, but the Russians just kept coming.
“They were coming like ants, I just don’t know how to describe it in another way,” he said.
The losses were heavy on both sides. Sydorenko said at least 16 Russian soldiers were killed, with the Russians using artillery to keep the Ukrainians at bay while they collected their dead and wounded.
Of the Ukrainians, all six holding one position were captured, he said, and all eight holding another were wounded. Of the roughly 17 or 18 men at Sydorenko's position, three were killed and two were wounded.
He’s 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 set up for the wounded, he said.
Eventually, faced with the Russian onslaught, the surviving Ukrainians, Sydorenko among them, were forced to retreat through a minefield and a swamp.
Returning to where he lost his comrades wasn’t easy for the young officer. It is “unpleasant, frankly,” he said. “There are not many good memories from this place.”
Nearby, a Russian tank lay burned, its tracks blown off its wheels, a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag now fluttering atop it. A few days earlier, Shum’s men found the remains of a Russian soldier inside, which they collected and delivered to the Kharkiv morgue.
With the chilly autumn wind swaying the weeds and withered sunflowers growing wild in the fallow fields, Shum and his men continued their search. There was another Ukrainian soldier’s body by the side of the track, and nearby, the remains of another who appeared to have been run over by the now-disabled tank.
Further up a hill, a destroyed armored vehicle and a car, scattered boxes of ammunition and pieces of equipment were testament to the ferocity of the fight. Inside the armored vehicle was the body of another soldier.
The same procedure was repeated, and the body was lifted through the vehicle’s broken window. The soldier lifting the body’s feet gagged, but waited until his task was completed before heading for the bushes.
In all, Shum and his men collected seven Ukrainian soldiers’ bodies and found the hand of a Russian soldier among discarded Russian body armor and backpacks. All the remains were taken to the Kharkiv morgue.
Soon, the notification of the families will begin.