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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukrainians collect the bodies of dead Russian soldiers

A Ukrainian soldier, left, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, The Lawyer, and another soldier collecting the body of a dead Russian soldier on Saturday.

By Maria Varenikova

The boy ran through the yard of an abandoned house, overgrown with reeds and trees, and down a hill toward a river, where he saw something lying on the grass.

“I immediately guessed that it was a body of a human by his bones,” said Henadiy, who said he was 13 but looked younger. He had been on his way to tend to his cow and find fresh grass for it to graze. The ground had been covered in snow until early April when it began to thaw. “I was not scared,” he said.

He ran to tell his mother, who told Ukrainian troops at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the village of Synykha, in the Kharkiv region in Ukraine’s northeast. Soldiers found a passport and military identification card on the remains, and said he was 49 and had been a sergeant and platoon commander.

The soldiers summoned a coroner to retrieve the body of the dead Russian soldier, and so began the long journey for his remains to be returned to Russia.

Estimates of the numbers of dead in Russia’s war in Ukraine vary. American and other Western officials said in February that the number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine was approaching 200,000, a stark symbol of just how badly President Vladimir Putin’s invasion has gone. In November, Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that more than 100,000 troops on each side had been killed and wounded since the war began.

Three days after Henadiy’s discovery, a military minivan parked beside his family home carrying soldiers from J9, a branch of Ukraine’s military responsible for dealing with civilians, including collecting remains of Russian troops that they find. They had arrived to pick up the body, still dressed in a military uniform and boots.

A soldier who collects bodies in the region, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, The Lawyer, said he has picked up the remains of more than 400 Russians since Ukraine recaptured areas in the Kharkiv region from Russian forces in September. The lightning offensive overran Russian positions in chaotic fighting, and Russian troops were separated from their units. Bodies have been found in forests, fields and abandoned homes.

The J9 soldiers went to the site, watched by a group of reporters. Henadiy ran after them, standing back to observe the scene.

“The body doesn’t have bullet injuries, most likely he blew up on a grenade,” said the Lawyer, while observing the remains sunk into the grass on a hillside.

“I do not care for this man, it was his choice” to fight against Ukraine, the Lawyer said.

But retrieving the dead is important for Ukraine. The bodies are exchanged with Russia for Ukrainian war dead, giving closure to Ukrainian families.

With an assistant, the Lawyer loaded the remains into two body bags and carried them away from the abandoned house, down a hill, and to the van.

A two-hour drive away, the body was heaved into a refrigerated railway wagon that reeked of dead. Ukraine accumulates bodies in the wagon, then exchanges them.

The remains of the soldier is likely to lie in the wagon for days or weeks, waiting for more bodies to pile up. DNA samples are taken. The remaining process is not entirely clear, but Ukrainian authorities have complained that the Kremlin has been reluctant to engage on the subject of repatriating its dead.

Back in the village, the spot where the dead soldier had lain, likely for almost half a year, was marked only by a patch of rotten grass some torn scraps of his military uniform.

Henadiy said the scene did not scare him but added: “I don’t want to search for more.”

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