“Take cover!” Oleksiy Yukov yells as he prepares to pull at a wire attached to the decomposed body of a Russian soldier that he and his team have found in a forest on the edge of Ukraine’s war-ravaged Donbas region.
The wire, Mr. Yukov fears, could be an indication that the corpse is boobytrapped. The other five members of his recovery team crouch 100 metres away, their faces turned from the possible explosion.
Nothing happens when the wire is pulled, so Mr. Yukov and his team – known as the Black Tulips – begin their examination of the dead Russian. There’s no identification on the soldier, but his uniform is that of the National Guard, a force that’s supposed to ensure the internal security of Russia. The slightly different colouring suggests he may have been a member of the National Guard’s special forces unit.
Little more than a skeleton remains of the body itself. Mr. Yukov estimates the soldier likely died in August. That suggests the battle for Dovhenke, a shattered and empty village that straddles the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, which took place just before last fall’s major Ukrainian counteroffensive liberated the rest of Kharkiv.
The Black Tulips lift the soldier’s limp body onto a white plastic body bag, and place his skull beside it, along with a soggy pack of cigarettes and a lighter found at the scene. A small plastic sign with the number 299 – the running count of how many dead Russians the group has collected – is placed amidst the macabre tableau.
The volunteer body collectors are gentle, though far from respectful, as they lift the enemy soldier’s remains from the battlefield. “For me, it’s just a stain that we need to remove from our land,” said 55-year-old Vasily Zagorodnyuk as he watched his colleagues photograph the evidence around body 299. There’s a ripple of laughter as one of them reads the words written on the dead man’s lighter: “My soul is looking for romance, but my ass is looking for adventure.”
“He found it,” one of the Ukrainians adds as the body bag is zipped closed.
Despite the dark humour, the Black Tulips retrieve the dead Russians with a purpose: to help bring fallen Ukrainian soldiers home. The bodies they find – acting on tips from either the Ukrainian army or local civilians – are taken to a specialized morgue, which sends DNA evidence, as well as the location where the dead were found, to the Russian side.
If the Russian army accepts that the fallen soldier was one of theirs, they are added to a list for a potential exchange of the dead. Several such exchanges have taken place so far in the 11-month-old war, with hundreds of bodies being handed over at the front line at each meeting.
The Black Tulips take pride in helping repatriate those who gave their lives fighting for Ukraine. “We’re helping bring our guys – who defended their country – home to their families, to their mothers, fathers, daughters and sons,” said Andriy Semeyko, a 21-year-old who joined the Black Tulips a month ago. His older brother Artur was already part of the volunteer unit, which lives together in a home in the nearby city of Slovyansk, living off food delivered to them by aid organizations.
The brothers speak of Mr. Yukov – a muay thai fighter who in peacetime taught the martial art to several of the younger Black Tulips – as their “commander.” The 37-year-old Mr. Yukov has been collecting bodies from the fields of eastern Ukraine since 2012, initially alongside his father, who worked for a non-governmental organization that recovered the bodies of Soviet and Nazi soldiers who died here during the Second World War. The Black Tulips derive their moniker from the nickname given to the Soviet aircraft that carried dead Red Army soldiers home from the 1980s war in Afghanistan.
Mr. Zagorodnyuk and Mr. Yukov, as the oldest members of the team, remembered the field outside Dovhenke well. They had been there before, searching for those who died in another war, in another era.
“Second World War battles were fought in precisely this place,” Mr. Yukov said. “It’s exactly the same story.”
During the eight-year proxy war that preceded Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Yukov became well-known in Donbas as one of the few who would regularly go into the no-man’s land between the positions of the Ukrainian army and the Kremlin-backed militias to collect the dead. That neutral role has become impossible in this new, larger war. “The Russian army is not negotiating at all. If anyone goes near, they promise to eliminate them,” Mr. Yukov said.
Denys Sosnenko, a 21-year-old muay thai aficionado, described the group’s grim Friday – with artillery resounding somewhere in the distance as they looked for the bodies of the dead in a muddy field full of potential dangers – as an ordinary day.
After body 299 is carried to a central point in the field, the group heads into a nearby thatch of trees to examine the burnt-out shell of an armoured personnel carrier.
There are human remains inside – but incinerated so far beyond recognition that it initially seems impossible to determine even the nationality. Finally, a black boot used by the Russian army is discovered nearby, so the soldier is deemed to be dead Russian number 300. The only other items to survive the fire that must have raged inside the APC are a rusty knife, some broken pieces of body armour, a melted Kalashnikov cartridge, and tiny pieces of teeth and bone.
The discoveries near Dovhenke are not yet included in any count of casualties. The Russian military has officially acknowledged losing only 5,937 soldiers in Ukraine, a number that hasn’t been updated since September. Western estimates put Russian losses at more than 10 times that figure, while Ukraine claims to have killed about 120,000 invading soldiers.
Mediazona, an independent Russian news website, along with the BBC Russian service, has used public records, official media reports, and social media reports to confirm that at least 11,662 Russians have died over the 11 months of war in Ukraine. Pyotr Verzilov, the Russian-Canadian publisher of Mediazona, says that’s a dramatic underestimate.
“This is a count of bodies that can be essentially proven. It’s kind of the minimal official count. Russia can downplay it, but everybody on this list can be traced to an official notice,” Mr. Verzilov said in an interview in Ukraine, where he frequently works. “I would say that the amount of killed soldiers looks like it’s closer to 70, 80 or 90,000.”
Mr. Verzilov said that while the Kremlin has been trying to keep the real death toll hidden from the Russian public, traffic to his website – much of it from Russia – suggests “a huge demand for people, to get information and to read what’s happening.”
Among the many unknowns is how many on both sides have died in the raging battle for the city of Bakhmut, a key transportation hub in the Donetsk region that has been under ferocious Russian assault since August.
But Mr. Yukov said the Black Tulips can’t reach the Bakhmut area because the Russians won’t agree to hold their fire even to allow the dead to be collected. “It’s not a rumour that the fields there are covered with hundreds of bodies,” he said.
Reaching the dead, even farther from the front line, can be nearly as dangerous as getting to Bakhmut. The field outside Dovhenke – which had been the front line between Russian and Ukrainian positions for nearly six months between March and September – is littered with destroyed armoured vehicles, unexploded shells and anti-personnel mines. Twice, Mr. Yukov had to shout for his team to walk in single file between anti-tank mines planted on the right and left of the narrow footpath.
“Step on this and it destroys half your foot,” Mr. Yukov said during the Jan. 20 mission, holding up one of the “butterfly” anti-personnel mines that became infamous during the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and which are now being used in Ukraine.
“Of course it’s dangerous, but there’s danger everywhere in Ukraine,” Artur Semeyko said as he walked past a tank shell half-buried in the mud.
Near the end of their day, the team took a break sitting atop the Russian APC where they found body number 300. Mr. Sosnenko said he felt strangely at ease with the grim task of collecting the dead. Many Ukrainian men his age were fighting, but he said he had found his place with the Black Tulips. “We each have our role in this war. Someone has to do this job too.”
Three days later, on another trip to recover some of the bodies this war has left scattered around his country, Mr. Sosnenko’s vehicle hit an anti-tank mine. He died in hospital, joining the tens of thousands of other Ukrainian civilians who have been killed in this invasion.
“He helped to bring home the souls of those who risked their lives on the battlefield,” Mr. Yukov wrote Friday in a Facebook tribute. “You remain our family, our son, brother, true friend and an example of self-sacrifice and heroism.”