In a deserted village in northern Donetsk, a group of volunteers set about the grim task of extracting two rotted Russian corpses from a cellar next to a destroyed house.
The two Russians, wearing summer uniforms, had been placed in the cellar presumably by their fellow combatants. The village, Krasnopillia, is not far from the city of Izium, which was passed between Ukrainian and Russian hands several times before Ukrainian forces retook it in September. By March, the two bodies had decomposed to such an extent that they barely smelled and were identifiable only through their dog tags.
The aim is to collect Russian bodies to exchange for Ukrainians, since a soldier cannot be declared dead by the state until there is a body, but the process of extracting them is extremely risky. Like much of the deoccupied areas, Krasnopillia is littered with antipersonnel mines. Russia has been using remote mining systems that scatter tiny mines from the air. There have also been several instances of Russian forces booby-trapping bodies and houses before retreating.
“The mines are dropped from rockets and so they can be anywhere. They can even be caught in trees and blow off in the wind,” said one volunteer, Artur, who was piloting a donated drone to document the bodies’ recovery.
The Ukrainian volunteer body collectors belong to a group called Black Tulip, and say they have unearthed 311 Russian soldiers in deoccupied areas since February. Comprising about 10 volunteers, they are one of several groups, as well as Ukrainian military units, who scour the deoccupied areas and frontlines looking for corpses.
Oleksiy Yukov, the Black Tulip leader, said he was a frequent visitor to the village before February last year. A military enthusiast, he used to dig up second world war skeletons and in 2014 started working in the no man’s land between the Russian and Ukrainian frontlines.
He remembers six families living on the now-empty street. Most villagers managed to leave but several were killed, he said. One couple who came back to see their destroyed house noticed a helmet poking out of the cellar and called Yukov.
The two Russian soldiers – whose remains will be examined and personal belongings such as money, ID card and documents registered – would be exchanged for Ukrainian soldiers’ bodies after forensic examination, said the volunteers.
The exchange of bodies between Russia and Ukraine is a highly secretive process and the total number sent has not been disclosed by either side. One source who frequently takes part in the exchanges and agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said: “At least 20 swaps of soldiers’ bodies have taken place between the two countries since the beginning of the Russian invasion.”
The body exchanges take place on the Russian-Ukrainian border or at the frontline with the supervision of the countries’ military authorities, according to the source.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had taken part in several operations. “Through this work, we have managed to bring back hundreds of fallen soldiers, who can then be identified and eventually returned to their families for burial,” said an ICRC spokesperson in Ukraine, Achille Després.
But identifying the bodies can be a challenge: Russian corpses are occasionally found burned, sometimes by local people for hygiene reasons, and sometimes by the Russian military, in an apparent attempt to conceal its losses.
“We found five Russians in Lyman region whose corpses were burnt,” said Yukov of a city that was occupied by Russian forces until early October. “There are those who try to hide their losses so as not to have to drag them with them. In other cases, locals burnt corpses because the smell was so bad.
“It looked like WWII. We also once found Soviet soldiers in a big hole – there were 10-15 people – you could tell they had been intentionally burnt,” said Yukov, describing some of his work before 2014.
Ukraine’s security services believe the bodies of thousands of dead Russian soldiers are being informally disposed of as the Kremlin logs them as “missing in action”.
An intercepted phone call from a Russian soldier in May said his comrades had been buried in “a dump the height of a man” just outside occupied Donetsk. “There’s so much Cargo 200 [military code for dead soldiers] that the mountains of corpses are 2 metres high,” he said in the call. “It’s not a morgue, it’s a dump. It’s massive.”
“They just toss them there,” a Russian soldier said in another intercepted call. “And then later it’s easier to make it as if they disappeared without a trace. It’s easier for them to pretend they are just missing, and that’s it.”
Last November, the Guardian spoke to dozens of local people and workers in Kherson who said Russian forces used a local landfill site to burn bodies of fallen Russian soldiers during the six-month occupation.