In a remote village in northern Donetsk, a group of volunteers undertook the arduous task of removing two decomposing Russian bodies from the basement next to the destroyed house.
The two Russians, dressed in summer uniforms, were put in the dungeons, presumably by their fellow fighters. The village, Krasnopillia, is not far from the town of Izium, which passed between Ukrainian and Russian hands several times before Ukrainian troops recaptured it in September. By March, both bodies had decomposed to such an extent that they were almost odorless and could only be identified by their dog markings.
The aim was to collect the Russian remains in exchange for the Ukrainians, as a soldier cannot be declared dead by the state until a body is available, but the process of retrieving it is extremely risky. Like most empty areas, Krasnopillia is littered with antipersonnel mines. Russia has used a remote mining system that deploys small mines from the air. There are also several instances of Russian troops trapping corpses and houses before retreating.
“Mines are dropped from rockets so they can be anywhere. They can even get stuck in trees and blown away by the wind,” said one of the volunteers, Artur, who flew a donated drone to document the discovery of the bodies.
Ukrainian volunteer body collectors belong to a group called Black Tulip, and say they have found 311 Russian soldiers in empty areas since February. Comprised of about 10 volunteers, they are one of several groups, as well as Ukrainian military units, that scour empty areas and front lines for bodies.
Oleksiy Yukov, leader of Black Tulip, said he often visited the village before February last year. A military enthusiast, he used to dig into the framework of the second world war and in 2014 began working in the no man’s land between the Russian and Ukrainian front lines.
He remembered the six families who lived on the now empty street. Most of the villagers managed to leave but some were killed, he said. A couple returning to see their destroyed home saw a helmet sticking out of the basement and called Yukov.
The two Russian soldiers – whose bodies will be examined and personal effects such as money, ID cards and registered documents – will be exchanged for the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers after a forensic examination, volunteers said.
The exchange of remains between Russia and Ukraine is a highly classified process and the total amount sent has not been disclosed by either side. One source who frequently takes part in exchanges and agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said: “At least 20 body exchanges of soldiers have taken place between the two countries since the start of the Russian invasion.”
The exchange of bodies took place on the Russian-Ukrainian border or on the front line under the supervision of the country’s military authorities, according to the sources.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says it has taken part in several operations. “Through this work, we managed to repatriate hundreds of soldiers who died, who were later identified and eventually returned to their families for burial,” said ICRC spokesperson in Ukraine, Achille Després.
But identifying the bodies can be challenging: Russian corpses are sometimes found burned, sometimes by locals for reasons of hygiene, and sometimes by the Russian military, in an apparent attempt to hide their losses.
“We found five Russians in the Lyman area whose bodies were burned,” Yukov said of the town that the Russian troops occupied until early October. “There are people who try to hide their losses so as not to have to drag them along with them. In other cases, local residents burned corpses because they smelled so bad.
“It looks like World War II. We also found Soviet soldiers in a big pit – there were 10-15 of them – you could tell they were set on fire,” Yukov said, describing some of his work before 2014.
Ukrainian security services believe the bodies of thousands of Russian soldiers who died were illegally disposed of because the Kremlin listed them as “missing in action”.
An intercepted phone call from a Russian soldier in May said his comrades had been buried in a “man-deep dump” outside occupied Donetsk. “There are so many Cargo 200 [military code for dead soldiers] that the pile of corpses was 2 meters high,” he said in the summons. “This is not a morgue, this is a garbage dump. It’s huge.
“They just threw him in there,” a Russian soldier said in another intercepted call. “And then it’s easier to make it seem as if they disappeared without a trace. It’s easier for them to pretend they just disappeared, and that’s it.
Last November, the Guardian spoke to dozens of local residents and workers in Kherson who said Russian troops were using local garbage dumps to burn the bodies of Russian soldiers who died during the six months of occupation.