June 10, 2023

PRUDANKA, Ukraine (AP) — Four soldiers lay on the grass, sleeping bags and cans of food, some scattered around them. Beneath the surrounding trees, their cars were smashed and torn apart. The men had been dead for months.

This region of rolling fields and forests near the Russian border was the site of fierce battles for months in the summer. Only now, after Ukrainian forces have retaken the area and pushed Russian troops across the border, have bodies strewn across the battlefield been recovered.

The area was strategically important because its high ground included positions where Russian artillery could easily attack Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, said Col. Vitaly Shum, deputy commander of the 3rd Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard. For days collecting the battlefield dead – both Ukrainian and Russian.

For the soldiers’ families, the news of the body being recovered would be final, an incredible confirmation that their son, brother, father or husband would not be coming home.

Even if they are informed that their loved ones have died in the war, there is a glimmer of hope left without a body to mourn.

“They’re hoping he’s incarcerated, and that’s the worst,” Schumm said. Once the body’s identity is verified through DNA testing, “a difficult and difficult process will take place,” he added: The body that the family is told has been found, and all hope of their loved one walking through the front door again is lost.

During Monday’s recovery mission, Shum’s team photographed the site for evidence and removed body bags while soldiers checked the surrounding areas and the bodies themselves for booby-traps and mines. One of the dead soldiers had a hand grenade – he didn’t have time to use it as the Russians closed in.

After the search for explosives was over, a soldier went through the uniform pockets of the dead men for identification and personal belongings, placing the decomposing bodies in plastic bags before lifting them into body bags.

The work was done in fact, quietly, humbly. Body bags were zipped up, numbered and carried along a muddy track to a waiting truck.

The battle here took place in June and was as violent as it was bloody. It included close-quarters combat as well as the use of tanks and artillery, said First Lieutenant Mikita Sidorenko, a 24-year-old commander of an anti-tank unit who took part in the battle and has now returned to help collect remains. of his comrades.

In all, the Ukrainians had four positions in the area and were determined to hold them. Russian troops attacked and captured four Ukrainian soldiers, and the Ukrainians launched a rescue operation. Sidorenko said the all-day battle began. Ukrainian reinforcements arrived, but the Russians kept coming.

“They were coming like ants, I don’t know how else to describe it,” he said.

Losses on both sides were heavy. Sidorenko said at least 16 Russian soldiers were killed, using artillery to keep the Ukrainians at bay while the Russians collected their dead and wounded.

Of the Ukrainians, six in one position were captured, he said, and all eight in the other were wounded. Of about 17 or 18 men in Sidorenko’s position, three were killed and two wounded.

He’s not sure what happened to the six in fourth place. He said the area where the four bodies were found was a vacant lot for the injured.

Finally, facing a Russian attack, the surviving Ukrainians, Sidorenko among them, were forced to retreat through a minefield and swamp.

It was not easy for the young officer to return to the place where he had lost his comrades. It’s “unpleasant, frankly,” he said. “Not many good memories from this place.”

Nearby, a Russian tank burned out, its tracks blown off its wheels, a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag now flying above it. A few days ago, Shum’s men found the remains of a Russian soldier inside, which they collected and delivered to the Kharkiv morgue.

With weeds and wilted sunflowers growing wild in the fallow fields in the frosty autumn wind, Sum and his men continue their search. Next to the track lay the body of another Ukrainian soldier, and nearby, the remains of another man who had been run over by a now-disabled tank.

Further up a hill, a wrecked armored vehicle and a car, scattered ammunition boxes and pieces of equipment were evidence of the brutality of the war. Another soldier’s body was inside the armored car.

The same procedure was repeated, and the body was lifted through the broken window of the car. The soldier picked up the body’s legs, but waited until he was done before heading for the bush.

In all, Shum and his men collected the bodies of seven Ukrainian soldiers and found the hands of a Russian soldier among discarded Russian armor and backpacks. All the remains were taken to the Kharkiv morgue.

Soon, families will begin to be notified.

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