Accessibility links

Lack Of Funds Threatens Efforts To Recover Ukraine's Dead Soldiers

The Black Tulip NGO has ensured that many soldiers who have died in combat in eastern Ukraine manage to get a Christian burial. (file photo)

The Black Tulip NGO has ensured that many soldiers who have died in combat in eastern Ukraine manage to get a Christian burial. (file photo)

Yaroslav Zhilkin is a tired man.

Since September, he has relentlessly scoured eastern Ukraine for the remains of soldiers killed in the conflict pitting government forces against pro-Russian separatists who control large swathes of the region.

It's a grim and arduous task. But above all, Zhilkin is weary of begging Ukrainian authorities for support.

His volunteer group, Black Tulip, announced this week that it was halting its casualty recovery effort due to a lack of funds.

"It's immoral to wash one's hands of this problem, to ignore it," he says. "As a person who knows what it means to honor the dead, I just cannot understand it."

As the government in Kyiv scrambles to stamp out the separatist insurgency and avert economic collapse, the responsibility of retrieving the dead left behind in eastern Ukraine has rested squarely on Black Tulip's 50 volunteers.

Black Tulip, named after a cargo plane that repatriated the remains of soldiers killed during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, has already enabled numerous families to lay their loved-ones to rest.

"The war is not over until the last killed soldier is buried," the group states on its website.

Zhilkin has sent letters to ministers, deputies, and even to President Petro Poroshenko asking for help in recovering the bodies of 200 government fighters still believed to be strewn across the conflict zone.

So far, his pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Through its newly-formed department overseeing cooperation between the military and civilians, the Ukrainian armed forces has helped establish a safety corridor for the volunteers. It has also provided fuel.

For all the rest, from body bags to refrigerated trucks, the group has had to rely on private donations and on its volunteers' own resources.

"People work in their free time, on an absolutely volunteer basis, and on their own dime," protests Zhilkin, who abandoned his business to devote himself to Black Tulip's recovery campaign.

For the past year, he has relied on his wife's income.

Terrifying Experience

Zhilkin headed the National Memory Union, a nongovernmental group commemorating World War II victims, when the conflict erupted last year in eastern Ukraine.

The NGO, which had experience locating and exhuming missing World War II soldiers, swiftly launched the Black Tulip initiative.

Its first foray into the conflict zone took place in early September.

Zhilkin says it was a terrifying experience.

"On the first day -- I was the one leading the expedition-- I felt very nervous, I had stomach cramps," he recalls. "I was scared, just like my colleagues. But we were the only ones who agreed to do the job."

Volunteers have since brought back hundreds of bags filled with human remains.

Yaroslav Zhilkin

Yaroslav Zhilkin

Zhilkin, however, can't say how many soldiers and other government forces have received a proper burial thanks to his group.

"You can't really talk of bodies," he says. "We recovered 609 bags with bodies and body parts. We have no feedback from medical examiners and most of the time, the bodies we bring back are very difficult to identify."

Zhilkin says the volunteers must sometimes comb through fields packed with mines and unexploded shells in rebel-held territory.

The remains of soldiers killed in action often lie for months before being found. Many are too charred to be identified.

Due to the lack of dental records or identification tags among government forces, Ukraine's military has been forced to hold mass burials for unknown soldiers who have died in combat.

Zhilkin is now in talks with officials in Kyiv to finally obtain state funding for his group.

Despite a cease-fire established in February, the conflict, which has already killed more than 6,400 people according to UN estimates, continues to claim lives.

With combatants on both sides still going missing, Black Tulip believes it is important that the recovery effort not be limited to government soldiers.

Although its stated task is to recover the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers, volunteers have been excavating the remains of militants, too, and delivering them to morgues in rebel-controlled areas.

"We don't distinguish 'them' from 'us','" says Zhilkin. "Our job is to recover dead people who deserve to have a proper funeral."

  • 16x9 Image

    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​