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The Slow, Dangerous Work Of Recovering Ukraine's War Dead

Ukrainian soldiers attend a mass funeral ceremony near Zaporizhzhya on October 1 to bury unidentified members of pro-Ukrainian military forces who were killed in fighting in the country's east.
Ukrainian soldiers attend a mass funeral ceremony near Zaporizhzhya on October 1 to bury unidentified members of pro-Ukrainian military forces who were killed in fighting in the country's east.

What priority should a country give to retrieving, identifying, and burying its war dead?

Ask Yaroslav Zhylkin, the head of Ukraine's casualty-recovery efforts, and he'll begin with an anecdote about the U.S. response when two American soldiers went missing in Afghanistan in 2006.

More than 8,000 soldiers and a group of forensic scientists, he says, were involved in that search.

In Ukraine, by contrast, a single group of 30 volunteers has assumed responsibility for retrieving fighters killed in battle in the eastern Donbas region.

The group -- dubbed Black Tulip after the cargo plane tasked with shipping the bodies of soldiers killed during the Soviet war in Afghanistan -- began its work on September 3.

Since then, they've found and evacuated the remains of more than 150 Ukrainian soldiers who died fighting in the government's so-called Antiterrorist Operation (ATO) against pro-Russian rebels in parts of the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

"We've gone through 10 districts and excavated remains from more than 30 graves, including 11 mass graves," said Zhylkin, who runs the National Memory Union, an NGO overseeing the Black Tulip mission and other efforts to connect families with soldiers and volunteer fighters who have gone missing in the war.

"We also gathered the remains of crew members who were burned to death in military equipment," Zhylkin noted grimly. He paused before adding, "It's worth emphasizing that our mission is run exclusively by volunteers."

In an undeclared war comprising numerous armed groups with frequently differing agendas, the task of retrieving bodies left on the battlefield is both complicated and dangerous.

Nobody's fighting with the dead."
Yaroslav Zhylkin

Zhylkin notes that Black Tulip volunteers are frequently forced to comb through fields controlled by separatists and dotted with mines and unexploded shells.

Even the dead soldiers represent a risk, as they are often laid with booby-trapped grenades set to detonate once the bodies are touched.

Still, Zhylkin says Black Tulip has cooperated with separatists themselves, who have occasionally approached the group for help finding their dead fighters as well. The volunteers don't turn anyone away.

"Nobody's fighting with the dead," Zhylkin says.

In addition to the danger, the group faces substantial costs. Each of the group's missions into the ATO zone costs approximately 40,000 hryvnia ($3,000), an amount mostly bankrolled by the volunteers themselves.

"The lion's share of the mission is self-financed ," says Yaroslav Tynchenko, the deputy director of Ukraine's National Military History Museum, who volunteers with the Black Tulip mission. "We mainly pay for all our own gasoline and transportation."

Additional necessities, like refrigerated trucks, are provided by charities. The group gets no direct funding from the government.

All recovered bodies are turned over to Ukrainian Army command, ideally for identification and return to families for burial. But recent weeks have seen an increasing number of mass burials for fighters who remain unidentified, including an October 17 funeral outside Dnipropetrovsk for 21 unknown soldiers killed in action.

As the country's morgues fill to capacity with war dead, military officials have been forced to bury many unnamed soldiers rather than wait for the possibility of eventual identification.

Black Tulip workers say the lack of identification tags among ATO fighters has proven one of the toughest challenges in their work.

Volunteer brigades and National Guard battalions, which make up a substantial part of Ukraine's current fighting force, do not consistently receive ID tags before being sent into battle.

Black Tulip workers say they have called on high-ranking government officials to provide dog tags and otherwise aid in casualty-recovery efforts.

Defense Ministry official Oleksiy Nazdrachev says the ministry has already earmarked 3 million hryvnia ($232,000) for the production of ID tags to be distributed to all army soldiers, National Guard members, and volunteer fighters.

For Zhylkin, the change can't come too soon. He says the remains of hundreds of fighters have yet to be cleared from the battlefields of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. More than 3,600 fighters and civilians have been killed in Ukraine in the past six months.

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