Ukrainian headache with dead enemy soldiers

Russian soldiers pose more trouble for Ukrainians than just as combatants - there is nowhere to store their corpses. As Russia ignores Ukrainian overtures to repatriate the bodies of killed Russian troops, morgues have reached their capacity.

Following the Russian withdrawal from the north of Kyiv after their failed attempt to take or encircle the city, Ukrainian defenders found hundreds of bodies of civilians murdered by the invaders. But also hundreds of dead Russian soldiers, whose bodies Russians have not evacuated. In many cases, the aggressors left in such a rush, that they did not even bury their comrades-in-arms.

Now, following the Ukrainian counteroffensive that pushed Russia away from Kharkiv, the vicinity of which saw heavy fighting since the start of the war 81 days ago, there are even more dead Russian soldiers to bury.

The head of Ukraine’s civil-military co-operation, Volodymr Lyamzin, said that Ukrainians intend to act in accordance with international law and return the bodies to Russia. “Of course, if the aggressor has bodies of our deceased, like in the graves on the temporarily occupied territories, we are ready to take them away too,” said Mr Lyamzin. “ But at the moment, there is no dialogue between Russia and Ukraine,” he added.

Right now, Ukrainian authorities are facing the problem of what to do with the dead Russian soldiers in the meantime. As morgues began to overflow with the massive number of dead servicemen’s bodies, Ukraine resorted to storing them in refrigerated train cars in various places in Ukraine. “It’s not a secret. There are several of [refrigerator trains]," said Mr Lyamzin. Reuters reporters were admitted to one rail yard, where hundreds of corpses in body bags were kept in the train cars.

Russia avoids releasing information about their combat losses. The only up-to-date numerical data available are the estimates released by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence and independently conducted NATO assessments. The most obvious motive the Kremlin may have for concealing its own losses is to spare themselves international embarrassment, which by now has become an exercise in futility, but also to wrap wool around the eyes of Russian people and to maintain an image of a strong and effective Russian military.

A more sinister motive was offered in an article by The Moscow Times, an independent Russian media outlet. In “‘Private Pivovarov is on Assignment’: How Russia Hides its Military Casualties”, which was published all the way back on April 6, the plight of families of soldiers who went missing in action is discussed. Without a formal recognition that they have been killed in combat, they are not entitled to any sort of monetary assistance. “Out of sight, out of mind” appears to be the attitude of the Russian Ministry of Defence when their own dead are concerned.

Anton Gerashchenko, the adviser to the Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs, commented on the Russian military command and policymakers' attitude towards their own fallen soldiers on social media:

Identifying the enemy

For now, forensic scientists are trying to identify the bodies. Considering the numbers, the task is almost Herculean. “Apart from those bodies which were delivered today, from all the other bodies biological material samples were taken by the law enforcement services. Even Interpol experts were working in these refrigerator cars here,” revealed Mr Lyamzin.

On the day when reporters were allowed onto the rail yard, a small search team of the Ukrainian Armed Forces codenamed J9 was working on the site. Its commander, Vasyl, spoke of the tasks his team has to perform.

“There is a rule that corpses should not be left on the battlefield. This is primarily to maintain sanitary conditions so as not to spread disease,” Vasyl explained. His team goes to search for the bodies as soon as the area is considered safe enough. They are accompanied by a demining unit in case the area has been mined or booby-trapped.

The bodies are laid out in the open for the identification process. On that particular day, Vasyl and his team had to deal with 40 corpses. The first step is to check if there are any documents or bank cards in the pockets of the uniforms. This way, they are able to identify about half of the dead. But whether identified or not, the problem of what to do with the dead remains. “We are ready for any order. If there is an order to conduct a burial, we will, but for now the bodies are just stored here, for example for the purpose of exchange,” said Vasyl.

But for now, it looks like the corpses of Russian soldiers will continue to pile up in storage. And even unburied, they are treated with more dignity than would be offered to them by the Russians. On May 10, the Security Service of Ukraine released an intercepted phone call a combatant from the pro-Russian separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” made to his wife. He revealed that overwhelmed with the number of corpses, the Russian resorted to storing them at what is effectively an open air dump, with corpses piling as high as two metres. The corpse dump, which according to him is located in the vicinity of Donetsk, has been fenced off and guards have been posted to prevent trespassing. The guards have been accepting bribes from relatives of soldiers who are looking for their loved ones.