The body, already quite decomposed, still in its khaki uniform and black boots, rests in a small corner of greenery not far from the village of Synykha, in the Kharkiv region, in northeastern Ukraine.
The soldier is lying on his back, his flesh largely disintegrated and his rib cage exposed, amidst the remnants of his uniform. A faint scent of death hangs in the spring air.
It was recently discovered by a 10-year-old child while herding cows nearby. His family notified the authorities, who sent a unit of volunteer soldiers to pick up the body, in the presence of journalists.
They interrogate the boy. “Weren’t you scared? asks one of them. “No, why would we be afraid?” he replies quietly.
According to damaged but still partly legible papers found on the body, the soldier belonged to the pro-Russian forces of the self-proclaimed republic of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and was 48 years old.
The body has probably been there since September 2022, when Ukrainian forces pushed Russian forces out of the Kharkiv region, says one of the Ukrainian soldiers, a 35-year-old man who gives only his first name, Anton, and his pseudonym, “Yuryst” (“the jurist”).
“I can say he was killed by an explosion. Either he blew himself up or he stepped on an explosive,” he explains after examining the body.
The small unit to which he belongs recovers the bodies of enemy soldiers killed in combat and abandoned on the ground. In particular to be able to exchange them for the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers so that they can be returned to their families.
Wearing gloves, but no masks, Yuryst and another member of his unit pick up the body and place it in a white bag, before putting everything in a large black bag. They will take him to Kharkiv where he will be placed in a refrigerated train car.
Then, DNA samples will have to be collected to identify it. It shouldn’t be difficult, says Yuryst. “It’s the first time I’ve seen such perfect teeth,” he marvels.
Yuryst explains that he has already collected more than 400 bodies of Russian or pro-Russian soldiers in the city and around Kharkiv.
And that the macabre work of these volunteers is important.
On the one hand, they collect a bargaining chip to recover bodies of Ukrainian soldiers. On the other hand, they collect evidence that could eventually be used before an international tribunal. Finally, they reduce the risk of contamination and disease.
“Those are the three reasons why my work is important,” he concludes.