‘You can come home now:’ Ukraine’s recovery teams work to ensure no fallen soldiers are left behind

Editor’s note: Warning: This story contains disturbing images.


Brashkivka, Ukraine
CNN

Before the war, dressed in “Red Army” garb, Leonid Bondar re-enacts the great Soviet battles of World War II – where they were fought, who won and who fell where – all facts he knew intimately. was

His job at Ukraine’s War History Museum took him across the country as he recovered the remains of fallen World War II soldiers.

On today’s battlefield, Bonder’s skills are a vital part of the war-torn country’s war effort as it resists Moscow’s invading forces, finding and bringing home Ukraine’s fallen heroes.

He is a modest man, who does his part, saying he does it for the families of the fighters and the country.

By the end of August, the Ukrainian military admitted more than 9,000 casualties. A month later, President Vladimir Zelensky said that 50 soldiers were dying every day.

Bonder’s unit, originally called “Home on Your Shield,” was founded two and a half thousand years ago on the legend of Spartan mothers who told their warriors to “Come back with your shield. .. or on it.”

CNN’s team meets him on a damp, cold, breezy bluff above the village of Brashkivka in eastern Ukraine, where fields full of rotting, unpicked crops stretch out into the darkness toward a distant forest.

A yellow stone barn overlooks the scene he has come to uncover. Two of its windows are covered with dry wood, while a shell has pierced a hole in the wall.

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It was a perfect place for defense and a hellish place. A broken cell phone tower behind the bunker where Ukrainian soldiers likely died would have been an excellent target for enemy artillery. Six are missing, presumed dead.

This place is a silent reminder that war is cruel, robbing their lives, their loved ones of their peace. Every battlefield has a place where wasted time is buried, where color fades, and stories wait to be told at the last second.

In the battle four months ago for the ridge line near Braschkivka, the cell tower and the small field of the barn are the site.

A broken cell phone tower behind the basement bunker where the Ukrainian soldiers likely died would have been an excellent target for enemy artillery.

Bonder and his two colleagues are the first soldiers to search for the fallen since Ukrainian troops retook the area from Russian forces six weeks ago.

The video shared by Fuji Bondar shows the happy moments before their stories stopped. Sunlight streaked the wood and mud roof of their basement bunker, just a few feet from the cell tower, hinting at the danger they were in.

Bondar says the roof was not strong enough to take a direct hit. Upon initial assessment of the site, he suspects that two of the men were possibly blown out of the bunker by a shell explosion, while the others were possibly buried by the fallen masonry and debris inside.

Before they can test this theory, they search the site full of mines and bobby traps. Bonder shows CNN one of the most feared anti-personnel mines: It emerges from a protective cylinder, stands on thin sensitive legs, is triggered by proximity motion, and is deadly at a range of 15 meters. Is.

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Once the site is declared safe, Bonder’s quest begins to tell the soldiers’ stories, revealing some of his worst fears.

Metal hinges and screws from wooden ammunition cases, along with bone fragments, lie in rusted, charred piles a few meters from the bunker.

Bonder surmised that the Russians did not bury the blasted bodies, but burned them. “This is not the first time that we have come across a situation where humanitarian principles are ignored and soldiers are not buried properly,” he says.

Leonid Bondar and two of his colleagues are the first soldiers to search for the fallen fighters since Ukrainian troops wrested the area from Russian forces six weeks ago.

A few meters away, partially hidden in the tall grass growing around, is a human spine and pelvis. For Bonder, the heat-bleached bones are exactly what he’s been looking for, and he carefully places them in a heavy, white plastic forensic body bag.

His rubber-gloved fingers search the dirt for each fragment, each a source of DNA and potential solace for grieving families. He sees a ring, and loudly, thanks the fallen soldier for helping him identify him.

Meanwhile, his comrades are shoveling broken rock and accumulated dirt from the bunker in hopes of finding other soldiers.

Small bone fragments indicate that they’re searching in the right place for three, or possibly four, soldiers huddled up to one end of the bunker or blown up, but it’s too early to know.

This is heavy work. Bonder and his team have their jackets off, picking up piles of rubble above their heads and from the collapsed bunker.

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As they work, other Ukrainian soldiers arrive and tell the team that they discovered a dead Russian soldier alone in a burned-out vehicle about half a mile away.

A charred and charred corpse is also gently carried in a white body bag behind a wrecked armored ship. The Russian’s location, even the vehicle’s VIN number and other details are carefully recorded. His body is treated with the same respect as that of his fallen compatriots.

Back in the bunker, as layers of dirt are slowly removed and shovels are swapped for small trowels and small picks, the outline of three soldiers, broken and pressed against the wall of the red brick bunker. Knees and heads pointed, then shoulder bent, one hand still holding the rifle.

“You can come home now,” Bonder whispers, as the first body is freed and gently placed into a waiting white bag.

They check the pockets of another soldier dug out of the mud, with an ID card on a ribbon in his breast pocket. He was 32 years old at the time of his death. “Thank you for helping us,” Bonder says to the body.

After we leave, one body is still missing, but Bonder is determined to find out. There is only hope that as long as the war continues, his work will be far from over.

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