At the end of another day's work in eastern Ukraine, Igor Slyusar and two colleagues sip coffee in a quiet cafe, and decline the offer of something stronger.
“What we do is tough, physically and mentally. It can be hard on the nerves,” Slyusar says. “We don’t need alcohol on top of that – it only makes things worse.”
An economist by education, Slyusar (40) is a military history buff whose visits to Ukrainian battlefields of the second World War gave him skills that he puts to use on the frontline of Europe’s latest bloody conflict.
As an amateur researcher, Slyusar often unearthed the remains of Soviet soldiers who perished more than 70 years ago, but now his team uncovers the fate of men whose families still wait in vain for their return.
Slyusar is one of about 30 volunteers who regularly cross into separatist-held territory to find and retrieve the bodies of Ukrainian troops killed in fighting with the Russian-backed militants. They call their organisation “Black Tulip”, which was the nickname of a Soviet plane that brought the Red Army’s dead home from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Their work is always sensitive, sometimes dangerous and often horrific, but Slyusar describes it as a patriotic duty to Ukraine’s servicemen and their relatives.
“Not everyone can do this. It’s not easy to take, and even military men can find it too hard,” Slyusar says, alongside
(31), two other war-history enthusiasts who are members of
“When we explored second World War battlefields, we would often find bodies of Soviet troops, and sometimes German. We would look for clues as to who they were, and try to establish their identity and what had happened to them. Very often in what we do now, that experience proves to be vital.”
Black Tulip worked recently near Debaltseve, the site of a heavy defeat for Ukrainian forces in February, at a place where footage had been shot of destroyed military vehicles and dead bodies. But when Slyusar’s men arrived, they had gone.
“The militants move very quickly to cut up armoured vehicles and sell the metal for scrap. So we examined the area and finally found the dog tag of a Ukrainian tank driver,” Slyusar recalls.
“It was badly damaged, slightly melted, but we managed to make out his surname. And then we matched it to a name on the list of men who were missing in action. So even if we didn’t come back with his body, we now know where he probably died.”
In another case, a soldier who was blown to pieces in battle was provisionally identified from a voting slip that Black Tulip members found among shreds of his uniform.
“We could figure out his surname and the place he was registered to vote,” says Slyusar. “We found his remains last November, but it took until March to confirm his identity through DNA analysis. He left three kids behind.”
There are no happy endings to Black Tulip stories. The best the group can hope for from a day’s work is to return safely from rebel territory, with bodies that have not been terribly damaged in battle or by long exposure to the elements and wild animals.
Based in a small town about 40km from the frontline, Black Tulip can be called into action at any hour, whenever the separatists give them clearance and security guarantees to work in a certain area.
“The militants didn’t want Ukrainian soldiers doing this task, so as civilians we stepped in to help,” says Slyusar.
“We have to watch for unexploded ordnance and mines, and sometimes it’s tense with the militants, but we’ve found a way to work.”
Black Tulip returns soldiers’ remains to government-held territory and then passes them to the Ukrainian military, which conducts DNA identification and contacts relatives of the deceased.
The group receives no government funding, and relies on donations to feed and equip its members and to maintain three ageing vans marked “Gruz 200” – “Cargo 200” – military code across the former
for soldiers killed in action.
Black Tulip is one of countless volunteer organisations that have sprung up in Ukraine, since last year’s revolution, to perform vital services that are neglected by a crisis-ridden and near-bankrupt state.
Since starting work last September, the group has retrieved the bodies of hundreds of servicemen from the battlefield, but the work takes its toll.
“My family says I’ve become more closed,” says Kishkin, and the three men concur that nightmares are an occupational hazard.
“There are bad dreams, and it might take 10 years to really know how this is affecting us,” Slyusar says as the men return to their van, having kept a constant watch on it through the cafe window. Inside lie two servicemen who were shot dead the previous day, in an ambush near the separatist stronghold of Donetsk.
“Maybe one day they’ll put guns in our hands and tell us to fight,” says Slyusar. “So be it. But for now, this is our best way to help our country.”