‘We take everyone we can’: the Ukrainians bringing Russian bodies off the battlefield

Volunteers risk landmines, drone attacks and shelling to help return fallen soldiers to families

What remains of nine Russian lives lies in body bags and on plastic sheets spread out in a sunny field in eastern Ukraine. Among the bones are a few belongings: passports, dog tags, phones, cigarette lighters, a little money and several pocket-sized prayer cards of Orthodox icons that some believers think bestow protection.

The bodies were brought off the battlefield by Oleksiy Yukov and other volunteers from Platsdarm (Bridgehead), a volunteer group whose members risk their own lives to retrieve fallen Ukrainian and Russian soldiers and help return them to their families.

Yukov has spent much of his life on tasks like this. As a teenager he searched the woods and fields around his hometown of Sloviansk for the dead of the second World War, when the Donetsk region was occupied for two years by Nazi Germany.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and injured in Ukraine since Russia launched a full-scale invasion in 2022, but even as the continent’s biggest war in 80 years grinds towards Sloviansk, Yukov hopes his work can somehow help break the long cycle of conflict in what have been described as the “bloodlands” of Europe.


“We take everyone we can from the battlefield. We don’t leave any body behind just because it’s not one of ours,” he says.

“So many people are being killed but we must keep our humanity. Everyone should have a dignified burial, so we don’t end up with more of the ‘unknown soldiers’ that we had after the second World War, when thousands of people were simply erased from history and put in mass graves,” he adds.

“Until a body is given a decent burial, the soul cannot rest. And death draws more death, evil attracts evil, and so these events will keep repeating.”

Yukov describes Platsdarm’s work as a way of removing the stain of violence from the land, almost like lifting a curse, and the group has already recovered the remains of about 1,500 military and civilian victims of the war since 2022.

The former martial arts trainer did the same work, though on a much smaller scale, after Russian-led militias seized parts of Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk region in 2014. Then his volunteer group was called Black Tulip, from the name given to planes that repatriated the Soviet Union’s dead during its 1979-89 war in Afghanistan.

One Platsdarm member has been killed and others have been injured. Yukov lost an eye when he was caught in an explosion during a recovery operation, and landmines, snipers, drones and shelling are all daily hazards for the group.

“We go out depending on the weather and what’s happening at the front. The worse the weather is, the better for us. Foggy days are best, because when it’s clear Russian drones and artillery immediately attack. They just open fire; whatever you might hear on television or somewhere, they don’t follow any rules out there,” he says.

The volunteers take bodies to a safe place and then try to identify them. Sometimes they find a passport, military identification document or dog tag. Occasionally, something jotted in a tattered notebook will provide a lead as to who they have found. Often there is little to go on, and only the pattern of a uniform or the sole of a military boot will give a clue as to whether the soldier was Ukrainian or Russian.

Unidentified remains are sent for DNA analysis and, once an identity has been established, Ukrainian bodies are returned to relatives and Russian ones are prepared for an exchange of troops killed in action that takes place at the neighbours’ border.

Yukov says his team has collected more Russian than Ukrainian dead, but in some areas fallen Ukrainians have outnumbered the enemy. As a rule, he notes, attacking forces suffer more casualties than those defending a position.

The worst carnage he has seen on the battlefield was around Klishchiivka, a village near the eastern city of Bakhmut that Russia captured last May, but he says his most disturbing work was gathering the remains of children from the train tracks after Russian missiles hit Kramatorsk railway station in April 2022, killing 63 civilians.

Yukov hopes that in 80 years his compatriots will not still be finding the remains of soldiers from this war, just as he has unearthed victims of the second World War.

However, even the most conservative estimates say tens of thousands of troops from both sides have been killed since 2022, and Kyiv’s human rights ombudsman revealed this week that nearly 37,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are officially considered missing, but the real number could be “much higher”.

On a warm spring day on a hillside in Donetsk region, Yukov crouches over body bags and looks for clues as to who they contain. On one corpse he finds a dog tag from the infamous Wagner mercenary group, which led Russia’s assault on Bakhmut; on another largely intact body is a T-shirt emblazoned with what looks like a golden two-headed eagle, a Russian imperial and nationalist symbol. He says he finds Orthodox icon cards and other religious paraphernalia on many bodies.

Some Russian military units try hard and take risks to retrieve their dead from the battlefield, while others just leave them, says Yukov, who does not know of any equivalent to Platsdarm operating on the other side of the front line.

“The willingness to wage this war on the other side would change if they saw how many bodies were coming home. Maybe it could even help end the war, if they saw with their own eyes how many of their people are dying,” he adds.

Above all, he sees the war as a criminal waste of life caused by the deluded ambition of the regime of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic leader of 24 years.

“I feel deep sorrow that so many people have been killed just because one crazy idiot wanted to take someone else’s territory. He’s destroying our young people and sending their young people to be killed,” Yukov says, pausing his inspection of a body.

“Is this person’s life worth nothing more than that plastic body bag? A mother raised that boy, had hopes for him, thought he would grow up and have children of his own and might become a great person,” he adds.

“How could Russia’s mothers let their sons come here, knowing they were coming to kill and might not come home? How will they live with that? When they finally understand, it might already be too late, and they will have no one left to embrace, neither husbands nor sons.”

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