As Ukraine’s counter-offensive continues, Taras Svystun says his grisly job is getting uglier.
Mr. Svystun, a soldier, is part of a six-man Ukrainian military unit that collects and identifies the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers who died in the war and returns them to their families for burial. The unit, known as “On The Shield,” operates throughout the country, including in the eastern Donetsk region.
The two-month-long counteroffensive in Ukraine is progressing slowly, with units coming up against dug-in Russian defenses and suffering heavy casualties, though exact numbers are unclear. not made public.
“There are still many bodies at the moment,” Mr. Svystun said. He saw the number of dead in the morgue in the area “more or less doubled since the counter-offensive started”, he added.
Waking up at 5 a.m. each day, Mr. Svystun wears a khaki T-shirt with “Evacuation 200,” the Ukrainian military code for transporting soldiers killed in battle, stenciled on it. in the back. He then drove his refrigerated truck through the Donetsk region, stopping at morgues, where some of the worst carnage of the war manifested itself.
Human bodies recovered from battered ditches, broken landscapes, and destroyed buildings are often mutilated beyond recognition.
“If they don’t have a face, we cut the clothes and look for tattoos, scars, and other signs of identity,” said Mr. Svystun. “It’s my job to help our dead men get home.”
The New York Times recently spent two days with Mr. Svystun as he toured. The Ukrainian military does not publish the numbers of casualties suffered by its forces, and the rare access was granted on the condition that the exact number of deaths witnessed would not be revealed.
However, it is clear that the death toll of soldiers is increasing. Piles of bodies piled up in military morgues, Mr. Svystun said.
Most of the dead have been killed in recent fighting, but while Ukraine has made some small gains in its campaign to reclaim territory previously occupied by Russian forces, the bodies of soldiers killed months ago ago was also taken, Mr. Svystun said.
Ukrainian military units usually report news of missing and fallen troops to the “On the Shield” unit, including the names of the soldiers, a rough estimate of their last known location and any possible identifying features.
Mr. Svystun, 45, and other members of his unit unzipped each body bag and cut away the blood-soaked uniform, body armor and other equipment, including ammunition. After inspection and documentation, wallets and mobile phones belonging to the deceased are placed under their belt buckles, or in a sheath folded into the body bag. Some morgue workers new to the job gag from the smell.
“Some people can’t do this job,” said Mr. Svystun, who joined the military after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. He worked as a medic from 2015 to 2018 that evacuates the wounded from the front lines of previous clashes in the east of the country.
“That’s harder,” he said. “When the soldiers were wounded and suffering pain, they cried and asked for help. Here, nobody asks for anything. “
Mr. Svystun took photos of the soldiers’ corpses on a cellphone and uploaded them to an online portal, so members of the “On the Shield” unit could cross-reference those details provided by those in their database of missing soldiers.
In a recent trip, the corpses he brought were identified at the time Mr. Svystun to transport his cargo of the dead from a morgue to a nearby logistics center.
“I am happy that he will not be in the morgue for a year and that he will not be buried anonymously,” said Mr. Svystun. “One more man can go home.”
Evelina Riabenko contributed to the report.