KHARKIV, Ukraine — They lie in white and black bags in 20 below zero degrees Celsius, but the stench is still overwhelming. Filled with the bodies of 62 Russian soldiers, the bags are stacked in a refrigerated wagon in secret located on the outskirts of the second largest city in Ukraine. A lively, elderly train worker opened the vault-like door to reveal the bloody bags as the smell wafted through the damp air.
“We are recovering these bodies for sanitary reasons, because dogs ate them,” said a Ukrainian soldier who would give only his call sign, Summer. “Eventually, we will return them to their loved ones.”
Summer said many bodies lay out in the open for a month or more before his unit found them. His two-man team works to identify soldiers by their faces, tattoos, and personal belongings. They also take a DNA sample from each corpse to determine if any potential war crimes suspects are among them.
In the darkness of the darkened car, there are traces of humanity, of the soldiers who once brought the war from Russia to Ukraine. A pair of mud-covered boots pop out of a bag. In the corner, the collar of a camouflage jacket is visible through an opening, but not a face.
Summer’s co-worker, who refused to use even his first initial due to the sensitivity of the subject, said they were the only two men in their unit tasked with finding and preserving enemy bodies. He said identifications were possible about 50% of the time, while in other cases the corpses were too badly deteriorated. Most of the bodies had been found in villages around Kharkiv.
“It’s the best job in the world,” he said of the grim satisfaction one finds in rounding up the invader’s corpses.
In recent weeks, the Ukrainian military has successfully counterattacked Russian forces, pushing them further away from Kharkiv and giving the city a sense of calm, at least until shelling resumes on Wednesday.
When the Russians withdrew, they left some of their dead behind, and as Kharkiv residents began to return tentatively to villages that were in the line of fire, some found the bodies in their homes or fell on them elsewhere.
The trainman sleeps in the carriage next to the refrigerated car, keeping watch over the corpses. Colleagues have taken on similar tasks in other cities, including Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro, where other refrigerated wagons contain hundreds of bodies.
Ukrainian authorities have complained about the Kremlin’s reluctance to engage on the subject of the repatriation of its dead.
Ukraine says 30,000 Russian troops have been killed since the invasion began on Feb. 24; these figures are impossible to independently verify, and Russia rarely gives a casualty toll. Last week, a British intelligence assessment put Russian casualties estimated at half that number. Thousands of other Russians are missing or detained by Ukrainians, Western intelligence agencies estimate.
Russia has not released figures since late March, when it said 1,351 troops were dead and 3,825 injured. Estimates based on publicly available evidence suggest that more than 400 Russian soldiers were killed or injured in a single incident earlier this month in northeastern Ukraine.
Last week, for the first time since the invasion of Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin visited a military hospital in Moscow to visit wounded soldiers. Dressed in a white coat, he called everyone who served in Ukraine “heroes”. Mr Putin also announced further pay increases for those serving there, a sign he may be trying to quell bubbling public discontent over the victims. Russia has also abolished upper age limits for signing a military service contract.
Ukraine has not shared its own information on military casualties, but President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week in Davos that up to 100 military personnel could die daily in heavy fighting in the eastern region of Donbass.
Ukraine’s allies have also been reluctant to comment on casualties to the country’s troops, but US intelligence agencies estimated in mid-April that between 5,500 and 11,000 troops had been killed and more than 18,000 wounded.
One of the soldiers handling Russian corpses in Kharkiv said he hoped Ukraine’s move to protect Russian war dead would improve his chances of getting revenge from behind enemy lines.
“For me,” he said, “it is very important that we return the bodies of our boys to their families. We therefore treat these bodies with respect.