"The undertakers of Izioum": they pick up the bodies of Russians to find those of Ukrainians

In a report broadcast this Thursday, BFMTV was able to follow the overwhelming work of a team of Ukrainian volunteers who search the outskirts of Izioum, in the north-east of the country, in order to collect the corpses of soldiers there. They take care of their own as well as of the Russians whose remains they exchange for the bodies of their compatriots still in the hands of the enemy.

It is a small team of Ukrainian volunteers that BFMTV was able to follow on Wednesday in the woods bordering Izioum, in the northeast of the country. Their task: to pick up the bodies that the war leaves behind, and it doesn’t matter whether they were Ukrainians or Russians.

They do not keep the latter, however, but send them to the opposing camp against the remains of their compatriots who have fallen under enemy fire and remained in their possession.

Izioum, an infamous name

Izioum. The name of this city which had less than 50,000 inhabitants before the war is no longer unknown to observers since the Russian invasion pulled it out of its anonymity. It was first the scene of many battles: the Russians took it around March 24, then the Ukrainians drove them out on September 11.

The following September 16, the celebrity of the locality took an even more tragic turn, with the discovery of a mass grave of nearly 500 victims of the Russians, buried in mass graves.

The corpses that the volunteers are looking for are not buried. They lie as the war mowed them down. As the front is not far away, and the forest they are exploring has not been cleared, they advance cautiously in front of the cameras, a helmet on their head, a bulletproof vest on their chest.

“We are careful because our lives depend on it but also so that the body remains intact and that we can send it back to Russia”, explains one of these men, Oleksey.

“We have to show that we are human”

Soon they find a body. This is the 205th Russian soldier they have recovered in nine months. But before picking it up, they observe a rigorous procedure. Immediately, we freeze the scene: we delimit it with a tape, like agents at the scene of a crime while waiting for the scientific police. Then, again cautious, the team members lie down – “ten seconds” according to Oleksey’s order – before lifting the corpse so as not to take any risks.

It must be said that Oleksey knows the roadmap perfectly. He has been one of the “undertaker of Izioum” since 2014 and the unrest against the separatists.

“We have to show that we are human, even in this situation. We do not fight the dead! We always have the same attitude, whatever the nationality of the bodies”, he explains.

An attitude that contrasts with that of the invader according to him. “Most often, they don’t care about the dead. They don’t need it, it’s only material. And that way their families won’t have any compensation: they will only be ‘disappeared'”, he lets go.

Another ten years

The count of corpses abandoned in the forest seems to prove him right: Oleksey and his family have exhumed a dozen in this forest alone. The one they discovered in front of our cameras, however, has an identity.

“In the inside pocket there is a military card: Igor Vladimirovich, born in 1966,” reads Oleksey. And it is thanks to these “Igor Vladimirovitch” that the volunteers return to the Russians that they receive in exchange the remains of Ukrainian fellow citizens.

This undertaker’s work is also painstaking work. Oleksey thinks it will last another ten years. As far as he is concerned, things are clear, he will continue as long as necessary. After all, he chose this life eight years ago.

Robin Verner

Robin Verner BFMTV journalist

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