“You can go home now:” Ukrainian recovery teams work to ensure that no fallen soldiers are left behind


Editor’s note: Warning: This story contains disturbing images.


Brashkivka, Ukraine
CNN

Dressed in “Red Army” gear before the war, Leonid Bondar recreated the great Soviet Battles of World War II – where they were fought, who won and who fell where – all the facts he knew intimately.

His work at the Ukrainian war history museum took him across the country as he recovered the remains of fallen World War II soldiers.

On today’s battlefields, Bondar’s skills are an essential part of the embattled nation’s war effort as it battles the invading forces of Moscow to find and bring home Ukraine’s fallen heroes.

He is a humble man who downplays his role, saying that he does it for the families of the fighters and for the country.

By the end of August, the Ukrainian military had acknowledged more than 9,000 casualties; a month later, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that 50 soldiers were being killed every day.

The Bondar unit, originally called “home on your shield,” originated in the myth of two and a half millennia ago when Spartan mothers told their warriors to “Return with your shield…or on it.”

The CNN team finds the village of Brashkivka in the damp, cold and windswept mountain range of eastern Ukraine, where dark fields of unharvested, rotting crops stretch into the dark into the distant forest.

A yellow stone barn surveys the scene it has come to illuminate; its two windows are filled with gilded wood, and a shell has made a hole in the wall.

It was a great vantage point and a hell of a place to defend. The cell phone tower behind the bunker where the Ukrainian soldiers probably died would have been an excellent marker for enemy artillery. Six are missing, dead.

It reminds the location that war is cruel, it steals peace from their lives, loved ones. Every battlefield has a place where time is buried, where colors fade and stories are waiting to be told in the last seconds.

In the battle for the ridge near Brashkivka four months ago, that spot is the small area next to the cell tower and barn.

Bondar and his two colleagues are the first soldiers to search for the fallen men since Ukrainian troops seized the area from Russian forces six weeks ago.

The video shared by the Bondar soldiers depicts the happy moments before their story stopped to find them. Sunlights piercing the wood and mud roof of the basement bunker, a few feet from the cell tower, hint that they were in danger.

The roof wasn’t strong enough to take a direct hit, Bondar says. In an initial assessment of the site, he suspects that two of the men were probably pulled from the bunker by shell explosions, and others were probably buried by fallen masonry and dirt inside.

Before testing that theory, they scour the site for mines and traps. Bondar shows CNN one of the scariest anti-personnel mines: It emerges from a protective cylinder, rests on sensitive thin legs, triggered by nearby movement, and is deadly at a distance of 15 meters.

When the site is declared safe, Bondar’s quest begins to tell the stories of the soldiers, revealing some of his worst fears.

Metal hinges and screws from wooden ammunition boxes, mixed with bone fragments, lie in rusted and charred piles a few meters from the bunker.

Bondar believes that the bodies thrown by the explosion were burned by the Russians, not buried. This, he says, “is not the first time we encounter a situation where the norms of humanity are ignored and soldiers are not properly buried.”

Leonid Bondar and his two colleagues are the first soldiers to search for the fallen fighters since Ukrainian troops seized the area from Russian forces six weeks ago.

A few meters away, partially hidden in the long grass that grows around, is a human spine and pelvis. For Bondar, the heat-bleached bones are what he’s been looking for, and he carefully stuffs them into a heavy, white plastic forensic body bag.

His rubber-gloved fingers search the dirt for every part, every piece for a source of DNA and potential solace for grieving families. He spots a ring, and loudly thanks the fallen soldier for helping him identify himself.

Meanwhile, his teammates have been shoveling crushed rock and accumulated dirt from the bunker in an attempt to find the other soldiers.

Small pieces of bone indicate that three or maybe four are looking in the right place, the soldiers huddled at one end of the bunker or blown up, but it’s still too early to tell.

It’s heavy work. Bondar and his team take off their jackets and lift shovels of rubble overhead and out of the collapsed bunker.

As they work, other Ukrainian soldiers approach and tell the group that a lone dead Russian soldier has been found in a burning vehicle half a kilometer away.

The corpse, found charred and charred in the back of a destroyed armored personnel carrier, is also gently lifted into a white body bag. The location in Russia, as well as the vehicle’s VIN number and other details, are carefully recorded. His body is treated with the same respect as that of his fallen Ukrainian compatriots.

Back in the bunker, as layers of dirt are slowly removed and shovels are replaced by small shovels and pickaxes, the outline of three soldiers emerges, broken and pressed against the red brick bunker wall. Knees and heads touch, then shoulders hunched, one hand still holding the rifle.

“You can go home now,” Bondar whispered as he released the first body and gently slipped into the waiting white bag.

They check the pockets of the second soldier dug out of the mud, a tape in his breast pocket along with his ID. He was 32 years old when he died. “Thank you for helping us,” Bondar said to the body.

As they leave, a body is still missing, but Bondar vows to look for it. The only certainty here is that as long as the war continues, his work will be far from over.