Content note: This story contains graphic images.
SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — In the year since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the bodies of civilians and soldiers have piled up in mined forests and in cratered fields along Ukraine’s front lines. It often falls on civilians like Oleksiy Yukov to find and retrieve the bodies.
“In war, you see the value of human life,” he said. “How much, in war, human life has no value.
“With every death that I see, I want to become even more human,” he continued. “I want to save more souls, bring more bodies back to their families. I commemorate the dead with every mission by becoming more human.”
Yukov, who’s 37, lives with his wife and 2-year-old son in Sloviansk, a city in eastern Ukraine that’s roughly halfway between Kharkiv, to the north, and Donetsk, to the south. He’s part of Black Tulip, a humanitarian mission made up of Ukrainian civilians to carry the dead from battlefields or exhume and retrieve bodies in newly liberated territories.
Yukov estimates his team has retrieved at least 800 bodies since the beginning of 2022. But that’s a small fraction of who’s out there.
The United Nations has registered over 7,000 civilian deaths, including 438 children, since last February, while US officials have estimated that over 40,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict. Intelligence experts believe that military losses have been staggering on both sides: They’ve estimated that more than 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers and twice as many Russian troops have been killed or seriously wounded in the past year.
This could translate to tens of thousands of bodies left behind — and many years of work for the body collectors.
“Every soul has to be respected,” Yukov said. “It has to be given back to the family. And it has to be given a proper burial — not just left to rot in the field.”
A decade ago, Yukov launched Platsdarm — “Bridgehead” in English — a nongovernmental organization focused on finding the forgotten remains of people who died in World War I; in World War II, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union; and during the Holodomor, a famine engineered by Stalin in the 1930s that the European Parliament has since declared a genocide.
Ukrainians have long held that their death tolls during the 20th century were far higher than the numbers put forward by Soviet and Russian propaganda — evidenced in part by the bodies left hidden in the Ukrainian countryside. Yukov’s mission has been to prove that. He came upon his first remains at 8 and his second at 13; the experiences were traumatizing, but they also set him on his current life path. “I’ve been searching for bodies for 24 years at this point,” he said.
In 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas region of Ukraine, Yukov helped start the Black Tulip mission. His work moved from the past to the present, from excavating decades-old corpses to removing casualties from an active war zone.
That April, Yukov’s city of Sloviansk became the first major regional capital to be seized by Russian-backed separatists, and it saw heavy fighting when Ukrainian forces liberated it three months later. Early in that occupation, Yukov was captured by a Russian-backed unit and charged as a traitor. He narrowly avoided being killed that day when his captors came under fire, he said. When he again slipped into Russian hands, one of his captors recognized him and saved him, saying, “We didn’t realize you were the corpse guy!”
From 2014 until early 2022, Yukov said, his team retrieved nearly 1,000 bodies.
Then came February 24, 2022, and the year of war that followed.
The military’s J-9 units — named for the rule under the Geneva Conventions that addresses the retrieval of casualties — are generally the first on the scene to collect the dead. But thousands of bodies can be left behind, out of view. Those bodies are the focus of Black Tulip, whose members in many cases have years of experience locating, identifying, and exhuming the dead, and helping return them to whichever side for a dignified burial.
The retrieval process is identical for Ukrainian and Russian bodies, Yukov said. Ukrainian bodies are returned as quickly as possible to their grieving families, while Russian bodies are transferred to Ukrainian government hands so that they can be exchanged for Ukrainians in the possession of Russian forces. “It’s the best job in the world, because every Russian brings home a Ukrainian,” said Lutsenko Alexander, 50, who was assigned to a J-9 unit last spring.
At last count, Ukraine’s prosecutor general was investigating over 50,000 alleged war crimes carried out by Russian forces during the war. The work of the body collectors — such as documenting how a person died, whether their hands were tied or there were weapons nearby — can help investigators decide whether a war crime was committed and by whom, said Belinda Cooper, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. “Their work could help with the prosecution and conviction of war crimes,” she said.
The work also has a more immediate purpose. “People can’t really move on until they know what happened to their loved ones,” Cooper said. “It’s a significant part of the post-conflict process.”
Or, in Yukov’s case, the mid-conflict process. In January, Yukov’s team lost its first member. Denys Sosnenko, a former Ukrainian national kickboxing champion also from Sloviansk, was killed driving over a buried anti-tank mine while on a Black Tulip mission. The bomb was made from plastic parts, Yukov said, making it much more difficult to detect.
Sosnenko, who was 21, had signed up with the group the year before and had started joining missions only recently, after completing his training.
“We understand every time we go on a mission that no matter how many security measures we take, there is still a great risk of dying,” Yukov said. “We have to understand that Denys’ death is not a precedent to change something of what we’re doing but rather a confirmation that the work that we’re doing is incredibly risky.”
Yukov himself has been seriously hurt 18 times. He has a prosthetic eye from a shrapnel wound he got years ago, and he’s had to get surgery on his knee because of another bad day. But Yukov said he’d been most affected by the cumulative years of war and trauma.
“All of Ukraine and all of Ukrainians are in danger,” he said. “People die just being in their houses when a bomb is dropped on their apartment. People can die sitting on their own bed. No one is safe from this.”
In December, Yukov invited journalists to accompany his crew on a mission outside Sloviansk. That summer, Russian forces advanced to within 10 miles of the city, determined to occupy the regional transportation and logistics hub, but were pushed back by a massive Ukrainian counteroffensive. It’s calmer now, but the area still comes under attack from the air.
Every recovery mission starts in the same way: Yukov and his team — there are two others who do this full time and seven others who drop in and out — cordon off the grave site with colored tape. The work itself is delicate, because of a need to both respect the dead and avoid mines or other booby traps that might be hidden nearby. A demining team should have already created a secure path from the grave site to the road, but Yukov’s team still pokes and prods around the bodies with a long metal pole before attempting to move anything or get too close, just in case.
The work takes patience, too. A single grave site can take days to empty, especially in winter when the ground is frozen solid. Once the bodies are unearthed, the team dons blue rubber gloves, and the exhumation finally begins. No matter the season, the smell gets much stronger. The team must work as quickly as possible, and often into the night. They move deliberately and with respect, taking care not to disturb the dead more than they have to.
They examine the uniforms for battalion patches or hidden dog tags. They note any discernible information about how the dead were killed. As part of the documentation process, they take photos of the bodies in their final resting place, with any belongings they find alongside them.
“The bones say a lot,” Yukov said. “I see death exactly the way it is — not like the statistics that you see in the news.” He added: “I see people and their encounter with death, in the very moment that it happened. I see the position in which the person died. I see under which circumstances the person died.”
He’s used to the sight of the dead, along with the grotesque sounds and smells that come with the work. It doesn’t bother him, he said. But he knows that the weight of all that death is having a deeper impact on him.
“It changes me, inside, every time I go out there,” he said.