As Ukraine’s counteroffensive continues, Taras Svystun says his grueling job has become increasingly grim.
Mr. Svystun, a soldier, is part of a six-man Ukrainian military unit that collects and identifies the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed in combat and returns them to their families for burial. The unit, known as “On The Shield,” operates across the country, including in the eastern Donetsk region.
Ukraine’s two-month counteroffensive has progressed slowly, with units fighting dug-in Russian defenses and suffering heavy casualties, though exact numbers have not been made public.
“There are a lot more bodies right now,” Mr. Svystun said. He saw the number of dead in morgues in the area “more or less doubled since the counteroffensive started,” he added.
Waking up at 5 am every day, Mr. Svystun wears a khaki T-shirt with “Evacuation 200,” the Ukrainian military code for transporting soldiers killed in combat, stenciled on the back. He then drives his refrigerated truck through the Donetsk region, stopping at morgues, where some of the worst of the war’s dead are manifesting themselves.
Human remains recovered from battered trenches, blasted 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 identification,” Mr. Svystun said. “It’s my job to help our dead get home.”
The New York Times recently accompanied Mr. Svystun for two days as he went round. The Ukrainian military does not publish the numbers of casualties suffered by its forces, and rare access was granted on the condition that the exact number of casualties witnessed not be disclosed.
However, it is clear that the deaths of soldiers are increasing. Piles of bodies were piled up in military morgues, Mr. Svystun said.
Most of the dead have been killed in recent fighting, but as Ukraine makes some small gains in its campaign to retake territory formerly occupied by Russian forces, the bodies of soldiers killed months ago are being recovered too, said Mr. Svystun.
Ukrainian military units routinely report news of missing and fallen troops to the “On the Shield” unit, along with the soldiers’ names, a rough estimate of their last known location and any possible identifying features.
Mr. Svystun, 45, and other members of his unit opened each body bag and cut out uniforms, body armor and other equipment, including ammunition. After inspection and documentation, wallets and mobile phones belonging to the deceased are placed under their belt, or in a sheath folded into the body bag. Some morgue workers are new to the task gag from the foul 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 evacuating wounded from the front line in earlier battles in the east of the country.
“That’s harder,” he said. “When soldiers are wounded and sick, they cry out and ask for help. Here, no one asks for anything.”
Mr. Svystun takes pictures of the soldiers’ remains on a cellphone and uploads them to an online portal, so members of the “On the Shield” unit can cross-reference the details provided along with those in the missing soldiers database.
On one recent trip, the remains he was carrying were determined by the time it took Mr. Svystun to drive his cargo of dead from a morgue to a nearby logistics center.
“I’m glad he won’t be in the morgue for a year and that he won’t be buried anonymously,” Mr. Svystun said. “Another man is coming home.”
Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting.