Meet the Ukrainian unit tasked with finding fallen soldiers
NEAR DOVHENKE, Ukraine — They don’t fight, they find.
Deep in the woods of eastern Ukraine, the leaves turning green with the new life of spring, the unit known as On the Shield searches for the country’s fallen soldiers.
“Our guys are here somewhere,” his crew chief, “Mykha,” told NBC News earlier this month. He asked to be identified only by his call sign in accordance with Ukrainian military protocol.
The team focused their search near the village of Dovhenke, the scene of a brutal Russian attack in April 2022, two months after President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion.
Burnt-out cars and tanks were strewn along parts of the road, and most of the buildings looked like they had been rammed into them by a wrecking ball. Artillery pockmarks covered the few that remained standing.
At least five soldiers from Ukraine’s 95th Air Assault Brigade who were defending the area were still missing, Mykha said.
But each day, the team’s macabre search becomes more difficult, as the rebirth of spring has covered up clues and made graves, once easy to spot in the cold, harsh winter, much harder to find.
As a result, the bodies that remain from that time are “skeletonized,” Mykah said, adding that “any signs such as tattoos or other markings are no longer visible.”
The soldiers nevertheless found a military jacket hanging near one of the sleeping holes dug by the Ukrainian soldiers.
Other things were clearly Russian, such as a “telnyashka”, a blue and white striped undershirt traditionally worn by members of the Russian military. Nearby, a bulletproof vest with Russian writing lay on a tree.
Mykha said the unit, which is made up of volunteers rather than conscripts, did not take into account the number of Russians it had discovered, but that it had “certainly found several hundred”.
“When our troops were advancing, it is clear that the Russian military also left their soldiers behind because they had no possibility of taking them,” he said. “The very first groups that arrived picked them up everywhere: on the roads, in houses.”
At another site further down the road, one of the searchers announced that he had found bones in a burnt-out tank, one of three. One had the letter “Z” painted on the front – a symbol seen on Russian tanks and military vehicles in Ukraine and embraced by Putin’s war supporters.
Donning pairs of blue latex gloves, one researcher climbed into the tank closest to the treeline and another climbed the turret while Mykha helped prepare a body bag.
“Is it from the leg or where?” the searcher asked inside the wreckage as he sifted through the charred debris, stopping occasionally to pat what he found on the side of the tank.
Glass and metal sound different from bones, so the team can tell if they are human remains.
“Maybe there’s nothing to record,” he said, but later realized he was sifting through the scene of a tragedy.
“It burned here,” he said, examining the fragments of what was once a man. “His bones are burned.”
For Mykah and the rest of the On the Shield unit, the nationality of the man is not important. Since they are volunteers and not conscripts, they aim to fulfill one of the oldest military mantras: leave no one behind.
“We are now trying to find everyone, because they are going to be exchanged, and practically every Russian soldier is one of our returning soldiers,” Mykha said.
“In this case, our military is, of course, the priority,” he said, adding that it was equally important for his team that the relatives of Russian soldiers “seek some peace.”
“We have no other choice because we are defending our country, but probably all of them don’t even understand why they came here,” he said.
Their task, though sinister, helps turn a blind eye to the relatives and friends of the dead.
After Yurii Roslov and his unit went missing while on a combat mission in late March 2022, his 95th Air Assault Brigade commander, who uses the call sign “Chief”, said that he “hoped they had been captured but there was no news”. .”
Months later, On the Shield found the 26-year-old’s body buried in a shallow grave near the village of Dovhenke.
About 400 miles away, in the Ukrainian capital of kyiv, Roslov’s family was finally able to bury him on May 6 at the Mis’Ke Kladovyshche cemetery.
While a bugle played, his mother wiped away her tears and the priest began to pray.
Burying Yurii was “like ripping a part of myself out of me”, his commanding officer said. “And then you start living again – somehow – knowing that you won’t see him again, you won’t talk anymore, you won’t hear his songs anymore, you won’t hear the sound of this guitar.”
As the last shovelful of earth covers Yurii’s coffin, the music begins again.