‘You can come home now:’ Ukraine’s recovery teams work to ensure no fallen soldiers are left behind

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


Brashkivka, Ukraine
CNN

Before the war, wearing a “Red Army” uniform, Leonid Bondar recreated the great Soviet battles of the Second World War – in which they fought, won and fell – knowing all the facts intimately.

His work at the Ukrainian Museum of War History took him away from the country when he discovered the remains of fallen soldiers from World War II.

On today’s battlefields, resisting Moscow’s invading forces and finding and retrieving Ukraine’s fallen heroes are a vital part of Bonder’s skills in the war effort of the beleaguered nation.

He is a gentleman who plays down his role while saying that he is working for the families and country of the fighters.

By the end of August, the Ukrainian military admitted that more than 9,000 people had been killed. A month later, President Volodymyr Zelensky said 50 soldiers were dying every day.

Bonder’s Class, originally called “Home on Your Shield,” is based in part on the myth that Spartan mothers told their warriors two and a half thousand years ago to “return with your shield…or on it.”

A CNN team found a wet, cold, windswept ridge above the now-molested village of Brashkivka, in eastern Ukraine, littered with rotting and unpicked crops, stretching into distant forests.

A yellow stone barn overlooks the scene he came to solve; Two of the windows are decorated with weathered wood, and a shell punches the wall.

It was a great place to defend and a hell of a place. A cell phone tower behind a cliff where Ukrainian soldiers could die would have been a good signal for enemy weapons. Six are missing, believed to be dead.

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The place is a silent reminder that war is brutal, robbing their lives and relatives of peace. Every battlefield has a place where the past is buried, the colors fade, and the last seconds are stories waiting to be told.

That’s where the small field with the cell tower and the barn was in the battle for the valley line near Brashkivka four months ago.

An underground cell phone tower where Ukrainian soldiers died would have been a good signal for enemy weapons.

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

A video shared by Soldier Bondar has come to show the exciting moments before their story came to an end. A few meters from the cell tower, shafts of sunlight pierce the wood and mud of their basement shield, hinting at their danger.

The roof was not strong enough to take a direct hit, Bondar said. During his earlier assessment of the site, he suspected that two of the men had been blown out of the trench by a shell explosion, while the others were probably buried by fallen masonry and debris inside.

Before they try that concept, they give the site a thorough search for mines and bobby traps. Bondar reveals one of CNN’s most feared anti-personnel mines: It pops out of a protective cylinder, stands on thin, delicate legs, is triggered by nearby movement, and is deadly at a distance of 15 meters.

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After the station is declared safe, Bonder’s quest begins to tell the story of the soldiers, revealing some of his worst fears.

Iron hinges and bolts, wooden bullets, mixed with pieces of bone, lay in a rusted, charred pile a few meters from the pit.

Bondar speculates that the bodies thrown up by the blast were cremated, not the buried Russians. This, he said, “is not the first time we have had a situation where humanitarian standards are ignored and soldiers are not properly buried.”

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

A few meters away, a human spine and pelvis were found, partially hidden in the tall grass that grew around it. For Bonder, the heat-bleached bones were exactly what he was looking for, and he carefully placed them in a heavy white plastic forensic body bag.

His rubber-gloved fingers examine each piece of the dirt, each piece a source of DNA and comfort for grieving families. He sees a ring, and out loud, thanks the fallen soldier for helping him identify himself.

Meanwhile, the teammates are digging out the broken rock and accumulated debris from the pit in hopes of finding the other soldiers.

Small pieces of bone in the right place hint that three or four of the soldiers may have hunkered down at one end of the mound or exploded, but it’s too soon to tell.

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It’s hard work. Bondar and his team take off their jackets, shovel the rubble above their heads, and climb out of the collapsed rock.

As they worked, other Ukrainian soldiers approached the group and told the group that they had found a dead Russian soldier alone in a burning vehicle.

The charred and charred corpse found on the back of the missing armored personnel carrier was also gently placed into a white body bag. Even the Russian location, VIN number of the vehicle and other details, are carefully recorded. His body will be treated with the same honor as his fallen Ukrainian compatriots.

Back in the pit, as the piles of dirt are slowly removed and shovels are exchanged for small scraps and small picks, a list of three soldiers emerges, broken and pressed against the red brick. A hint of knees and heads, then shoulders braced, hand still holding rifle.

“You can come home now,” Bondar whispered, as the first body was eased free and placed gently in a waiting white bag.

They see the second soldier’s pocket, breast pocket ribbon with ID card, dug out of the mud. He was 32 when he died. “Thanks for helping us,” Bondar said to his body.

A body is still missing when we leave, but Bondar promises to look for it. The only certainty here is that the job is far from over as long as the war continues.

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