Black Tulip memorial group discusses their work recovering soldiers’ remains in Donbas

17 May, 11:11 PM
Search group Black Tulip (Photo:Ukrainian Witness)

Search group Black Tulip (Photo:Ukrainian Witness)

It’s not always possible to extract the bodies of fallen soldiers from the battlefield, not only due to intense fighting, but also because some areas remain heavily mined. The search and recovery team Black Tulip takes on the task of exhuming soldiers’ bodies and repatriating them.

They find the remains of Soviet, Ukrainian and Russian soldiers in Ukrainian soil, dig them up, and transfer them to morgues. It is not an easy mission, but a necessary one. Oleksiy Yukov, the head of the group, spoke to NV about their work.

“Victory parades in Moscow continue while the soldiers who fought for this victory lie forgotten in the ground,” Yukov explains.

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 “These Soviet soldiers have no identification marks or documents.”

The Russians, however, have identification marks. Oleksiy showed the uniform and documents of a Russian national guardsman and even took a tea bag out of his pocket. He had been found on a mission in which Black Tulip had actually been intending to recover the bones of the Soviet soldier which sappers had found while clearing a local field. Russian units had been deployed not far from the location in the summer of 2022. Black Tulip headed there as soon as they had received information about the probable remains of a Soviet soldier.

The Russians were deployed there along with the equipment, and had since been destroyed by Ukraine’s 95th Brigade. Black Tulip volunteers – all of them work without pay – found the remains of three Russian soldiers. Some parts of their bodies had already been removed by wild animals.

“War chews you up and spits you out. Only bones remain. From the very beginning, the Russians should have said ‘no’ to the war instead of ‘we can do it again (jingoistic threat to repeat their conquests of WWII),” Yukov says. “We can see the price of this ‘another go."

The search group exhumes remains and transfers them to morgues. There, the bodies are examined and recorded by experts, and DNA samples are taken. Russian bodies are offered to the other side. If this is the body of a Ukrainian soldier, Black Tulip volunteers get in touch with the soldier’s relatives and help close the case of their loved one’s death. In total, the search group has found the bodies of 325 Russians and over 100 Ukrainians. There have even been instances when volunteers came under Russian shelling and helped evacuate Ukrainian wounded.

Oleksiy himself has been looking for bodies for 24 years. When asked why he does this, he replies:

“For me, this is a matter of someone's fate. It was someone's son, someone's father. But even though it may be the remains of the enemy, we still need to take them. We are Ukrainians, and we are built different: if a person dies, their body must be returned home.”

Oleksiy is from Slovyansk in Donetsk Oblast. The desire to enter this line of work came from his childhood, when as a little boy, he saw an old cemetery getting demolished in order to build a children's hospital. The Soviet authorities dug up graves with tractors and threw out the bones along with the coffins.

“We should have been building Ukraine here, and not leave everything to chance,” Yukov says of how Donbas developed after 1991.

“Russia used to do whatever it wanted here: under the Soviet regime, and even today. There is no time to cry. If we only cry, we will get what we had a hundred years ago: first they destroyed us as a nation during the time of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and then we had to eat our own children. I don't want that to happen again.”

Black Tulip’s volunteers work throughout the year, answering phone calls day and night, as there are many dead on both sides, and there’s not enough volunteers to handle very case.

“Victory is still far away, but we will win,” Oleksiy says. “Because we have humanity.”

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