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The four soldiers were lying in the grass, sleeping bags and tin cans, some open, strewn around them. Under nearby trees, their cars were smashed and torn apart by shrapnel. The men had been dead for months.

This region of rolling fields and woods near the Russian border was the scene of fierce battles for months during the summer. Only now, after Ukrainian forces recaptured the area and pushed Russian troops back across the border in a blistering counter-offensive, was the recovery of bodies scattered across the battlefield possible. .

The area was of strategic importance as its heights are among the positions where Russian artillery could easily hit Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second hardest hit city, said Colonel Vitalii Shum, deputy commander of the 3rd Guards Brigade. Ukrainian National, whose team has been collecting the dead from the battlefield – Ukrainians and Russians – for days.

For the families of the soldiers, the news of the recovery of the body will be the final and indisputable confirmation that their son, brother, father or husband will not be coming home.

Even though they had been told that their loved ones had died in battle, with no bodies to mourn, a glimmer of hope remained.

“They’re hoping he got caught, and that’s the worst part,” Shum said. Once the identity of the bodies has been verified by DNA tests, “a difficult and harsh procedure will take place”, he added: informing the family that the body has been found, and any hope that their loved one will cross the front door is lost.

During Monday’s recovery mission, Shum’s team photographed the site for evidence and unpacked body bags while soldiers checked the surroundings and the bodies themselves for traps and mines. One of the dead soldiers had a hand grenade on him – he never had time to use it when the Russians closed in.

After the search for explosives was completed, a soldier searched the pockets of the deceased men’s uniforms for IDs and personal effects, placing them in plastic bags before the decomposing bodies were transported in body bags.

The task was carried out in a neutral, quiet and gentle manner. The body bags were zipped, numbered and carried along a muddy track to a waiting truck.

The battle took place here in June, and it was as fierce as it was bloody. It included close combat as well as the use of tanks and artillery, said 1st Lt. Mykyta Sydorenko, a 24-year-old commander of an anti-tank unit who took part in the combat and was now back to help recover the remains. of his comrades in arms.

In all, the Ukrainians had four positions in the area and were determined to hold them. Russian troops attacked and captured four Ukrainian soldiers, and the Ukrainians launched a rescue bid. An all-day battle ensued, Sydorenko said. Ukrainian reinforcements arrived, but the Russians kept coming.

“They were coming like ants, I don’t know how to describe it any other way,” he said.

The losses are heavy on both sides. Sydorenko said at least 16 Russian soldiers were killed, with the Russians using artillery to hold off the Ukrainians while they picked up their dead and wounded.

Of the Ukrainians, the six holding one position were captured, he said, and the eight holding another were wounded. Of the approximately 17 or 18 men at Sydorenko’s position, three were killed and two were wounded.

He does not know what happened to the six men occupying the fourth position. The area where the bodies of the four men were found was an evacuation point set up for the injured, he said.

Eventually, faced with the Russian onslaught, the surviving Ukrainians, including Sydorenko, were forced to retreat through a minefield and swamp.

Returning to where he lost his comrades was not easy for the young officer. It’s “frankly unpleasant,” he says. “There aren’t many good memories of this place.”

Nearby, a Russian tank lay burned, its tracks ripped from its wheels, a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag now flying over it. A few days earlier, Shum’s men found the remains of a Russian soldier inside, which they recovered and delivered to the morgue in Kharkiv.

As the cold autumn wind swept away the weeds and wilted sunflowers grew wild in the fallow fields, Shum and his men continued their search. There was the body of another Ukrainian soldier next to the track, and nearby the remains of another who appeared to have been crushed by the now disabled tank.

Higher up a hill, a destroyed armored vehicle and car, crates of ammunition and scattered pieces of equipment bear witness to the ferocity of the fighting. Inside the armored vehicle was the body of another soldier.

The same procedure was repeated and the body was lifted by the broken window of the vehicle. The soldier lifting the feet from the body gagged, but waited for his task to be completed before heading for the bushes.

In all, Shum and his men recovered the bodies of seven Ukrainian soldiers and found a Russian soldier’s hand among abandoned Russian body armor and backpacks. All the remains were taken to the morgue in Kharkiv.

Soon, notification of families will begin.