Posts Tagged 'missing in action'

Decency and solace

Kushugum cemetery, Zaporizhia, where Ukraine buries its unknown soldiers from the east Ukraine war. I was last here in 2015 and early 2016, for a funeral and an exhumation. It was the saddest, most desolate, temporary-looking place; alongside the heaped recently-dug graves with identical wooden crosses were gaping pits for new bodies.

Now it looks like this. Of all the graves here, four now have names on. One is Artyom Kalyberda, killed aged 24 in a military retreat from Russian forces at Ilovaisk in August 2014. He was identified by DNA match and after an exhumation the following year. His family believe he’s dead, and don’t believe he’s dead. Last time I saw his sister and his brother-in-law, they were still calling his phone, just in case, one day, he answers. Valera held his hand over Artyom’s  photograph and said it felt warm –  a sign that he’s alive.


One of the other graves still has the same number, more than two years after it was exhumed for a repeat DNA test at the request of a missing soldier’s mother. They sawed off pieces for a repeat sample right there in the cemetery. Then the body was buried again, and Luda, who after two DNA matches is still waiting for her son to come home, collected some of the earth in a handkerchief, and we went in search of a priest who could ‘seal’ the grave after it had been disturbed.

At the church, one of those officious women who clean the floors and snuff out the votive candles in the candle holders said “Is it an Orthodox grave?” “I don’t know,” Luda said. “You must know,” the woman insisted. “Because the priest can only seal it if the person was Orthodox. Was he Orthodox?” “I don’t know,” Luda said, clutching that dirty handkerchief. And I shouted at that woman, Don’t you understand, no one knows who he is, it’s a grave for an unknown soldier who went to war for your country, only God knows who he is but I know this is a desperate woman who has just stood over the open zinc coffin of a man she cannot believe is her son, not this greyish dripping thing in a plastic bag that’s been dead for eighteen months, and she has come to your church for decency and comfort and you’re saying you can only offer a blessing if it is an Orthodox grave?

And then we went outside the church and we shook the earth from the handkerchief onto a frozen flowerbed, because we didn’t know what else to do.

Kushugum cemetery is still the most desolate place in the world. I suppose the white gravel and granite look more official and orderly than the temporary mounds of earth and wooden crosses. But I think those were somehow better, because now it looks permanent, it looks like the fields of World War One white stone crosses, still unidentified after a century. This is a place; these are rows of numbers that should never become permanent.

There are an estimated 1000 unidentified dead from the east Ukraine war, and several thousand missing (military and civilian). There is still no systematic prisoner exchange, no system of exchanging DNA or other information across the line of contact, no coordinated search for remains. There will never be solace and decency, no seal, no end to the waiting.


August 2014, Ukraine. It’s hard to know who to blame. A crappy local police station steeped in indolence and bad pay; a morgue that was built decades ago and hasn’t been re-equipped since and even when it was new was never built to deal with dozens and dozens of bodies brought in by a chaotic mess of army medics and police and volunteers after a disastrous military defeat in a war than no one even understands yet is a war. Where do you put all those bodies, in this stinking august heat? How do you begin to identify them when most of them are in pieces and your staff have never seen anything like this before, never been prepared for this, don’t have the equipment for this, and anyway half the staff are on holiday and the other half are being sick in corners or drinking to cope with it, and outside frantic relatives are trying to break in to find out what’s happened to their sons and husbands? What do you do with all the stuff? The piles of it, heaps, the cheap trainers, bullet-proof jackets bought by their mothers, t-shirts and camouflage trousers and the terrible little presents from little children in the pockets?

Because you don’t know what to do, because no one tells you and there’s no one to ask and it can’t really be your responsibility and it’s 38 degrees in the shade and oh god the smell you simply have to dispose of it somehow, somehow – you bury all that stuff, blood- and shit-stained and charred and reeking, in 36 sacks on the grounds of a fish farm. You promise the farmer to come back for it, probably you really mean it, you never intended to let it lie there, of course someone was going to come back, the army or police or forensics or the military prosecutor or whoever is responsible, as soon as it becomes clear who is responsible for these things in this war that’s still not called a war they’ll come back and sort out those uniforms and trainers and flak jackets and children’s toys and crosses on chains, because they all belong to someone, you do know that, all those things were taken off dead men and pieces of dead men, and their relatives are howling and trying to break down the doors to find out what happened to their loved ones.


Four years. It stinks, that patch of ground on the fish farm, and dogs keep coming and digging and dragging away god-knows-what little piece of rotting horror, and you keep calling the authorities, the local council, the police, the morgue, whoever it was who buried this stuff on your farm and promised to come back and never did, and no one answers the phone or they say it’s not their responsibility or they don’t know anything about it or they refer you to someone else who refers you to someone else – and you just want to get rid of it quietly and decently and so that no one thinks it’s your fault, but how do you do that, when no one will tell you how and there’s no one to ask and the war is still not called a war although it’s just changed its name from one acronym to another? Who’s going to help you excavate 36 sacks of clothes from men who died wearing them in the battle of Ilovaisk and who perhaps have never been identified? Who’s going to sort and identify them now, four years later? Who is responsible? Who is to blame?

f303fc7-ilovaisk-dnipro7Photo: Facebook Микола Колесник

Even the tea has a name

“What kind of tea would you like?”

We’re here to talk about dead bodies. But this is a sushi bar, and the music is too loud, and there has got to be tea.

“How about Sencha? It’s Japanese.”

“Sencha,” Yuri says, “Is a village in Poltava region.”

We’re here to talk about bodies buried under the wrong names, or under no name at all. We haven’t met before, and I never know how to start these conversations. I don’t know how to be professional, and I’m uncomfortable talking to soldiers. Maybe neither of us quite know how to begin.

We talk about Poltava region instead. I tell him about the village there I know, lovely and overgrown and tumbledown, one of those Ukrainian villages where you’d think nothing ever happened, although in fact a whole battle front was wiped out there once.

“The village with a beautiful hill?” he asks. “With a cross on the top? I was born in that village. I put up that cross.”

He asks in amazement: Do you know that street…? Do you know this family..? I ask. The turtles in the river? The mushrooms in the forest? I tell him about my last visit there, in September. It was perfect autumn weather, the sky a deep dark blue, the sun with a clean sharp edge to its warmth. Golden leaves fluttered down over the small whitewashed house beneath the hill, where the commanders of the Red Army’s Southwest Front met on 19 September 1941, to decide whether to surrender, or whether to keep fighting the surrounding German forces.

Altogether, 600,000 men in the Southwest Front were killed or captured in August-September 1941. Soldiers were mown down like grass coming over that beautiful hill, or as they forded that river full of turtles. The reedy marshes by the river smelt of corpses for years afterwards. My friend’s grandmother, baba Lena, then a girl, helped bury the unidentified bodies in a grave for unknown soldiers at the top of the hill.

gorodishe kirponos

The plaque reads: In this house on 19 September 1941 the last meeting of the war council of the Southwest Front was held under the command of General-Lieutenant Kirponos

“It was me who persuaded the local council to mark the anniversary of that meeting,” says Yuri. “I told them, an important historical event happened right here, and no one does anything to remember it. There are all those soldiers buried on the hill, and no one even knows where, let alone what their names are. That’s why I put the cross up there.” He pauses. “That’s why I’m doing what I do now.”

Baba Lena, I think, perhaps didn’t much want to remember. I tried to ask her about the war years once; she went abruptly and comprehensively deaf.

This September for the anniversary, about fifteen children – all the pupils from the school which serves three villages – turned out in their best vyshivanky, fidgeting their way through speeches. “The two weeks the army held out here,” said some village councillor, “delayed the German advance and determined the fate of Moscow.” “The Soviet Union wasn’t militarily strong in 1941,” said someone in army uniform. “And there was a repeat of that situation in Ukraine today; now the enemy is different but the main thing is still to love our country and be ready to die for it.” “In 1941 General Kirponos had a choice,” said a local historian, “to surrender with his thousands of men like Vlasov, or to fight to the end and die. He  chose to fight and die. They all chose to fight and die because they were real soldiers. The Germans,” went on the historian, “wanted lebensraum, living room, to settle this land for themselves. But those men who died in 1941 were heroes fighting for their land, and now we’re in a different war but we still need to love our land and fight and be ready to die for it.”

gorodishe kirponos

The leaves fluttered down, the fifteen or so children fidgeted, and the old men in decrepit old suits turned to watch when a bicycle or a cart loaded with gigantic turnips passed on the potholed road. I wondered if the speechmakers saw the irony in what they were saying. This land which so many people died for, which they were urging the young to die for again, is being abandoned daily. The Germans wanted living space but here is space where no one wants to live. These few children left will leave as soon as they can, because there is no work here, no money, no future. The fields of rich black earth are disappearing back into nature at its most intransigent, its most beautiful.

I wonder if it was such beautiful weather, that September more than 70 years ago. There were ghosts here, but not the ghosts of 1941. This landscape in Poltava region, weeds and maize and sunflowers, abrupt hills topped with trenches and escarpments built for previous wars, is exactly the same as Luhansk and Donetsk regions in east Ukraine. It was on top of just such a hill that I saw searchers like Yuri in 2015 dig up an unnamed body, a collection of bones in anonymous, rotting camouflage.

“He crawled out of the sunflowers,” said the local man who’d brought us there at sunset, to show where a year before someone had buried this man without a name, before the dogs ate him. “The Ukrainian column came at around six in the evening. The shooting started over by those bushes, and then they turned and went back and the bombardment started from there, from the plantation… He crawled out of the sunflowers. And here under the sloe tree he died.”

When you’re about to die, when you’re running for your life across a hillside, do you have time to notice the sunflowers and the sloe tree? Do you think: What a day to die! Do you think: How cruel and heartless it is; do you think: Thank god this will still be here when I’m gone. Do you love it; do you hate it; do you see it at all; do you wonder if your enemy sees it the same way as you. Do you think: This is my land and I’m glad to die for it, to be a hero for the future of this dusty weed-blown piece of shit that’s supposed to be my land even though I’m actually from Novosibirsk; Grozny; Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk? Or maybe you’re from Luhansk region, Poltava region, maybe you were born in this village, and you think: What a fucking irony, I’m going to die here right on the doorstep of my home, I’m going to be shot and drown in the river I’ve swum in since childhood, and my family will never know what happened to me. I’ll lie there forever under the reeds or I’ll be dumped in a common grave on top of the hill and my family will never know I’m there and will spend the rest of their lives waiting for me to come home.


Here lie buried the soldiers of the Southwest Front who died in September 1941. Eternal glory and memory to the heroes

We’re in a sushi bar to talk about dead bodies, and I wonder how Yuri, a soldier in today’s war who searches for the dead without names, thinks about all this stuff. Our tea arrives. Sencha from Japan. There’s a Japanese film that has a ghost in it with no name. The ghost can’t enter any house, because who would invite in a person without a name? It waits endlessly outside the door, a black, half-formed presence, begging wordlessly to be allowed to enter. At last a girl who has had her name stolen from her feels sorry for it, and asks it in. Once over the threshold, its hunger is so vast that it swallows up everything there is inside.

I turn on the dictaphone. Yuri begins to speak, and the tea gets cold, undrunk.


Kyiv is the new

There is a room upstairs in Kyiv railway station; an enclosure, separated from the rest of the hall by plywood, canvas and camouflage netting. Not many people know it’s there; few passengers make it up to the second floor of the south terminal, and even fewer to this dim corner.

On a Sunday evening the station is heaving with passengers, taxi touts, suitcases, paper cups of coffee, advertising, announcements, mobiles and headphones, hellos and goodbyes. The station was recently used in an advert for Apple watches, just one of several western brands and musicians and celebrities who are ‘discovering’ Kyiv as a cool and cheap place to film videos and drink cocktails and admire street life. I seem to be hearing everywhere: ‘Kyiv is hot, Kyiv is trending, Kyiv is the new Berlin’ – not war-torn, not dangerous, not dull but vibrant, creative, attractive.

It’s all these things. Kyiv is on an up as it’s been on a down, a glut as it’s been through famine, a time of creation as there have been times of destruction. Kyiv is full of gorgeous people drinking coffee and getting their beards barbered, opening cafes and clubs and clothing boutiques, being productive and stylish and pleased that their capital city is cool, is hot enough for the railway station to feature in an advert for a watch that can store 40 million songs.

And yet – there’s this room, upstairs in the corner of the railway station. Even on a busy Sunday evening it’s such a quiet, dingy place. There are carrymats spread on the plastic seating, and old but clean blankets and pillows, free tea and biscuits, an ancient TV showing some obscure film about some mediaeval war, all blood and broadswords and brutality. The temporary walls are hung with the shoulder patches and flags of Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions, patterned with symbols and slogans, signed with the call signs (‘Badger’, ‘Tatar’, ‘Blond’) of men playing at being boys, probably half of them dead by now.

These station enclosures – run by volunteers, without state assistance – are the closest Ukraine has to VIP waiting rooms for participants in the ATO (anti-terrorist operation), the ongoing war in the east. This Sunday night there are two young women volunteers, and four or five or six men sitting or lying around. One young man is fast asleep stretched out in the corner, and the volunteers hover around him, putting a pillow and blanket in reach but not wanting to wake him up: “We’ve seen what the reaction can be to being woken unexpectedly.”

The group of soldiers’ mothers I’m here with all turn to look at him and Sveta says, “Yes, we’ve seen it too”; and at last one of the volunteers gingerly drops a blanket over his legs and tiptoes away smiling as he never stirs, and all the mums look at this sleeping boy and I suppose every one of them is seeing her own lost child lying there, and hoping someone somewhere is putting a blanket over him to keep him warm.

Another soldier offers an apple to Sveta’s daughter Vlada. “It’s from Maxim, it’s from your brother,” Sveta says coaxingly, when the little girl doesn’t want to take it. “It’s come from the ATO, from Maxim. Say thank you.” Vlada puts her hands behind her back. She doesn’t remember her brother Maxim, who went missing in action in the ATO in August 2014, when she was a baby.

On Lilya’s phone is a picture of another little girl: Lilya’s granddaughter Polina, born two months after her father went missing in action in February 2015. Lilya doesn’t see Polina much, not since her daughter-in-law decided Sasha must be dead and met another man and moved to another city; moved on.

“I can’t understand her,” says Lilya. “No, I can understand. But I can’t accept it.” She shows me a picture of Sasha, fair-haired and blue-eyed as his daughter, called up at 18, vanished before he was 20. “It’s because she isn’t his mother. None of them.” And them is the whole world, the government and the security services and the army and the capital city, the hipsters the passengers the daughters-in-law the 40 million songs, all of them who don’t care enough.

She looks at the sleeping soldier with the blanket over his legs, and speaks softly. “For them it’s just one out of a million. But for us, it’s the only one.”

And no one cares enough. The shoulder patches, Donbas Diva Maria Tornado UPA, all those battalions, all those call signs, look so dingy and mediaeval and sad. The flags look like something out of some forgotten museum already. And it’s all so fucking dreary, it’s right in the centre of Kyiv and it is so far away from trending vibrant hipster Kyiv-is-the-new-Berlin.

station ATO

In all truth

I take the bus that goes ‘In all Truth’, to visit a woman who recounts the lies she’s been told, and the lies she told herself, to explain why her son never came home to her from the war. Her road, Prospect Truth, heads out of her city eastwards, straight to Donetsk, to the line beyond which it’s all lies, beyond which her missing  son is somewhere, in limbo, neither dead nor alive.

prospekt pravdy

I take a bus to  Liberation Square, where women hold photographs of prisoners – their sons and husbands detained in Donetsk. The ones being held prisoner and the ones holding them prisoner are both descended from those who fought for that liberation the park commemorates. There are identical parks on the other side of that line further east, beyond which those men are somewhere, in limbo, neither sentenced nor acquitted.

Truth and Freedom. The first casualties of war. But in the two years since I met these women in Ukraine, this war’s stupid ironies never cease.

Someone’s child

It is borderguards day today in Ukraine. This is for Oleh Kislitsky and his family, espcially his mother Nadezhda. Oleh disappeared near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia in August 2014, when his Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky borderguard unit was retreating from a Russian and seperatist offensive. A body was found and buried by local people in Luhansk region; it was exhumed by volunteers a year later, and identified by DNA matching as Oleh.

Now he lies in his local cemetery alongside his grandparents, and today the borderguards will put up a new monument for him.

oleh grave2

“I don’t believe it’s him,” Nadezhda told me in November last year. “I don’t know if my son’s buried or not buried.”

We were standing by the grave in the grey, leafless cemetery, two weeks after the funeral. “I think I did the right thing, because in years to come maybe they will find out who he is, and his family will thank me. He’s someone’s child. And I’m grateful to those people in [Luhansk region] who gave him to the earth, so that the crows didn’t pick him to pieces and he could never be found…”

We stood together contemplating the great mound of plastic flowers, and I suppose she was imagining in my place her tall son standing beside her. Nadezhda, whose name means ‘hope’, said “I’ll wait and hope as long as this earth carries me. I hope I’ll live for it, for when he comes back and says, ‘Mum, why did you do this? I’m alive!’”

Oleh is one of eleven Ukrainian borderguards who went missing in that retreat in August 2014.

no more numbers

29 August 2014, Ilovaisk, east Ukraine: 366 dead, 429 wounded, 128 taken prisoner, 158 missing in action (Ukrainian military prosecutor’s office).

158 missing is just a number.

Andrey drove his mum mad by playing computer games late into the night in the one-room flat they shared. Igor was a miner, he went skiiing for the first time in the Carpathians just before the war, and took to it like a duck to water, said to his wife and daughters: why did I spend all my life underground and never knew there was this? Sasha loved camping and nature and taught all his fellow soldiers to dutifully bury their shits as they camped out at their check point last summer, before it all went wrong at Ilovaisk. Artyom could inhale one of his mum’s homemade cakes in one sitting. Herman made everyone laugh. Yura was born practically in a railway carriage travelling from Germany to Moscow. Yaroslav had a beautiful grin everyone remembered. Sergey was as proud and careful of his clothes as a girl.

Maxim’s mother sits at her computer, hoping against hope that her son will contact her again through social media: mumwe’reherewe’reallaliveall. In her cluttered inbox endless spam sits alongside messages from conmen promising to return her son alive if she will only send money.

Ruslan’s son is collecting money in his piggybank to pay the bad people to let his dad go free. His daughter came home from school crying because the other children said her dad was dead.

Igor’s wife wakes from dreams of joining a women’s volunteer army battalion where everyone welcomes her and there is work to be done and hope lies ahead – wakes to the same empty bed and the same hopeless question: what can I do? What if he comes home and asks why I didn’t I do more to find him?

Yura’s mother gets up every morning at 4am to pray; the stray cat she took in sits beside her purring. She thought it was a tom; when it turned out to be female Andrey’s mother advised her: keep it, because if a tom can become a female then for sure your Yura is coming home.

Andrey’s cat ran away a few months ago. In the empty flat Andrey’s mum dreams of aeroplanes, and of wrapping her belongings in a handkerchief and setting off, like the hedgehog in the fog, to wander far away from everything. But the hedgehog comes home in the end to its family, because it is in a children’s cartoon.

Come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home

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