As Ukraine’s counteroffensive grinds on, Taras Svystun says his grisly job has grown even more grim.
Mr. Svystun, a soldier, is part of a six-person Ukrainian military unit that collects and identifies the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed in combat and returns them to their families for burial. The unit, known as “On The Shield,” operates across the country, including in the eastern Donetsk region.
Ukraine’s two-month-long counteroffensive has progressed painfully slowly, with units coming up against dug-in Russian defenses and suffering heavy casualties, though the exact numbers have not been made public.
“There are many more bodies at the moment,” Mr. Svystun said. He has seen the number of dead in the area’s morgues “more or less double since the counteroffensive” began, he added.
Waking at 5 a.m. daily, Mr. Svystun pulls on a khaki T-shirt with “Evacuation 200,” the Ukrainian military code for the transportation of soldiers killed in battle, stenciled on the back. He then drives his refrigerated truck through the Donetsk region, stopping at morgues, where some of the worst of the war’s carnage reveals itself.
The human remains recovered from pummeled trenches, blasted landscapes, and shattered buildings are often damaged beyond recognition.
“If they don’t have a face, we cut away the clothes and look for tattoos, scars, and other signs of identity,” Mr. Svystun said. “It’s my job to help our guys who died get home.”
The New York Times recently accompanied Mr. Svystun for two days as he made his rounds. The Ukrainian military does not publish the numbers of casualties suffered by its forces, and rare access was granted on the condition that the exact numbers of fatalities witnessed would not be revealed.
Still, it is clear that soldier deaths are on the rise. Piles of bodies have been stacking up in the military morgues, Mr. Svystun said.
Most of the dead have been killed in recent fighting, but as Ukraine makes some small gains in its campaign to reclaim territory previously occupied by Russian forces, the bodies of soldiers killed months ago are also being retrieved, Mr. Svystun said.
Ukrainian military units commonly report news of missing and fallen troops to the “On the Shield” unit, including the soldiers’ names, a rough estimate of their last known location and any possible identifying features.
Mr. Svystun, 45, and other members of his unit unzip each body bag and cut away blood-soaked uniforms, body armor and other equipment, including ammunition. After inspection and documentation, wallets and mobile phones belonging to the deceased are tucked under their belt buckles, or into a sheath folded into the body bag. Some morgue workers new to the task watch gag from the foul smell.
“Some people can’t do this job,” said Mr. Svystun, who joined the military after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. He had worked as a medic from 2015 to 2018 evacuating wounded from the front lines during earlier hostilities in the country’s east.
“That’s more difficult,” he said. “When soldiers are wounded and in pain, they are crying out and asking for help. Here, nobody asks for anything.”
Mr. Svystun takes photographs of the soldiers’ remains on a cellphone and uploads them to an online portal, so that members of the “On the Shield” unit can cross-reference the details provided with those held in their database of missing soldiers.
On once recent trip, the remains he was transporting were identified in the time it took Mr. Svystun to drive his cargo of dead from a morgue to a nearby logistics center.
“I’m glad he will not be in the morgue for a year and that he will not be buried as unidentified,” Mr. Svystun said. “One more guy will get home.”
Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting.