By Maria Turchenkova, photojournalist
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
At the border in Uspenka [Luhansk Oblast] it is quiet.
There is no traffic in the direction of Russia, and now the border guards, who were bored only five minutes ago, are inspecting a semi-trailer truck with great surprise, a truck with red crosses and the number “200” on the sides. They slowly walk around it from different directions, photographing it on their phones, while the customs official checks the paperwork for the cargo. The procedure is proceeding formally, but there is a feeling of tension from not understanding where this cargo came from and who exactly sent it. The driver, Slava, cannot explain anything–this morning “people whom he could not refuse” asked him to drive the truck to Russia and said only that it was important.
I glance over an officer’s shoulder, “Donetsk Regional Bureau of Forensic and Medical Expertise. 05.29.2014. This paper certifies that neither the corpse of Mr. Zhdanovich, Sergei Borisovich, DOB 1966, nor the coffin contain any items whose movement across the state border of Ukraine is prohibited.”
There are thirty-one such certificates, one for each of the coffins that were sent inside this refrigerated truck from Donetsk two hours ago.
A column of three vehicles (a car with police officers, the truck itself and another car–driven by us journalists) departed from the city just before evening, and by the time we reached the border, it was already dark. The faces of the border guards flicker in the torch lights, and no one wants to talk, everyone is simply waiting for the inspection to finish, while not taking their eyes off the semi.
Inside the truck there are 31 coffins, marked with Donetsk People’s Republic [DPR] stickers, with Russian citizens who had died in Donetsk during the battle at the airport on May 26. Rumors about Russians participating in the battles in Donetsk Oblast had been circulating from the very beginning of the hostilities in April, but no one ever saw them live.
The battle at the Donetsk airport (the airport is still controlled by the Ukrainian side, despite the fact that the city is the center of the self-proclaimed DPR) has become the most tragic in the whole period of the ATO in Donbas–the exact death toll is still unknown, but according to various sources it is at least 50 people.
The next day, a pile of dead bodies in camouflage were shown to reporters. They were lying on the blood-stained floor in the basement of the morgue of the Kalinin hospital in the center of Donetsk. Many were mutilated, some were decapitated, limbs were missing. They were the bodies of those who were in the KAMAZ with the wounded that came under fire in the vicinity of the airport on the day of the battle. The morgue staff worked continuously, chain-smoking right in the building. Breathing inside and within a 50 meter radius of the entrance was simply impossible due to the caustic putrid smell.
The morgue ran out of room, so at some point activists of the DPR drove up two refrigerated trucks for transporting produce, into which some of the victims were loaded. The drivers of the trucks stayed there at the morgue smoking one cigarette after another. According to them, armed insurgents stopped them on the road and said only, “We need the vehicle.” And now, with their refrigerators loaded with corpses, they were simply waiting for the vehicles to be released.
On Tuesday locals started coming by to identify the dead. Someone was looking for missing relatives; others came to look at the lists which were not there. Searching for the right body inside the truck, where corpses were piled one on top of another, was impossible. So, to those who wanted to recognise their relatives, the morgue staff offered photographs which were taken by the criminologists. On Wednesday it became known that in this way only two bodies had been identified–the dead turned out to be Donetsk residents Mark Zverev and Edward Tyuryutikov.
Who the other bodies belonged to was not known until Wednesday evening. The mystery was solved in the most unpredictable way.
At the end of the day, while we met with colleagues in a hotel café for supper, we were approached by a man close to Alexander Borodai, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. He said that the next day a column of two trucks with bodies would depart from Donetsk to Russia, and asked the journalists for a favor: to accompany them to the border. He promised to report in half an hour where exactly they would be driven to and who would accompany the cargo, and he asked us to give him an answer at that time whether or not we would agree to go. We were stunned by what we heard.
This was the first admission that Russian citizens are dying in the battles in Donbass. Only two weeks ago in the social networks, rumors were being spread that the bodies of Russians killed in battles in the East were secretly being transported across the border to Russia. But nobody in the DPR confirmed it, and they definitely did not advertise it.
Now the leadership of the DPR was asking correspondents to both cover this event and to accompany the convoy, probably expecting an attack from the Ukrainian security forces and hoping that they would not touch the column in the presence of journalists.
It was completely unclear how this move by the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic could be correlated with statements from Moscow, where they were insisting on a “people’s struggle” in Donbass and denied the participation of Russian citizens in the conflict, and what reaction could be expected to this from the Kremlin.
In the end we decided to go, and rumors about the upcoming event quickly spread through the hotel.
The next morning, about a hundred journalists from the international media had gathered at the morgue. Among them were cameras from Perviy Kanal and Russia 24, which would later not report a single news story regarding this event.
Along came Alexander Borodai and Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed speaker of the Supreme Council of the DPR. They stood apart from each other, each with their own ring of armed guards, each separately talking to the journalists. They said the same thing: that they were sending “Cargo 200,” with Russian volunteers who had come to support the struggle of the DPR insurgency, back to Russia and that they did not want any provocations. So, the truck would travel without an armed escort.
Multi-colored coffins which, as reported by activists of the DPR, had been gathered from around all of Donetsk, were set out at the morgue entrance, and the journalists wondered whether or not the bodies were already inside. The departure of the column was originally planned for one in the afternoon, and for about four hours the journalists simply waited while the coffins were loaded into the truck. However, the more time passed, the less realistic it seemed that the departure would actually go ahead. Morgue staff went round with lists of names of the dead and for a couple of moments even showed them to the journalists, they but did not allow [anyone] to look carefully or take photographs.
Besides the press, there were also employees of the Kalinin hospital, on the territory of which the morgue was located, who were watching the scene with curiosity along with the relatives of the identified local Mark Zverev, who came to say their farewells. None of the activists from the DPR or residents of Donetsk came. Nobody took this final opportunity to say farewell to the “volunteers who came to the defence of the Russian people.” Despite the large gathering of the press, the event still seemed like a secret, a tragedy, which would be mourned only across the border.
The loading of the coffins into the truck began. Immediately reports started coming in that the Vostok Battalion (one of the units of the insurgents, which had become the main power in Donbas) was clearing the city administration building of DPR activists. Pushilin and Borodai left in a hurry, many journalists, as soon as the coffins were loaded, also rushed to the city center. Later they released reports that the bodies of dead Russians were loaded up by the morgue and sent across the border.
But the coffins that left the morgue were empty.
It seemed that each new twist in this story was transforming it into a script for a surreal movie.
As it turned out, the bodies of the dead had been transferred the day before from the morgue to refrigerators at an ice cream factory. That was where they were supposed to be put into coffins and prepared for transport to Russia. The truck with the coffins drove to the factory grounds, and the gates were shut. In a secluded corner, fenced-off by wooden pallets from the prying eyes of the factory workers, the activists hastily carried the bodies out from the refrigerated chamber, gathered body parts, put the remains into black bags, then into the colorful coffins, smoked, looked around, and loaded the coffins into the semi. At the same time, other activists painted the sides and roof of the truck with red crosses and the digits “200.”
Three colleagues and I followed the truck with the coffins from the morgue, and we turned out to be the only ones for whom this story was interesting and important. Our interest aroused respect among the DPR activists. They allowed us to be present while they loaded the bodies and let us photograph the bodies of the dead.
One woman said to me that she hoped the Ukrainian soldiers and “Right Sector” would show humanity and let the truck pass by safely, that “they were fascists, but they must have something human in them.” I asked if she would go along with the convoy. She looked me in the eye, “What, do you want me to be killed?”
We still did not know how we would go and could not imagine what would happen on the road. It was already evening. We started to worry how we were going to return to Donetsk. There was a curfew in the city, and after 10:00 PM the streets were virtually empty. It becomes unsafe at checkpoints and on the roads at night, especially for journalists, who are constantly suspected there of disloyalty or espionage. And then, you never know in which areas shooting might begin. We decided to follow the truck until it started to get dark.
I mentioned this to one of those responsible for the truck’s departure. And suddenly he offered to leave the vehicle there overnight and postpone the departure until morning, when we could definitely make it to the border. It became clear that for some reason they did not want to set off without us journalists.
This added to our alarm, but we decided to simply hope that we would make it before dark and act according to the situation.
Around seven in the evening, all bodies had been loaded into the semi, and the coffins were sealed. The activists washed their hands and lit cigarettes. Nameless Russian volunteers who came to “protect Russians” in the East of Ukraine, were accompanied by silence on their last journey home in a refrigerated truck from an ice cream factory. In the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, they did everything that they considered proper for the Russians who were killed there. A DPR sticker on the coffin was supposed to tell relatives about their exploits in the Donbas. The war continues, and the activists diverge to their checkpoints.
We drove along the streets of Donetsk, people indifferently glanced at the sides of the truck, rushing about their business. All activists had been expelled from the regional administration building in the centre of Donetsk, and the barricades had been dismantled. It was getting dark.
On the open road, the truck gained speed, without stopping at insurgent checkpoints or slowing down in populated areas. We drove towards Uspenka. Four kilometers away from the border the truck stopped at a Ukrainian military checkpoint. The soldier routinely approached the cabin, and the driver handed him the documents for the cargo…
As soon as the soldier realised what was inside, his movements instantly became sharp, his voice loud. He called other soldiers; they surrounded the car, pointed their assault rifles with safety off at the doors of the semi, and ordered the driver to open them. For a long time, the soldier did not believe his eyes, staring first at the papers for the cargo, then at the coffins inside the truck. He did not know what to do with this. The soldiers noticed our car, we suspiciously stood some distance away from the truck, observing. Now they pointed their guns at us, but after being satisfied that we were journalists, they returned to the truck.
“Where are the coffins from?” the soldier asked the driver.
“Who sent them?”
“I don’t know, I only got the loaded vehicle and am driving it to the border.”
Everything was clear anyway. The soldier did not ask any more questions, checked the documents, and ordered the driver to stand on the side of the road beyond the checkpoint. The police officers, who were in the first car, came out and said something to the soldier, and the truck passed without any additional checks.
We ended up at the border when it was already dark.
Nobody was warned that a special cargo would pass through border control. The border guards mechanically checked the documents and the vehicle according to their instructions. They waved the truck through without emotion, as they would wave through a truck with sacks of potatoes.
Nobody agreed to show us lists of the dead in the end, but we did see some names on the certificates for the corpses.
Mr. Zhdanov, Sergei Borisovich, born in 1966. Information about him had already appeared on the social networks. In the VKontakte group “Afghanistan. Nothing is forgotten, no one is forgotten,” it was written that he was a retired instructor from the Russian FSB Special Forces Center, a veteran of Afghanistan and Chechnya. It is also reported that on May 19 he arrived in Rostov-on-Don for military drills and was killed on May 26 in Donetsk.
We could not find anything on Yuri Abrosimov, born 1982, whose certificate we also saw on a corpse.
Some Internet resources mention some Alexander Vlasov and Alexander Morozov, also citizens of Russia, killed at the airport in Donetsk. In the comments they are ranked as heros, called fighters against fascism, and readers are urged to take up their cause, to “forsake the comfortable life and unite to fight the Nazis.”
In the social networks a letter is also being distributed called the last entry of Alexander Vlasovon his VKontakte page, which is impossible to verify, because later re-posts indicate that the original page has been deleted.
The letter reads as follows, “I had to leave the other day for Sloviansk, me and two of my friends. I told my mother, explained it all to my wife, wrote my will, just did not have time to pay all my debts…prepared the family for a month. In that time, I found corridors through the border, and people who were not indifferent to me. At the crossing we were to receive assault rifles, a machine gun for me because of my size and strength, equipment, and so on.” Later it is written that, “…the channel through Rostov was closed, one MP helped out, but it just happened that way…the second was shut by the SBU of Ukraine.” Regarding the reason for his decision to go to Donbas Alexander writes, “Odesa broke me, and this whole situation. I am a big guy. I cannot sit behind a woman’s back and hide behind work and children.”
When you are in Donetsk, you realise that the information war being waged by the Ukrainian and Russian media has completely erased the line between reality and understanding from both sides of what is actually happening in the East of Ukraine. Only the victims of this war remain real. Not a single one of the domestic federal TV channels, which for months pushed the idea of genocide of Russians in the East of Ukraine and domination of Nazis in the West, reported the fact that 31 Russian citizens died in Donetsk on May 26. They did not explain for what feat they died, how they ended up in this war, who opens the “channel through Rostov,” who distributes firearms, and who meets the coffins with the DPR stickers. In the Ukrainian media the dead were named mercenaries and terrorists.
The story of the first “Cargo 200,” sent from Donbas to Russia, ended for us and for our colleagues on the border in Uspenka. And we were the only ones who accompanied the Russians, killed in the battle for the Donetsk airport, home from Ukraine.
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