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Ice Cream, Corpses, and the Big Bear: Repatriating Dead Russians From Ukraine

We escorted the mutilated bodies of Russian fighters from a makeshift morgue in an ice cream factory to the border.
Photo by Harriet Salem

"The factory is closed! No one is here," shouted a large, peroxide-blond in military fatigues, to anyone who approaches the firmly closed metal gate.

Sheets of rain cascaded down, but the crashing storm did not manage to clear the stench of death from the afternoon air.

Inside the rebel-commandeered ice cream refrigeration complex in Donetsk, behind a stack of wooden crates, young men and medics in green scrubs were at work preparing disfigured corpses for their final journey home. Some had to be pieced back together.


The gruesome task took several hours to complete.

Against a garish backdrop of brightly-colored vans and cartoon ads, the workers neatly stacked their precious cargo onto the back of a truck. A last journey will be made in this makeshift ambulance put together by the rebels, hastily whitewashed and painted over with a red cross and "200"— Soviet-era military code for their dead.

Each casket is marked with the red, black, and blue flag of the DPR — Donetsk People's Republic. But the 30 men stretched out in these coffins are not from the fledgling rebel-state they laid down their lives for; they travelled here from Russia.

Most are believed to have been killed in the fierce battle between rebels and Ukrainian military for control of Donetsk airport after a Kamaz military truck transporting the wounded was hit by sniper fire, scattering body parts on the highway.

These deaths, and the repatriation of the bodies back to their motherland across Ukraine's eastern border, mark a significant turning point in the spreading crisis that has gripped the country.

Despite Moscow's persistent rejection of Russian men fighting in Ukraine's east, it is now undeniable they are here.

Paperwork shown to VICE News confirmed that at least some of the dead being transported across the border were, as claimed by the rebels, Russians.

In March, Crimea was annexed by Moscow after a Putin-backed putsch overseen by the so-called "green men" — Russian Spetsnaz (special forces) operating without insignia.


But the swift and efficient departure of the southern peninsula from Ukraine to Russia could not stand in starker contrast to events in the east, which, while already bloody and protracted, are still far from resolved.

Instead of direct military support, the Kremlin's solution to Ukraine's eastern crisis has been a porous border: a blind eye to the movements of fighters and rebel leaders in the shadows of its territory, and a safe passage for the flow of illegal arms to its eastern neighbors.

The resulting free-for-all has encouraged paramilitary groups, some likely backed by warlords and oligarchs, to flood into the region.

Sayid, a Chechen fighter being treated at the Donetsk trauma unit for a gunshot wound in his ankle, told VICE News how he had travelled to Rostov in Russia for construction work. Once there, he was offered the opportunity to fight in Ukraine and headed with his unit for the border.

Aslan, a nervous gunman in a black tracksuit who patrols the ice cream factory, told VICE News a similar story. The 33-year-old Ossetian says that his group traveled to Donetsk to provide humanitarian aid, but then decided to join the fight.

Others from the Caucasus and other post-Soviet states are also thought to be among the swirling mix of paramilitaries descending on the region.

"The more the Ukrainian army attack us, the more fighters we have," says Varan, Head of Security for the DPR.


Varan, whose name means "monitor lizard" in Russian, is a Chechen, but claimed that men are coming from all around the region. "All the neighboring countries have offered to send fighters," he tells VICE News. "They come legally into the country in civilian clothes, and then form units once they arrive," he adds.

Some may well be volunteers fighting for a patriotic belief in "Novorossiya." The expansionist concept, which echoes from the Soviet Union and even Russian Empire past, also resonates with the contemporary neo-nationalist groups that emerged at the beginning of Putin's second term in the early 2000s.

Yet while some may be fighting for the idea, others are likely paid mercenaries, or bandits looking for their slice of power and money when the spoils of revolution are divvied up.

Guarding his wounded comrades outside the hospital, 30-year-old Chechen fighter Magomed said he came to Donetsk for "personal interests" and would "like to be a boss."

There are plenty of opportunities here for the aspiring rebel fighter. Yesterday, in a seeming coup, the infamous Vostok Battalion cleared out the men of the self-styled people's leader Pavel Gubarev from the city's occupied administration building.

The heavily armed Vostok Battalion, whose name is a hat tip to a defunct Russian special military unit, said they were just dealing with looters. But it is suspected that the operation was in fact a takeover that concludes, at least temporarily, a simmering power struggle between competing rebel factions.


Locals are still hoping Putin will give a little more support than bandits and humanitarian aid — the latter was pledged yesterday by the Russian president — but the pleas for military reinforcements, or at least peacekeeping troops, have gone unanswered.

Indeed, as the truck lumbered away from the ice cream factory with its cargo of corpses, the distance between the powers in Moscow and the rebel-run Donetsk could not be clearer.

On the road to the border with Russia, a sign featuring a Soviet solider boldly proclaims: "Heroic actions are immortal." But the bodies in the back of the truck are not Russia's heroes; they are its dirty secret.

For these dead men there was no safe passage, no final salute, and no solemn celebration of a soldier's final return home.

Slava, the truck's stocky driver, was visibly agitated. He was asked only that morning "by people I couldn't say no to" to undertake the dangerous journey through contested land, and said he has no idea what will happen on the other side of the border, other than "people will come to meet [him]."

Local militia groups don't want to travel with their fallen comrades either; they are too afraid their presence will provoke an attack. Instead, they send an envoy of strangers to accompany the load: two plainclothes police officers, and one car of journalists as a human shield.

The Russian press, which enjoy exclusive access to the rebels' world thanks to the influence of the Kremlin, was notably absent. The snub is a telling sign of Moscow's position.


The rebels' nervousness about the journey is not misplaced; the road to the border is treacherous for them. Rolling fields and dilapidated villages normally make for a scenic countryside drive, but now the litter of burned-out barricades and abandoned checkpoints testify to the encroaching war, and stretches of forest are ideal territory for snipers.

Most the territory is under the control of the DPR. But when, 10 kilometers shy of the border, the makeshift ambulance hits a Ukrainian checkpoint the tension is palpable. Guns aimed at the truck the doors are opened as soldiers jump on board to check the load.

Mid search, the arrival of an unannounced unit of Ukrainians leads to a near incident of friendly fire as the soldiers momentarily turn their attention from the coffins, to the unidentified gunmen fanning out across the field. The confrontation is brief, but with everyone's nerves on edge the truck is waved quickly through; nobody knows what to do about it, and there's an unspoken consensus that the problem should be moved on.

Finally the truck reaches the end of its first leg of its journey: the Ukrainian border. Another quick search, a check of paperwork, and off it trundles; headed towards whatever awaits it on the other side.

The Big Dipper, known in Russia as the Big Bear, twinkles overhead. The noise of the engine is replaced by the buzz of mosquitos. Border guards peer into the clear night, guns slung over shoulders.

Even amid the chaos of war, one thing is now clear to everyone: Russia is here, but she doesn't want to claim her men.

Follow Harriet on Twitter @HarrietSalem

All photos by Harriet Salem