ZELENE POLE, Ukraine (Reuters) - A ceasefire in eastern Ukraine means more work for the volunteer group Black Tulip, which can now collect remains of Ukrainian soldiers killed in action without the risk of being caught in crossfire between rebels and government troops.
The group used to locate and rebury soldiers killed in World War Two, but when hundreds of Ukrainian troops were killed in the battle of Ilovaisk last year, the volunteers decided their skills could help more recent victims of conflict.
They renamed themselves after the planes that carried the bodies of Soviet soldiers home from the Afghan war and since last August have brought back over 600 bodies from the frontline, often straying into separatist-held territory that the Ukrainian military cannot reach to retrieve the dead.
The guns have been mostly silent since early September, raising hopes for the fragile peace process and granting Black Tulip safer access to the no-man’s land between Ukrainian and separatist positions.
Volunteers have been able to search painstakingly through the rubble and twisted metal remains of Donetsk airport, the scene of some of the fiercest battles in the sixteen months of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists seeking independence from Kiev.
Sometimes all they’ll find is a fragment of bone, but everything gets bagged up and sent back to the city of Dnipropetrovsk for DNA testing.
Identifying remains can bring closure for families waiting for news on soldiers missing in action, but it also means the dreaded confirmation of their death.
“When a man is unidentified, it’s one thing. When he has his name, relatives and everything else, then you feel the pain of this family. When you find this man, they lose any hope,” said the head of Black Tulip, Alexander Guz.
With the passing of time, the work of Black Tulip has become more complicated.
Graves hastily dug by soldiers under fire and marked with crosses made of sticks have become overgrown and disappear. The group often relies on locals on the Ukrainian or rebel sides to point them to places where bodies of soldiers were left behind.
Around 2,100 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed since fighting broke out in April 2014, according to Ukrainian estimates, although many believe the number to be much higher. A further 300 are missing in action, a military spokesman said in August.
Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Margarita Chornokondratenko; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Tom Heneghan