KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — When he surrendered to Russian forces in May at the pulverized Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, the wounded Ukrainian soldier could not properly say goodbye to his slain friend, whose body had to be left with hundreds of other dead.
The former prisoner of war, whose name is David, finally had his chance on Thursday in a crematorium in Kyiv.
Moving cautiously on crutches after his left leg was amputated, David and other soldiers bid farewell to Ilya Honcharov, whose coffin was draped in the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag.
“A sweet death in agony for you,” they intoned. “I will dissolve in you and live forever in you.”
David is one of the few prisoners of war in the siege of Azovstal which Russia released in an exchange.
And the body of Honcharov, 26, among hundreds, the two sides also exchanged even as they fight, is one of the few that the Ukrainian authorities have been able to identify. His brother recognized one of his tattoos.
In the two months since the Azovstal fighters surrendered, ending their dogged defense of the sprawling factory that has become a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity in the war against Russia, few family and friends of those who were killed or captured were able to find the solution.
Still unanswered are the gnawing questions of how, where and when loved ones died. Some remains may never be recovered.
If Ukrainian forces ever liberate Mariupol, some families hope to at least recover handfuls of land from the town that was bombed almost to oblivion. A field of death for thousands of civiliansthe charred ruins are a sacred place for the families of soldiers killed trying to prevent the strategic city and its port from falling to the Russians.
More than 2,000 Azovstal defenders emerged from its twisted wreckage in Russian captivity in mid-May, ending the nearly three-month siege of Mariupol. Their families still don’t know when – or even if – they might return home.
David was among 144 Ukrainian soldiers – including 95 who fought in Mariupol – that Russian forces handed over on June 29 in a prisoner exchange.
He is still unable to talk about his six weeks in captivity for fear of jeopardizing the release of other prisoners of war and he did not want to be identified by his full name.
But David spoke willingly of his friend Honcharov, who had been maimed by a mortar shell that had shattered the bones in his arms and legs, and driven shrapnel into his back. Honcharov had clung to life for hours through his pain, and his comrades dragged to hide in a basement after dark, moving through the hellish landscape of the twisted metal factory, overturned cars and broken concrete.
“I don’t know how he stayed so brave. I couldn’t bear such pain,” David said.
Honcharov died on May 16, the day that marked the beginning of the end of the siege of Mariupol. It was then that the remaining defenders of Azovstal began to surrender – the last Ukrainian resisters in the occupied city. They had largely exhausted their reserves and the commanders had told them that they had completed their mission to tie up and bleed Russian forces for as long as possible.
A lucky few were transported in low-flying helicopters before the surrender in a series of daring and sometimes deadly clandestine rescue missions.. But more than 2,400 remained trapped and surrendered to Russian forces. Among them is David, part of whose left leg was torn off by an anti-tank missile hours before the May 16 surrender began.
The survivors left behind hundreds of bodies, including Honcharov. He was returned to Kyiv in one of six exchanges of remains. The exchanges included the bodies of more than 400 soldiers who fell in Mariupol, including in Azovstal. We don’t know how many are left.
“I think we’ll never know the exact number,” said Olena Tolkachova, who works with the Azov Regiment, one of the Ukrainian units that defended the steel plant. She directs the specialized service of the regiment which organizes medical care for its wounded and funerals for its dead. He also answers endless calls from families asking for news of the prisoners and if any remains have been identified.
The last exchange took place on July 19. Each party gives the other 45 bodies, meets and signs documents before parting ways. The bodies that the Russian forces handed over belonged to various Ukrainian units. Some body bags are labeled “Azovstal” or “Mariupol”, but most are simply labeled “Ukrainian”.
DNA testing is needed to identify most remains. Only 2% to 3% are identified with personal effects, soldiers’ uniforms or distinctive markings, including tattoos, Tolkachova said.
The bodies arrive without knowing exactly where they were found. But Tolkachova and her fellow volunteers at the Kyiv morgue have learned that if there is sand on a body, it was most likely buried on the shore near the Azovstal Mill, which overlooks the Sea of Azov.
“We are working and will continue to work until our last hero is decently buried, until the last injured person is healed and brought back to life, until every family is reunited with their children,” he said. said Tolkachova. “The consequences of this war will be with us until the end of our lives.”
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