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Why volunteer grave diggers in Ukraine are exhuming Russia's dead

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ukraine's military pushed Russian forces back weeks ago from Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv. Since then, Ukraine has been collecting the bodies of Russians left behind. NPR's Ryan Lucas explains why two brothers from a village outside Kharkiv are among those unburying Russia's dead.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Yura Sorokotyahin leads us down a small path through fields planted with neat rows of potatoes and green onions. He stops in front of his vegetable garden, a fallow patch of dark soil bordered by a cherry tree and a blown-out house. He says there was a crater here, a big one. There's only a dip in the ground now, but it was here that he found the first ones.

YURA SOROKOTYAHIN: (Through interpreter) The dogs were circling around, and there was a burnt-out stump sticking out of the ground. I thought maybe it was a cherry tree, but the cherry tree wasn't there. I know my garden, and I'm wondering what it could be. And then I pull on it, and there was a hand.

LUCAS: It was the body of a Russian soldier killed in the fighting that destroyed much of this village of Mala Rohan.

SOROKOTYAHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

LUCAS: Yura says there were five Russians in all buried in the crater, one on top of the other. This was back in April. He and his brother Vova dug them up and called the Ukrainian military, who sent people out to collect the bodies.

SOROKOTYAHIN: (Through interpreter) We helped them out, and that's how we started working together.

LUCAS: By this, he means his and his brother's work as volunteer grave diggers. They exhumed the bodies of Russians who died in the failed attack on the nearby city of Kharkiv. And so far, they say they've exhumed around 20 Russians in all. Yura is not a large man. His hair is buzzed short, his skin burnt by the sun, his voice raspy from the cigarettes he smokes on repeat. In peacetime, he looked after the local soccer field, did random jobs and sometimes helped bury locals at the village cemetery. And so after the Russian army swept into Mala Rohan in the first days of the war, he says he started helping bury some of the conflict's early victims.

SOROKOTYAHIN: (Through interpreter) After the war started, I was making arrangements with the Russians so I could bury civilians that had been killed.

LUCAS: The Russians had set up firing positions by the village graveyard, he says, so many of the civilians who died had to be buried in gardens. Since the Russian withdrawal, he's been exhuming the villagers, many of them people he knew, and reburying them in the cemetery. And for him, there's a difference between burying his fellow villagers and the Russians, who were at least indirectly responsible for their deaths.

SOROKOTYAHIN: (Through interpreter) I feel different. I have tears in my eyes when I know the person, know them personally. But when it's just a body, it's just a body. Honestly, I don't care.

LUCAS: Even so, he says, he knows that somewhere, someone is suffering over the loss of each and every dead Russian he finds as well.

SOROKOTYAHIN: (Through interpreter) The sad thing is even the Russian guys have parents, someone waiting for them - young guys. And it's sad to realize that.

LUCAS: This work, of course, is not glamorous. The smell of death can follow the brothers home. When Yura first started, the village didn't have any water or power, so he couldn't even wash his clothes at the end of the day.

SOROKOTYAHIN: (Through interpreter) My wife doesn't understand how I keep doing this job. Every time I come home, she asks, how can you do it? And she tells me to go wash. Go clean yourself.

LUCAS: Neither brother much likes this job, but it is a necessary one. And because of the heavy fighting that raged around Kharkiv, there's plenty of work to be done, including a few days later, when we meet Yura and his brother in Piatykhatky, a suburb on the northern edge of Kharkiv, because here, in a little ditch just off a road littered with the charred hulks of burnt-out vehicles, a Russian soldier lies buried in a shallow grave.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So you can see a little bit of clothes poking out there. It's like they just buried them, and they put a little bit of dirt over the body. But yeah, you can definitely see some bits of uniform sticking out.

LUCAS: The Ukrainian soldier slowly runs a metal detector over the ground to make sure there aren't any mines or explosives.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

LUCAS: He declares it safe to work, and Yura and Vova start digging.

SOROKOTYAHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

LUCAS: Eventually, they pull the corpse out, place it into a white body bag and zip it shut.

SOROKOTYAHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

LUCAS: Yura and Vova take turns pouring water onto each other's hands to clean up, and they light cigarettes and wait for a military team to come collect the body. It will be taken to a morgue, where forensic experts will search it for papers, tattoos, emblems, anything that could help identify the individual or his unit. Then the body will be placed in cold storage and eventually exchanged with Russia for Ukraine's own war dead. And it's that exchange that makes this all worthwhile for the brothers. They are helping bring Ukrainians home for a proper burial. Yura and Vova are both in their late 50s. They can't run around with a gun anymore, Vova says, so this is their way to contribute.

SOROKOTYAHIN: (Through interpreter) Someone is good at something. We are good at this, so we have to do this.

LUCAS: Eventually, a battered white van pulls up. The brothers heave the body bag into the back and shut the door. They are now done for the day, but they know that more work still lies in the fields and forests around them. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Kharkiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.