Anguish and anger are stirred by the discovery by Ukrainians of a Russian soldier who died weeks ago.

Editor's Note: This story contains graphic images.

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NewsEditor
14 June 2022 Tuesday 14:09
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Anguish and anger are stirred by the discovery by Ukrainians of a Russian soldier who died weeks ago.

Editor's Note: This story contains graphic images.

MOSHCHUN (Ukraine aEUR") When retired electrical engineers YuriyTostopalov and NatalyaTostopalova returned to their village near Kyiv after the war, they assumed that all the bodies had been buried.

Russian forces had begun to withdraw, the Ukrainian war crimes prosecutors were here and gone, and funerals were held.

Yuriy claims that the local mayor informed them that the village had been inspected and that all the dead were buried. "But they didn’t even notice him," Yuriy says.

Yuriy claims that he was exactly where he last saw him, many weeks ago. They didn't even notice him.

The fact that the authorities had forgotten a corpse and that it was an enemy soldier set off a wide range of emotions in Moshchun. These emotions ranged from anger to amusement to a small amount of sympathy. It also brought to light the issue of what to do about those bodies. Officials in Ukraine claim that thousands of them have been taken from liberated areas throughout the country, including the Kharkiv region.

Officials from Ukraine wouldn't say how many Russian corpses remain unclaimed in cramped morgues or refrigerated railway cars. According to the government of Ukraine, Russia and Ukraine have only exchanged about 200 remains from each other in recent weeks.

Ukraine accuses Russia that it refuses to recognize the true extent of its war dead. Russia claims that just over 1,300 soldiers died in the conflict, but the death toll has not been updated aEUR" by Russia's military. Western officials think this is a serious undercount.

Volodymyr Liamzin is the head of Ukraine's civil and military cooperation. He told reporters last month that Russia promotes "this fairy tale that their men don't leave behind." If this were true, then why are all these bodies there?

Moshchun can be found in a forest northwest of Kiev's capital. It was once a small piece of pastoral suburbia where urbanites built their country homes and retired people built their dream homes.

Natalya, Yuriy’s 75-year old wife, says that her husband spent 40 years building their house. "Forty years! He did it all on his own."

She reminisces about how she and her husband tended their vegetable garden, as well as the apple and apricot tree in their back yard, and shared the fruits with neighbors.

The couple refused to leave their home that they had built after Russian troops tried to invade Kyiv. They huddled together in the basement for several weeks, until a fire broke out in a nearby field in March.

The wind was so strong that the couple feared the flames might blow into their home. They ran outside with garden rakes in their hands, determined to put out the flames.

They ran towards a forest of wild plum trees, almost running over each other.

Yuriy recalls that "we were afraid so we didn’t touch him or get too close to him," Yuriy said. "He was lying there."

The soldier had the face of a boy. He was clutching a napkin filled with crushed cookies.

Yuriy claims that he was missing his firearm. "But he still had his helmet, a bulletproof vest and, I believe, a knife. A flask with water, perhaps?

They were too busy to search for additional details. They ran home after the shelling started.

A few days later, the Ukrainian troops arrived and informed them that the road to Kyiv was open. They grabbed their clothes and two dogs and drove to Kyiv in their 1976 Soviet-era Lada Zhiguli.

NPR arrived in Moshchun on April 26, a day after Yuriy, Natalya and Natalya had returned.

Stepan, a cheerful Ukrainian soldier wearing a nose ring and smiling, inspects the reports of the team and asks: "So, you are here for the dead Russian?" The one with the cookies?

For security reasons, the soldier declined to reveal his last name but said he saw the body after Natalya and Yuriy called. Stepan claims he saw a label on the helmet which suggested that the soldier might be part of a paratrooper team from Ivanovo (a northeastern Moscow city).

Stepan is speaking when a van pulls up, along with Pavlo Rebenko's forensic team. The back of his dark blue vest has the words "War crimes prosecutor" printed in English. Rebenko claims he has been to this region at least 12 times and examined the bodies of Ukrainians who were killed by Russian troops. He claims he has seen a few bodies. He is surprised to learn that the body belongs to a Russian soldier.

Rebenko says that he has only found a handful of dead Russian soldiers in his area. Rebenko fled his Ukrainian home in the east after Russian proxies invaded Ukraine in 2015. "We know that the Russians either took their dead with them, or had mobile crematoriums in which they could burn the corpses."

The team travels through Moshchun. Each home is destroyed. Many of these homes are just piles of rubble. Placards for pets and missing neighbors are displayed at the bus stop.

Rebenko claims that the Russians believed they could take over Kyiv in three days. "When they realized that they were losing, they started to unleash this chaos."

His team descends a grassy slope that runs between two houses. A body is found under a forest of wild plum trees. The Russian dead.

The plum tree's white, lilac-scented flowers cover the soldier's body, muting the smell of decay.

The skin of the soldier has turned to a leathery brown color and there is evidence of a napkin on his left hand. A cross and a metal tag with an engraved code aEUR" are found by the forensic team. This could be a clue to his identity.

Mykola Kostenko (a Moshchun resident, and local forest ranger), watches as the forensic team examines the body. His eyes are filled with anger. He claims that the remains of the soldier don't belong to be collected.

Kostenko states, "I feel nothing but disgust for him." I don't care about what happens to his body. It can only enrich our soil, which is the best thing that it can do."

He claims that Russian troops massacred many of the villagers and then mined the forest, where they and other villages harvested mushrooms and berries. He claims that Russian soldiers have buried the villagers still missing in the forest.

The soldier is taken by the forensic team into a bag and zip-wrapped. The forensic team loads the body into a refrigerator van.

Kostenko wave the team to a bombed out home nearby. More human remains are scattered among the rubble and broken windows, including a hip bone and skull, and a femur all burned.

Viktor Kubiuk is a doctor who assisted the forensic team. He believes the remains could be belonging to a Ukrainian aEUR or another Russian soldier. He says that the medical examiner will need to answer this question and it won't be an easy task.

The International Commission of Missing Persons, which is based in The Hague, has been invited by the Ukrainian authorities to assist them with DNA analysis.

Rebenko, war crime prosecutor, states that the body and burnt remains of the Russian soldier would be taken to regional morgues.

Ukrainian authorities claim that Russian soldiers' bodies are piling up due to the Kremlin refusing to recognize them.

Liamzin, the head of Ukraine's civil and military cooperation, repeatedly refused to answer NPR's questions on how soldiers' remains are exchanged. However, he said last month that the Ukrainian side was "ready to return [the corpses] even today or tomorrow."

According to Valentina Melnikova (executive secretary of the Russian non-profit group the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers), trying to recover the body of a soldier who was killed in Ukraine is difficult because "everything" is kept secret by Russian authorities.

Melnikova claims that there is no official list of Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine or went missing. "The entire story falls on relatives to write and contact everywhere in search for information."

She also said that Russian officials could be faking photos of soldiers who have lost their metal ID tags online or on social media sites.

She says that everyone knows where everyone is fighting. Every military vehicle, every unit is tracked by GPS. It shouldn't take long to determine if there has been a battle, a firefight or shelling.

After spending a large portion of their savings on emergency accommodation in Kyiv, Yuriy and Natalya Tostopalov now reside in Ukraine's village of Moshchun. The Russian siege destroyed the dream house, which took Yuriy nearly four decades to build. It was reduced to rubble.

The couple sent photos of the destruction in Moshchun to their daughters, who moved to Russia many years ago for work. Yuriy said that they are always surprised when their parents mention the war.

"It's hard there," Yuriy said, referring specifically to the Kremlin’s crackdown on information regarding its war against Ukraine. "Maybe they're speaking in this way to avoid problems."

He wonders if the Russian soldier had been brainwashed into fighting an unjust conflict by his government. He also says that he feels sympathy for a young man who has been left alone far away from home.

He sighs, "He has a mom out there," he said. "Yes, that's true. We feel sorry for it. "But after all that has happened, what's point?"

Natalya states that too much has been done aEUR" in their lives, to Moshchun, and to Ukraine.

She said, "We cannot forgive that soldier," and he was right.

Charles Maynes, NPR's Moscow correspondent, reported. Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this article from Dnipro (Ukraine).

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