30 men are stretched out in coffins. They are not from the rebel state they laid down their lives for; they travelled here from Russia.
They are believed to have been killed in a battle between rebels and Ukrainian military for control of Donetsk airport, after a Russian made military truck transporting the wounded was hit by mortar fire, scattering body parts all over the highway they were traveling on , the bodies were picked up in commandeered trucks and immediately taken to the morgue where young men and medics in green scrubs worked on identifying and preparing the disfigured corpses. Some had to be pieced back together. The stench of death hung and clung to everything inside the morgue. The gruesome task took several hours to complete.
Russia is widely accused of orchestrating the separatists’ insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern provinces despite he Kremlins’ attempts to portray it as a home-grown movement, and its repeated denials of involvement. After two months of fighting and the loss of hundreds of lives, Moscow’s strong propaganda campaign against the new leadership in Kiev now comes with mounting evidence of Russian military engagement in the two provinces just across its border, Donetsk and Luhansk. One of the most telling episodes of the conflict was the killing of 30 Russian fighters from the Vostok Battalion (English: East Battalion), which is the name of a former ethnic Chechen special forces unit commanded by Russian officers.
It once fought for Moscow against rebels in the Russian republic of Chechnya, and later served in the war against Georgia over South Ossetia in 2008.
Political pressure forced the dissolution of the old Vostok but it may have been reformed for covert tasks in Ukraine. Thirty of their members now laid on the morgue floor after the government attack on their lorry during the airport fighting.
These 30 were later dispatched across the border to Russia, with separatists describing the dead as “volunteers from Russia”.
The presence of “volunteers”, such as Cossacks from southern Russia, has been an open secret for months and echoes the situation in Crimea in March, before Russia annexed the territory from Ukraine.
Whether they are volunteers, mercenaries or soldiers on a covert mission, the suggestion now is that Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine is much more organized. The men were described as volunteers by fighters trying to keep journalists away from the morgue. After the grisly tasks of preparing the bodies, the corpses were secretly moved to an industrial freezer in an ice cream factory on the 29th of May in the afternoon. They were packed into black plastic bags, placed in caskets lined with white fabric, with dark colors of reds, purples and unceremoniously, without fanfare, placed on the back of a truck, to begin their long journey home back to Russia. Nameless men, Russian citizens according to the Donetsk peoples’ Republic; they were but “volunteers from Russia”. Why they came is a mystery, who sent them is even more of one. Neither their names nor their origins have been revealed to the media.
In an interview on Thursday , Denis Pushilin specified that they hoped for any available assistance, in particular a Russian “peacekeeping” contingent to counteract the Ukrainian forces active throughout eastern Ukraine. “In order to save lives, so that less blood is spilled,” Pushilin explained, but again his simple explanation does not explain how these Russians ended up at the front lines of Ukraine’s opening act of a tragic beginning of a civil war. The airport attack brought to light the presence in Donetsk of a well-equipped, close-knit military unit operating on the separatist side. The fighters’ presence here and Russia’s silence on the repatriation of its killed citizens being brought back to Russia under the cover of darkness. There were no waving grateful people lining the roads, honoring the sacrifice these men had made for their cause. They’re at war with the Kiev Government, just a curious glance of the truck with cross and number 200 painted on the side, maybe the question in their heads, what might this truck be carrying, and the whole affair was so secret, only a handful of people knew the contents, the journalists who were following the cargo through rebel-held territory, through Ukraine military checkpoints and to the border Ukraine and Russia and late night crossing into Russia, 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.