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Central and East Europe photojournalism

Central and East Europe photojournalism

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13 MARCH 2015 * KYIV * UKRAINE

Interview: Yaroslav Zhilkin

Politics is muck we have to “rake”

As Yaroslav Zhilkin describes how the War in Donbass “ravages his brain and shreds his soul”, you just sit there with your mouth open and believe his every single word. A giant of a man, Zhilkin still can’t fight back the tears washed up by the memories of the past year. With his fists clenched and his hate-stained despair, he is the accusation of the stupidest of all human inventions on the face of the Earth – war. He is sick to death of it.

One year back, this forty-four-year-old father of four and once a successful businessman exchanged the comfort of his office in Kiev for a cooler truck with a large red cross and a black number 200. It is the “200” that carries a special weight. Ever since the Soviet-Afghan War, the Soviets have been using the number as a placeholder name for their fallen soldiers; according to regulations on keeping records, transporting of the remains or informing the soldier’s bereaved, the dead have been simply called “Cargo 200”.

 

Needless to say, this dehumanized military terminology has weathered till today, since the “200” is also used to mark the fallen in the Donbass War. It’s the simple solution comprehensible for both sides of the conflict, as it’s not uncommon for people with Soviet army training or the same military academy training to find themselves fighting each other. So there was basically no need to come up with new terminology.


If you think that the “Cargo 200” is only collected by convict cleanup crews, soldiers or some other army professionals, you’re wrong. The whole of the war-ravaged Donbass is stalked by hundreds of unmarked graves, body remains and corpses of the wretched people who continue to haunt the enemy territory. They all need to be found, exhumed, documented and taken in for forensic DNA identification. The question remains, however, who is going to do it? Volunteers, of course – which is the way it’s been in Ukraine since the outbreak of the Maidan armed conflict. Financed out of their own pockets, instead of vacation with their families, and with no claim whatsoever to get compensated by the state. These are the conditions under which the Black Tulip operates. A humanitarian organization made up of three cooler trucks, sixty volunteers and 318 days worked so far.

 

And Jaroslav Zhilkin, with his belly full of war - for obvious reasons - has been in charge of its crew since last September.

 

 

It all started thanks to the so called kettles - Debaltseve, Ilovaisk and the Donetsk Airport. The synonyms for the War in Donbass. The Ukrainian army got ambushed and there was nothing left but to drop everything and call retreat, otherwise a total massacre was in store for them. Even so, the casualties were in hundreds or thousands; the exact figures will never be known. Dead bodies and human remains were all over the place and something had to give. The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic agreed to evacuation, but under no circumstances was the army to get involved, as the militants didn’t want to let the Ukrainian soldiers on “their” turf. The final say was – get some civilians to take care of your dead and we don’t care where you get them. Then someone in the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine got the idea to call us up on the account of our hobby – recovering, exhumation and identification of the WWII soldiers’ remains. It can be said we do have some experience, but in no way are we professionals or coroners. Knowing how important it is for the families to be able to get their loved ones’ back, we took the job, even though the idea alone was intimidating enough.

 

Did you get any training? How is it possible for an office guy like yourself to just put on rubber boots and go about collecting dead bodies?

There was no time. The corpses had already been lying in the scorching heat for weeks, so it was crucial to take off and get down to work as soon as we could. We had no idea what to expect or what to bring along, we just went with our common sense. We bought some rolls of PVC foil and reckoned we would use it to wrap the dead bodies in it, then tape them up and we’d be done. Lucky for us, the Red Cross had some spare body bags; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to take care of them. The foil would have been a useless toil. All the experience we had was with WWII remains, so we were more like military archeologists used to dusting dried up bones. But this war… you mustn’t forget that it was high summer, the bodies had been lying in the sun and… well, to put it mildly, it was and still is a horrible sight.

 

I suppose the reality was much harsher then what you could imagine.

I’m no hero... if I only were to tell you how nervous I was before our first mission. I was literally scared shitless! My my guts were in a knot, goading me not to go, because I didn’t have to… Simply put, fear and prejudice did their share. After all, we had no idea what to be afraid of more – the fact that we could get killed or the horrible things we could actually see there. I have to give it to the Red Cross people who helped us a little at the beginning; they told us there was no way of getting infected by the cadaver „poison“, which was my biggest personal bugaboo. And if you stick to all sanitary habits, the dead are no threat to you; all you’re faced with are your awkward feelings. They were also right about one thing – you need a good team of people and to stay constantly on your toes. Overthinking can be a real deal breaker.

 

Do you recall your first mission or is it more like you’re trying to forget?

It was Sep 2. We arrived close to Saur Mogila, which is this little strategic height not far from the Shaktars’kyi district. If you control this point, you pretty much control the whole area. Even during WWII, it was the focal point of intense fighting as it was extremely difficult to capture. And to prevent history from repeating itself, a huge memorial was built up there... Ironically, seventy years later, this place is strewn with scorched military machinery, human bodies still sitting singed in the bullet-riddled machines, their hands and legs torn off. The sight of all this atrocity on my very first day is burned into my memory. Every single second of it. To make matter worse, the militiamen had set up a blockpost up there and their commander, a total nutcase wielding a grenade in one hand and a submachine gun in the other, kept yelling at us that it all was our fault and that he was going to shoot us like dogs. Luckily, we had a Donetsk Republic representative with us and he managed to calm this guy down. We couldn’t wish for a better entrée, really… On the first day, we found, documented and loaded twelve bodies altogether. Half of which were tattered, due to getting hit from a 120 mm mortar. It tore their hand and legs off, one of them was just a torso, and to top things off, they were all mummified. After all, it was pretty warm and they had been there like that for more than a week, with no valuables, personal belongings, phones or IDs on them – all gone – probably a courtesy of the militiamen. And this is how it went, day one, two, three… we learned on the go, but quickly.

Each of the orange pins stuck in this military map designates a spot of a possible final resting place of a dead soldier.

Is there any database according to which you look for these „two-hundreds“?

There is nothing like that. Ideally, the places are charted, or if need be, we have one of the locals take us there. The charted sites are scarce though, mostly we just find out that there and there have been some losses and that’s all. No exact figures or circumstances. So off we go and look for a mound of dirt, crosses, helmets... any visual leads. This can be a problem as the areas we need to cover are huge, and we can’t comb them properly due to mine threat. This one time, militiamen sent us looking for a grave of four soldiers in some field and so we divided into two groups and took off. All of a sudden a car shows up, and a bomb expert gets out asking what the hell we’re doing out there. The field was dotted with mines. I don’t dare pass any judgment if the militiamen sent us there on purpose or out of sheer ignorance. Sometimes even the tiniest coincidence works though. Once we came to a tank turret with one of the tank crew remains inside. We’re searching the site and are about to clear the body when someone spots a shoe. We started digging and discovered two more soldiers with machine guns still in their hands. It was a separatist tank that got hit by a Ukrainian shell. The ammo inside exploded with such a force that the turret with the tank operator still inside was sent flying off and landed on top of a Ukrainian trench with the two boys lying in cover there.

 

You move about war zone, on a separatist territory, where all the fighting is. That doesn’t sound like a very safe job to me…?

Mines and all kinds of booby traps are a big problem. You miss a trip wire just like snapping your fingers and you’re gone, vanished into air thick with war. Little groves and bushes are the worst, that’s why every unit should have someone skilled in defusing bombs. Our biggest fear is artillery fire, no matter what side it’s coming from. You can get hit any time because of a mix-up in the coordinates, just a misunderstanding. Such things do happen, unfortunately. Once we were under tank fire, for example. Both sides knew who we were, one of the local men-at-arms was taking us through a mine field to a grave – and at that exact moment we got under fire from an Ukrainian tank. No one can ever guarantee us that we’ll get back in one piece. This is why the guys from our crew usually break and quit.

 

Do you get to work on the front line?

We have, several times, but a decision was made this was to be the army’s job. It’s a cutthroat environment. We have entered the no man’s land twice, and each time you have to drive carefully to avoid the marked mines, but some had been covered in dirt after explosions so you can’t know where they are anyway. Sometimes the risk is just too high and we have to give up. This one time army even let us use their truck to recover the bodies. We notified the separatists to make sure we wouldn’t get shot at because we were driving the army truck. But we couldn’t be sure the fields wouldn’t be dotted with mines and, more importantly, that some intense firing wouldn’t break out. That’s why we decided to stay put. Our lives always come first. We prefer working in places where the army or its investigators have no access to.


War somehow comes hand in hand with alcohol. Do you kick one back to calm your nerves before you put the gloves on?

There’s really no way we’d ever hit the road drunk. True, alcohol might be helpul in dealing with the atrocities we see, but it clouds judgment and reactions. And you can’t let that happen. Take experienced soldiers, for instance, they know their ways around, they never drink before the battle – it reduces their chance of survival. It’s not like we are teetotalers, we treat ourselves to the occasional drink now and then, but only after our job is done, and in decent amounts. According to psychologists, when you’re under stress, alcohol works only once or twice on the doping level. Each following day becomes abusive though, as you’re replacing stress with addiction and the need to increase doses.

 

You said that the mission is an incredible strain on the nerves and your people “break” under it. What’s the breaking point like?

War is a test of how much you can handle. You’re constantly going through very intense emotional micro-stories and one day the cup just spills over. The triggering moment doesn’t necessarily have to be something like artillery fire, sniper situation or the dead bodies. It’s the little things that crush you, you know, when they pile up. Once I was sitting next to a guide from the Donetsk Republic when all of a sudden he releases the safety catch on his submachine gun just because he doesn’t like something about the car coming our way. Nothing happened, he put the safety catch back on, and we had a good laugh over it. But I realized that if he felt really threatened, he would’ve hosed the car. When it all adds up and you’re leaving for home after each run, you say - never more! Don’t you call me again! But three weeks later, you’re back there anyway.

 

Why is that?

That’s hard to say. Maybe it’s some kind of addiction to danger, or the adrenaline, because when you’re under artillery fire, you’ve got more in your blood than you can burn. But I think it’s more about the responsibility – if we don’t do it, who will? And on an even different level, you somehow understand that the dead need to be returned home. Time goes by and sooner than later it will be impossible to find them, and they’ll just become another MIA entry. Just like after WWII, when the mothers wandered the country with their sons’ pictures, asking soldiers if they by any chance had seen them. Their wounds never healed. And we can’t let that happen again.

 

Does hope die last even in war?

Not knowing what’s with your loved ones can be really hard on you. You never know if he’s dead, buried somewhere or in captivity. You can’t call him on the phone and yet you still get this strange gut feeling he’s already dead, but you can’t know for sure. So you go to church to pray and light candle for him, but you don’t know in whose memory to light it – the live or the dead one? That’s the fundamental difference – when death is confirmed, you can finally let them rest in peace. The pain of loss is immeasurable, but at least you know what grave to bring flowers on. That’s our mission – we give people back the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones and grieve.

 

What’s got to happen for a soldier to vanish without a trace in the 21st century? Is it even real, given the state-of-the-art technology, electronics and GPS?

Anything can happen; he may not be dead. He could’ve been wounded or suffered a memory loss, even that’s possible. Or he could’ve been captured. Or murdered. Even worse, he may have evaporated in a Grad missile explosion or the eye of a hurricane. Or burned to cinder in a car accident and the DNA tests will never prove it was him. Sometimes it’s simply impossible to identify the body. Some explosions just rip the body to pieces and we have no idea how many people we have actually collected. This is how we found the only woman so far, or more precisely, her foot - which you can’t mistake for a man’s. She was probably a medic, because of all the material that was lying around. A lot of soldiers have died in convoy attacks – they run in all directions, and when they get wounded, they aren’t able to make it back on their own. And the fields are full of mines, you know, so no one could go and look for them, let alone find them. They just died in tall corn. Alone. And then the stray dogs or foxes scatter the body parts over a large area. We can’t find them all, given the circumstances, it’s an unfeasible project. And if a soldier had been hurriedly buried in the field, which was later cultivated by a harvester and the weather did its share of work on it, then it’s a tough luck, too. Mass graves are a big problem, as well, as they usually cover up murder and such locations are understandably unmarked.

 

Do you have any idea who, whether and how is clearing the casualties on the other side of the front?

It’s the same disorganized mess like back here. They have no central administration and the evac is organized by the individual commanders. There’s some kind of a dead body handover agreement between Ukraine and the separatists, because very often you can see dead separatists lying close to Ukrainian units and vice versa. The bodies are handed over, that’s no problem; what would one or the other side be doing with dead opponents, right?

 

What about civilians? Not only soldiers die in war.

True, we’ve had relatives from both sides of the frontline contact us. Their grandma’s house was torn down in an attack and no one has seen her since the explosion, so she’s probably buried in the rubble. They ask us what can be done and if we can help. The body needs to be retrieved, of course, but we can’t shovel the rubble ourselves, we need heavy machinery for that. Which we can’t afford. That’s where the relatives and local authorities come in. The only civilian we have found so far, was a bee keeper from near Ilovaisk.

 

Psychologists recommend the soldiers to always have a flask on them, so they could wash their face after the battle. It’s not only about the dust, but more like a cleansing ritual from what they’ve been through.

We don’t carry water, but disinfectants. When we come back from the trips, all tools and clothes, hands and legs get a special alcohol disinfectant treatment. Not only do we wash the filth off, but we also get rid of the things we’d done and seen that day. Then we dine, discuss our experiences and have a drink to the fallen. It’s our ritual, but it’s hard to say if it’s any help to our psyche.

Can you even get used to dealing with the things you see?

You probably can. Or at least I feel it’s possible. Over the time we’ve learned to switch our brains off and perceive all the atrocity as work. You must dismiss all feelings and disgust, and go down the cynical path, otherwise it shreds your soul. And when it’s way too much to handle, we go for a walk, drink some water and clear our heads. The thing is, you can free yourself from your fantasy and from what you see, but you can never escape the smell. The sweetish odor lingers with you, somewhere in the back of your head, so I can taste it on my palate even when I come back to my office in Kiev. And that’s bad. You can go crazy just like that. Even psychologists warn about it. That’s why we only work ten-day cycles and then we have to take a month off from it all and go home. Those ten days is the doable maximum, physically and mentally. You know what’s the worst about it, though? When some kid’s parents call you up that they’d seen their son’s dead body somewhere near Debaltseve on Youtube and plead with you to bring him back to them. What am I supposed to tell them? I don’t know what to say, I just can’t find the right words. I feel guilt and I’m hurting at same time. Working with dead people is actually much easier than with the live ones.

 

I don’t mean to cry wolf, but aren’t you worried what’s in store for you? How are you going to take it mentally, when it’s all over? You can’t possibly be the same person when you step back into your life, forget it all...

I hope all will be well, but I can’t know for sure. When you’re out there, you’re under constant pressure, like a compressed spring, but as soon as you leave, the spring releases. And you are buried in landslide of emotions. Each of us needs to find their way of dealing with excessive pressure, how to let off and not fall apart at the same time. We have a non-negotiable agreement with our psychologist – to leave all the atrocity behind out there, not bring it into our normal everyday lives. It all sounds logical and easy, but… Imagine you spend ten days touching such horrible stuff it makes your brain cringe. When I’m driving back home, I turn the volume up and try to scream my head off. I scream like an animal so long until I scream myself hoarse. I let it all out, choking on the hopelessness. Probably some kind of auto-regulatory mechanism my body uses to get rid of all the negative emotions, helping me to keep a sane mind. My colleague, for example, walks barefoot in grass, trying to stomp all the negative into the ground. The truth is we don’t really discuss it much, though.

 

You said that practically all of you have families and children. How do they take your war job? I assume it’s very difficult to explain that it’s important, even though it’s “just” collecting dead bodies.

They’re worried. We don’t operate the frontline per se, but we still work in the war zone and the risk is high. Eventually, ultimatums pop up - either you quit or I’m getting a divorce. Very often I get calls from the boys’ wives pleading with me not to take them along anymore. And I so understand. We bankroll the travel costs ourselves, we take days off at work so we could go, and instead of spending some quality time with our children, we poke around in…

That’s two completely different worlds. Sooner or later they will collide – your wife won’t have an understanding for your sudden lack of interest in solving household problems right now, because you’re standing in the middle of a mass grave, you know.

 

What about the soldiers? I guess that seeing your convoy must make them uncomfortable, after all “What we were, you are...” still holds true.

There is a certain stigma surrounding us, of course. Not even in my civil life do I know a lot of people who’d say hello to a mortician in the street. When we arrive at a blockpost – where normally there’s a lot of fun, the soldiers are greeting each other and laughing – everybody grows solemn all of a sudden. We remind them of their own mortality. But we’re the reality. Sometimes I think the boys don’t even realize where they are. They look like Rambos, are all dressed up in padded gear, bullet-proof vests and special goggles, feeling all good about themselves and proud. I can’t even remember the number of times I had to scrape the shredded bullet-proof vests off of some body remains.

 

War used to be your hobby, archeology. Now it’s caught up with you and sucked you in. What did you find out about it?

War is work of politicians; it’s the result of the lousy job they are doing. Instead of trying to make amends, they make announcements on their Facebook profiles or on TV interviews that the losses are inevitable. These couch patriots have no idea how much killing is going on out there! They could really use an experience of coming down on a mission with us and seeing death with their own eyes. I bet you the war would be over within a week. On the other hand, we are also to blame. We stopped being afraid of war, and that’s the biggest tragedy. We’ve betrayed our fathers and grandfathers who died so we could live in peace. Neither side is to take the bigger or smaller blame, we are all at fault. I’m sick to death of war, and knowing that those boys died because they were carrying out somebody’s orders, is killing me. Worst part is that as soon as they died, they stopped being that somebody’s concern. They were left behind like a worthless piece of garbage. In my eyes, the fallen soldiers are their indictment. Politics is muck to me, and we have to “rake” its results. Horrible.

 

 

 

The withering Tulip

In mid-June 2015, Yaroslav Zhilkin had to suspend the Black Tulip’s mission. After 318 operational days, with 609 bodies and fragments found, they ran out of finances. The reasons behind this were simple. Two out of the three cooler trucks were broken down, the volunteers have no holidays left to take at work, and the government is only talking the support talk. The motion that all volunteers should be given the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Organization) status, is a waste of breath. As for the costs, the Tulip needs some UAH 3 mil (US$ 139,840) from the state budget to be able to further supplement the government’s role, whose only job so far has been to send the boys to death, but that’s about it. „Our job is unpopular. Politicians will hardly take a body bag with them on the stage or put in an appearance on some TV show with it. The wounded or captured are a great PR, but the dead? Who’s ever going to brag about them? They can’t go to the polls anymore. We can’t even count on the money from the volunteers and sponsors, because they support – and that’s understandable – the ones who are alive. Only the dead boys’ families and we take interest in the dead.” One thing Zhilkin was not right about though: following the buzz on social media and in the Ukrainian media about the involuntary operational break of the “Tulips”, various amounts started landing on their account. And three weeks later, they were again able to renew their mission, even though it is hard to know when they will be strapped for cash again. What will then happen with those three hundred bodies and tens of mass graves, which Zhilkin and his crew know about at the moment, only God knows. God forbid that the Donbass conflict escalate into a whole new “kettle.”

 

THE AFTERMATH

The work takes its toll. The estimates are that 70% of the volunteers working on the “Cargo 200” will suffer serious psychological consequences in the future. Tatiana Jermolajeva, the psychologist who sometimes gets to work with the Black Tulip crew, is convinced of that. “I let them get it all off their chest. That’s the crucial part, because they don’t really spend much time spilling their guts out when they are toghether. They try to come in my office and play heroes, saying they’re already used to it and that they don’t mind the job. But I’m not buying that – they’re just talking the talk, of course. The thing is they can’t sleep, the dead bodies haunt them in their dreams, their relationships and marriages fall apart. They flip out upon hearing unexpected sounds; fireworks are another artillery fire to them. They don’t hold people in high regard anymore; they perceive them as a piece of “meat” that can come in a bag. The worst part is that they’re pursued by the smell even when off the field, away from the war zone. We’re talking the smell of blood and dead bodies here – and they can’t run away from it, because lodged it’s in their brains. Very often they describe how scary it is that a whole man can fit into a teeny pack of cigarettes. We have to start taking them in groups to the west of Ukraine, convalescent homes in the Carpathian Mountains. The farther away from the war, the better. The nature up there is pristine and we can work with them. Their future, however, is very uncertain. Some of them will get caught up by depression, alcohol or suicide.

 

PS: The origin of the name Black Tulip can be traced back to the Ukrainian journalists who named Zhilkin’s unit after the AN-12 aircraft’s nickname, which were used for transportation of Soviet soldiers from the Afghan and Chechen Wars. The thing is that the coffins resemble tulip flower buds. You can even hear about it in this song by a Russian singer and veteran Alexander Rozembaum.

Translation: Jakub Kašpárek

An independent photojournalistic project of a Czech photojournalist Petr Toman covering social issues within East and Central Europe