Ukraine invasion — explained | NPR

These Ukrainian volunteers recover soldiers' bodies to return them to their families

Evacuation 200 is a special volunteer unit that scours the country for the bodies of soldiers left on battlefields. "My job is to accompany these heroes on their last trip home," one volunteer says.

Listen

Oleg Repnoy stands in front of his Evacuation 200 vehicle. 'My job is to accompany these heroes on their last trip home,' he says.
Oleg Repnoy stands in front of his Evacuation 200 vehicle. "My job is to accompany these heroes on their last trip home," he says. Eleanor Beardsley | NPR

DNIPRO, Ukraine — Outside a morgue in the central eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, a scene plays out all day, every day.

Coffin lids are brought out and leaned against a wall, along with large crosses and flowers. The coffins soon follow, the pale face of a dead soldier sometimes visible inside. They're slid inside a waiting van; the lids put on.

This is where Oleg Repnoy's journey begins. He's a volunteer for Evacuation 200, an organization that returns dead Ukrainian soldiers — or their remains — to their families.

"My job is to accompany these heroes on their last trip home," he says.

Since fighting began on Feb. 24, no one could keep up with the number of casualties, he says. So this special volunteer unit was created to help.

The former interior designer with the blue-eyed gaze has spent the past five months crisscrossing Ukraine with his precious cargo. The 55-year-old says he feels like he is helping in the fight.

Volunteers carry a coffin.
Volunteers carry a coffin. Eleanor Beardsley | NPR

"My work is important because I'm also taking care of all the bureaucracy and paperwork for families in grief and they are grateful," he says. "But you need to have strong mental health to do this job."

While President Volodymir Zelenskyy has said up to 200 soldiers a day could be losing their lives in the war with Russia, the exact number of Ukrainian casualties has been a preciously guarded government secret. Operations like this one give a glimpse into the true toll.

On the day NPR meets Repnoy, he's holding a soldier's paperwork. It has a number: 3,249. That's the number of dead since Feb. 24 in this morgue alone. This operation is playing out in morgues all over the country.

Repnoy is setting out for a small village several hours south of Dnipro, closer to the front lines. He's carrying two coffins with the remains of soldiers killed in early May, only recently recovered.

There's no air conditioning in the cab of the van. It's a hot day and he rolls down the window and smokes. He says sometimes he feels guilty bringing the young soldiers home.

A field of sunflowers in Ukraine.
A field of sunflowers in Ukraine. Eleanor Beardsley | NPR

"One day I drove the body of a very young guy born in 2002 and I thought, 'that young guy is dead and I'm much older than him and I'm alive.' It seems so unfair," he says.

But he says the families are never resentful, and always grateful to him when he arrives.

Out on the road, the vast Ukrainian plains stretch as far as the eye can see. There are shimmering wheat fields on one side, bright-yellow sunflowers on the other.

Repnoy listens to music and thinks about the soldiers he's carrying and the land he's crisscrossing. He says he's traveled extensively in his country and thought he knew it well.

"But when I started delivering dead soldiers, I began to think about how beautiful our country is," he says. "I just never imagined I'd discover my country going from morgue to morgue."

On the side of his white van — which was once used to deliver flowers — the number 200 is written in black. The name of this operation, Evacuation 200, is military jargon for the transport of dead soldiers.

The term made its way into public consciousness in the 1980s, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and Soviet soldiers' bodies were brought home from the war in Afghanistan. Each body in its zinc coffin was said to weigh around 200 kilograms — about 440 pounds.

When Repnoy stops for gas, people know what cargo he's carrying. Olga Bereza, 44, looks over as she fills her tank. But she doesn't feel reverence for the dead, she says.

"Honestly?" she asks. "We feel only hate. When the war came into our home and our people are being killed, right now we can feel only hatred, unfortunately."

When Repnoy pulls into the village of Apostolove, members of the soldiers' regiment are waiting to meet the coffins. They slide them out of the van one by one, along with the flags and the flowers and the crosses, readying them for their upcoming funerals.

Vira Bilay holds a photo of her late son Andriy Bilay, who worked for the Ukrainian railroad before enlisting to fight. 'People, please don't fight, it is heartbreaking. It's very painful. Don't kill each other!' she cries.
Vira Bilay holds a photo of her late son Andriy Bilay, who worked for the Ukrainian railroad before enlisting to fight. "People, please don't fight, it is heartbreaking. It's very painful. Don't kill each other!" she cries. Eleanor Beardsley | NPR

One of the dead soldiers is 47-year-old Andriy Bilay, who is from Apostolove. His 70-year-old mother, Vira Bilay, has been waiting for him.

She says the last time she spoke with Andriy was on May 7, when he told her he was going on a special operation. She pulls a large photo of her boy out of a plastic bag and cries as she talks about him.

"He worked for the railroad and everyone loved him," she says.

Bilay says her son was furious about the invasion and was on the front lines within days.

There were also foreign soldiers fighting for Ukraine stationed here in the village, says Bilay, and she took care of them.

"They didn't speak Ukrainian but I used Google Translate and I brought them food. Borsch, pancakes, homemade dumplings — I fed the foreign soldiers. But," she cries, "who took care of my son?"

Asked if she has a message for the world, she wails:

"People, please don't fight, it is heartbreaking. It's very painful. Don't kill each other!"

There's a World War II tank in her village, a monument bearing the inscription: "To the combatants of the Soviet army, liberators of the town of Apostolove, February 1944. From its grateful citizens."

Those citizens aren't grateful to the Russian army now, but there are no plans to take the monument down.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

It is unknown how many soldiers are killed defending Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there could be up to 100 killed a day, but Kyiv never reveals exact figures. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley recently followed a special volunteer unit that deals with the many casualties of war and has this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: We're outside the morgue, central morgue in Dnipro. The vans pull up. The coffins are brought out with a cross and flowers. All day long, the caskets are brought out with the flowers and the crosses and loaded into the vans.

This is where volunteer Oleg Repnoy begins his journey.

OLEG REPNOY: (Through interpreter) My job is to accompany these heroes on their last trip home.

BEARDSLEY: The 55-year-old with an intense blue gaze was an interior designer before the war. He says since February 24, no one could keep up with the number of casualties. That's why they created this special unit.

REPNOY: (Through interpreter) My work is important because I'm also taking care of all the bureaucracy and paperwork for families in grief. And they are grateful. But you need to have strong mental health to do this job.

BEARDSLEY: On this day, Repnoy sets out for a small village several hours south, closer to the front lines. He's carrying two coffins with the remains of soldiers killed in early May who were only recently recovered. Out on the road, the vast Ukrainian plains stretch as far as the eye can see. There are shimmering wheat fields on one side, bright yellow sunflowers on the other. Repnoy listens to music and thinks about the soldiers he's carrying and the land he's crisscrossing. He says he's traveled extensively and thought he knew his country well.

REPNOY: (Through interpreter) But when I started delivering dead soldiers, I began to think about how beautiful our country is. I just never imagined I'd discover my country going from morgue to morgue.

BEARDSLEY: On the side of his white van, which was once used to deliver flowers, the number 200 is written in black. The name of this operation, Cargo 200, is military jargon for the transport of dead soldiers because each coffin with a body is said to weigh around 200 kilograms. The term became part of public consciousness in the 1980s, when Soviet soldiers' bodies were brought home from the war in Afghanistan. When Repnoy stops for gas, people know what cargo he's carrying. Forty-four-year-old Olga Bereza looks over as she fills her tank. But she doesn't feel reverence.

OLGA BEREZA: (Through interpreter) Honestly, we feel only hate. When the war came into our home and our people are being killed right now, we can feel only hate, unfortunately.

BEARDSLEY: Members of the soldier's regiment are waiting to meet the coffins when Repnoy arrives in the village of Apostolove. They slide the caskets out of the van one by one. One of the dead soldiers is 47-year-old Andriy Bilay, who is from this village. His mother, 70-year-old Vira Bilay, has been waiting for him. She says there were foreign soldiers fighting for Ukraine stationed here in the village, and she took care of them.

VIRA BILAY: (Through interpreter) They didn't speak Ukrainian, but I used Google Translate, and I brought them food, borscht, pancakes, dumplings. Yeah, handmade dumplings. And I fed the foreign soldiers.

BEARDSLEY: "But no one took care of my son," she cries.

BILAY: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Bilay pulls out a large photo of Andriy from a plastic bag. He worked for the railroad. She says everyone loved him. He was furious about the invasion and was on the front lines within days. She last spoke with her son on May 7 when he called to tell her he was going on a special operation in the Donetsk Oblast. I ask if she has a message for the world.

BILAY: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "People, please don't fight. It is heartbreaking. It's very painful. Don't kill each other," she says.

BILAY: (Through interpreter) The war took my son. The war stole my son.

BEARDSLEY: On our way out of the village, we pass a World War II tank, a monument with an inscription. To the combatants of the Soviet army, it reads, liberators of the town of Apostolove February 1944 - from its grateful citizens. Night is now falling, and Russian artillery rumbles in the distance.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Apostolove, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.