by Miceál O’Hurley
STUDENOK — In June 2022, amidst the heavy combat in the Izium Raion, Studenok had been an epicenter of heavy fighting in Ukraine’s drive to liberate settlements in Eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk. After one particularly ferocious day of fighting the villagers emerged from their cellars to bury the bodies of the dead. One such act to hide Ukrainian dead from the horror of post-mortem defilement too often inflicted by Russian forces included a hasty burial of a young Ukrainian warrior. Anxious to return to their homes they dug a shallow, makeshift grave in a wood line bordering the village and placed the Ukrainian fighter inside taking note of what they might remember of him. It was the least they could do. He had given his life attempting to liberate them from the nightmarish period endured under Russian occupation.
The fighting would rage-on for another two months as part of a master-plan executed by Ukrainian ground forces to recover occupied territories. On the contact line they would encounter intense resistance by Russian forces. Liberating settlements would not be an easy task. Never-the-less, Ukrainian forces would sweep along the entire 427-kilometer contact line in an orchestrated push to regain massive amounts of Ukrainian territory. By the end of September some 1,887 Ukrainian settlements had been freed of Russian occupation. But on that June day the point of liberation was far from certain.
On this sweltering June day Ukrainian Ground Forces and National Guard in Studenok faced Wagner mercenaries–a special forces unit famed for their brutality. The unit was raised by Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, an FBI-wanted Russian oligarch known as ‘Putin’s Chef’ because of his company’s catering contracts with the Kremlin and Russian military. Their re-branding as the Liga Company in Ukraine did nothing to disassociate Wagner or Prigozhin from their myriad war crimes in Syria, the Central African Republic, Mali and elsewhere. Proclaimed ‘Heroes of Russia’ the Wagner are designated as a terrorist organisaiton by Estonia and the EU is believed to soon formally adopt that same conclusion.
Wagner activities in Ukraine are voluminously documented and are replete with accusations of included rape (including of children as young as 6-years and elderly women in their 80s), the targeting of civilians, torture and summary executions. In a display of grotesque irony given Russia’s claim they came to Ukraine to free the people from ‘Nazis’, the Wagner mimic if not emulate the conduct of German SS units in World War II. Russian Wagner mercenaries have proven themselves to Ukrainians and the world what the Einsatzgruppen were in World War II–indiscriminate butchers with a penchant for sadism.
As summer came to a close and Ukrainian forces had routed Russian forces from the region a Ukrainian police presence returned in September. Studenok villagers immediately began to make reports to Ukrainian officials about the bodies they had hastily buried in shallow graves all over the village. In households across Ukraine families whom hoped to determine if their missing women and men in uniform were captives of the Russian Federation or amongst the dead their journey would prove a long and difficult ordeal. This is yet another ugly reality of war–uncertainty.
The process of identifying war dead is most often a long and drawn-out ordeal. It begins with witness statements by Ukrainian soldiers giving an account of where and when they last saw a comrade now designated as “missing in action”. Statements are collected from the local police including information given by civilians made since the liberation of their community. Follow-up interviews take place by investigators to elicit further information such as recollections of any distinctive clothing, physical features, locations of wounds, equipment worn, uniform markings and other identifying features that might be recalled by those who buried the bodies.
Efforts are made by field investigators to geo-locate the plethora of invariably shallow graves. Then the painstaking exercise of cross-referencing the voluminous information gathered is undertaken. Once located, graves are then meticulously exhumed. As opposed to Russian forces who have demonstrated an alacrity for using vehicles to evacuate stolen appliances, toilets, sinks and stolen personal belongings from civilian homes all while leaving their Russian comrades dead on the battlefield, Ukraine is committed to ensuring each and every patriot that gave their lives for Ukraine’s defense and Europe’s security has their remains returned to their families for proper burial and honours. This is only one of the many and stark differences between the display of humanity, or lack thereof, between Ukrainians and the Russian invaders.
For one such Ukrainian widow, a combat medic by the name Viktoria Piskunova, the process of determining the fate of her husband Oleksandr Piskonov had to be deferred until the fighting stopped. This was not only because of the necessity of the investigation but because Viktoria serves as a combat medic in the Ukrainian National Guard in the Northern Union. Throughout this period she had seen her share of the horrors of war rescuing and providing medical care to the battlefield wounded. When news reached her in June that Oleksandr was listed as ‘missing’ she shuttered. Yet there would be no time for Viktoria to properly grieve. The wounded continued to mount throughout the summer liberation campaign and she did her duty with remarkable resolve and courage. All this while suffering the unknown fate of her beloved husband.
After Ukraine repelled Russian forces in September and this vast region of of newly liberated settlements in Donbas began to stabilise the long and harrowing search for her husband Oleksandr commenced in earnest. Guided by a National Guard investigator, Boris Pysarchuk, whom prior to the war had been a staff prosecutor with the office of the Chief Prosecutor of Ukraine, a formal investigation was opened into Oleksandr’s case. Boris and his colleagues meticulously screened all available information in the hopes of finding any definitive information about Oleksandr’s whereabouts and status.
Finally, after months of scouring records some promising information came to fore. There was a lead about a body buried by villagers in a shallow grave on the edge of a wood line at Studenok where Oleksandr was last seen. From the assembled statements a singular clue emerged that might provide positive identification–one of the villages that hastily buried this particular body recalled a distinctive hat worn by the soldier. His uniform was plain green such as those worn by the National Guard. These indicators were distinctive enough to match the description given by Viktoria about the hat and uniform worn by her husband. But a ubiquitous hat and uniform are not enough to make a positive identification. An exhumation of the remains would be necessary. Be these remains Oleksandr’s or those of another soldier that gave his or her life in the cause of Ukraine’s freedom and independence the truth will out.
Viktoria Piskunova had always steeled herself for the possibility that her husband was dead. In such situations the calculus was that it is the most probable outcome. His name had not appeared on any of the lists of captives held by Russia. Still, every spouse, mother, daughter, father, son and loved one holds out hope their case will result in a determination of Russian detention–however slim those odds may be. Cognisant of the heavy burden we assembled along with grave recovery specialists, police, investigators and comrades from the National Guard. We made our way to the edge of the forest in Studenok. Our foray was not without its risks as the area remained heavily mined with a mixed field of anti-armour and anti-personnel mines. Months after the fighting in the area had ceased the land remained lethal because of the remnants of war. Ukraine estimates that some thirty-percent of its territory is impacted by mines and unexploded ordnance. In the near distance we could hear the distinctive rat-a-tat-tat of a ZSU-23 twin-barreled, anti-aircraft gun and feel the percussion of artillery fire. Nobody flinched at such proximity to the seemingly never-ending machinery of death introduced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is commonplace in Donbas where the brutal fight for Bakhmut continues.
Viktoria stood stoically with us as the exhumation of the grave began.
In the rush to hide the body from Russian invaders and return to the relative safety of their cellars there was no time in June for villagers to dig deep. Over the 6-months that had elapsed the rains and nascent snows had worn away much of what soil once covered the shallow grave. Erosion had laid bare some of the decaying corpse. A femur partially protruded from the ground. The remnants of what had once been a green combat uniform of the Ukrainian National Guard clung to the bone. Photographs were taken to capture that moment in time in which we encountered the site as part of a meticulously documented investigation. Nothing more could be gained from an examination of the surface. The digging slowly began.
At -15c a heavy metal bar was required to pierce the ground made hard by the region’s now constant sub-zero temperatures. With each spade of soil turned it was combed for body fragments, the remnants of uniform, residue of paper or anything else that might help identify the remains. A boonie cap, such as the distinctive one worn by Oleksandr immediately emerged from the soil. Next a Комбоскіні (Orthodox Christian prayer beads) was removed from the soil. Each were strong indicators the remains could be those of Oleksandr resulting in Viktoria finally be able to lay her husband’s body to rest. According to Ukraine’s Minister for Defense, Oleksii Reznikov, “We have approximately 700,000 in the armed forces and when you add the national guard, police, border guard, we are around a million-strong [under arms]”. With so many women and men in uniform such universal items would prove insufficient for a responsible, positive identification. The digging would have to continue.
Soon, what remained of the lower extremities was exhumed. Slowly the team brushed away the soil and pried off the ice to carefully expose what had once been pockets. Each was carefully opened and the contents carefully removed and after cursory examination placed inside of a body bag for later and more thorough examination. There were some more positive clues to identify the body in general yet nothing specific to Oleksandr. The digging would continue.
For the grave diggers the task has become commonplace yet never mundane. The juxtaposition of seeing an athletically build man powerfully trust a steel bar into the frozen Earth while simultaneously being careful and respectful of the remains is a remarkable thing to witness. They have become hardened after the abundance of work they have undertaken since February 24th and yet the telltale signs of sympathy and pain are borne in the lines of their face, their eyes and their pursed lips. Despite all they show remarkable care and concern for the corpse. How deftly they go about their gruesome work with an uncommon decorum betrays that they take such care as a matter of routine in all of their work and not just because they are being watched by one who might be a widow. Surprisingly, their intimacy with death and the fleeting nature of the human condition has not deprived them of their humanity. Defying all odds, even in the face of horror, these Ukrainians maintain their sense of decency and in so confront the brutal ugliness of war with the beauty of human compassion.
Piece by piece fragments of the soldier’s remains were placed inside a black body bag. It is with a sense of wonder and awe to witness how little is left of the human body after so many months. Finding every fragment was vital not only to the investigation and identification but to demonstrate respect for this fallen warrior. Eventually the torso began to protrude. What remained was tenuously held together by the equipment carrier. Its markings could have made it that of any carrier worn by soldiers. The digging would have to continue.
Soon, the torso was fully released from the frozen soil enshrouded by the carrier. The name marked in the collar tag of the clothing proved too worn and faded to be read. It might have been another indicator of the remains possible identity but time had robbed us of any clarity of the writing. There was the distinctive boonie hat, prayer beads and other indicators that conformed to articles known to be worn by Oleksandr. But even collectively these were indiscriminate in nature. With half of the remains now exposed it was anyone’s guess if a positive identification might be reached in the field.
Then, as quickly as doubt arose the definitive moment came. Akin to the lifting a veil any and all doubt was removed in a flash of a moment. Whatever hope Viktoria might have secretly nurtured for Oleksandr’s survival dissipated. After the grave diggers conferred with Viktoria no further doubt remained. The gravedigger reached inside the torso and removed a bone. It was a clavicle that carried the telltale signs of a once badly broken bone having been mended long ago by surgical hardware. As if out of a scene from Hamlet, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him…” might have been proclaimed as though the line about human fragility was written for this very moment. It was Oleksandr.
Viktoria’s head sunk low, her lip quivered and a tear welled-up in the corner of her eye. This hardened combat medic, a widow, no longer stoic, stood looking on to the remains of the husband she once held. These were the remains of one whose lips she often so tenderly kissed and whose life she had so happily shared. She stood with an inherent dignity few could muster. In the same-said-moment her mix of sorrow, release, strength, defeat, longing and love shown from her face in equal measure. Her very essence evoked the very image of the quiet and dignified face of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Viktoria’s person transcended the sorrow of the moment while unconsciously serving as a clarion call inviting those of us present to recommit ourselves to all that is good about humanity, love and freedom and therefore Ukraine’s deliverance from its evil invaders.
Having experienced years of war myself I could not help but think she was simultaneously more courageous and graceful than anyone I have ever witnessed. Viktoria stood as the embodiment of Ukraine herself at that moment–fragile and wounded yet determined and ultimately triumphant even in the midst of pain.
The excavation of a corpse from the battlefield is always a difficult experience, no matter how many times I have seen it. One cannot help but think of the frailty of the human experience when bones and fragments of flesh are laid bare before you in all of their horror of decay. And yet, the experience evokes tender thoughts of how those fragile remains were once those of a child bouncing on his mother’s lap, carried high on the shoulders of his father, who played and sang with other children, grew in stature and wisdom and found true love in the arms of a kindred spirit and devoted himself to her in marriage. Oleksandr’s grave drew not our pity, but our marvel and resolve to bring this war to an end to save others from this sad experience. In the fleeting flesh of a mere mortal Oleksandr experienced the love of a remarkable woman, nurtured a devotion to his nation’s freedom and liberty, fought for the security of Europe and the preservation of Western civilisation and in so doing gave his last full measure of sacrifice.
For Viktoria, the uncertainty of her beloved husband’s status has been resolved. He will be returned to her for burial. His comrades will gather to carry his casket high as the onlookers take a low bow as a sign of enduring respect for both his and her sacrifice. This is the way of war.
To give this sacrifice meaning it is incumbent upon us, the living, to ensure that Oleksandr and Viktoria’s sacrifices are made worthy. Such sacrifice will prove to have been in vain if it were not for the belief that in the chest of every human woman and man a heart beats for the causes of inseparable values of love, freedom, democracy, security, liberty and humanity.
Each and every instance of mortal sacrifice by Ukrainians must compel all of us in the West to ask if it is not time to remove the self-imposed restrictions we placed upon aid in the hopes of limiting the bloodshed Russia has unleashed. There is more than ample evidence that by modifying weapons systems to reduce their range and often accuracy the West has deprived Ukraine of the decisive instruments of defense necessary to bring the war to a conclusion. The provision of antiquated weapons systems such as Italy’s donation of the Mod63 120mm mortar complete with optical and aiming systems dating to 1947 has also hamstringed Ukraine’s ability to prosecute the war to a decisive conclusion. In the meanwhile, Russia has demonstrated its willingness to escalate the war, risk domestic disturbance by instituting a draft of new recruits and shown a willingness to nearly deplete its stockpile of advanced armour, missiles and weapons systems while it simultaneously re-arms. Yes, the West can and should be praised for attempting to come to Ukraine’s aid. In essence, however, the sacrifices made daily by Ukrainians like Viktoria and Oleksandr and the flower of Ukraine’s youth put the half-measure commitments of the West to shame.
Ukraine must and I believe will prevail against the onslaught of despotism, war and death visited by Russia upon this once peaceful and tranquil land. The question remains, ‘At what cost‘? It is easy, too easy, in the discourse of this war to speak of it in oblique terms such as ‘Us against them’, ‘Good against evil’, ‘Ukraine against Russia’, ‘West versus the East.’ These overly simplistic mediums of classification serve to disassociate us from the personal price and sacrifice being made by so many Ukrainians. In so doing the West has emotionally distanced ourselves from the horrors of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Western security and civilisation. We must be willing to admit that our propensity to sanitise the war for popular consumption is actually causing us to undermine the necessary commitment to bring about a victory quickly and at the lowest price. We owe it to Ukraine and ourselves to be candidly honest about the human cost Russia is exacting by waging this cruel and unjust war.
If Oleksandr’s grave and Viktoria’s dignity reminded me of anything is that war is at its core an act of extreme violence contrary to human existence. War strikes at the core of human civilisation and challenges our sense of hope for the future of humanity. War is intrinsically personal. We must not lull ourselves into believing it is anything short of abject horror and waste-organised murder on a massive scale. We cannot divorce ourselves from sharing in the suffering of individuals by recourse to the disassociated language of Statehood, nation, budgets or material. Wars are fought and won by soldiers–human beings–who fight and far too often die for their cause, our common cause, to make humanity safe from tyranny. Any other conclusion or aversion from this truth would be disingenuous.
Russia has long-since and repeatedly-proven they have abandoned the very idea that diplomacy at its core is the art and craft of the restrained use of power. Russia has turned its black heart and ambitions to the waging of a wanton, brutal and un-provoked warfare to satisfy its ambitions of Empire. All talk of diplomacy to resolve the conflict at this juncture is misplaced. As long as Russia refuses to be guided by international law, human decency and maintains a fleeting-at-best association with the truth dialogue will not produce a durably satisfactory result. In the West’s post-World War II haste and desire to believe we have as a species embraced the “better angels of our being” to enjoy a Europe freed of tyranny and despotism we have conveniently chosen to forget the lessons of history. Even in the waning days of the war in Europe in 1945 the Allies collectively declined to negotiate with the likes of Himler, Goering or Donitz. They knew that one cannot negotiate with a terrorist lest one commits itself to repeating the process ad nauseum while inviting other terrorists (large and small), to engage in such acts as a substitute for responsible Statecraft. Dialogue for self-benefit cannot become the reward for waging cruel war. If we resolve that this is an existential battle (it is) and acknowledge that if Russia stopped fighting the war would end and yet if Ukraine stopped fighting Ukraine would end then the only conclusion is the war must be won, won decisively and with hast. The West’s self-imposed restraint on weapons systems defies those goals.
Russia’s conduct on the battlefield, replete with the most vile of war crimes including the rape of children and the elderly, torture and summary execution gives us good reason to realise the perpetrators of these crimes are not candidates for rational negotiations or abiding any terms of settlement. In the past 22-years Russia has shown little commitment to the durability of its commitments on the world stage. Last week’s demand by Putin that a predicate to negotiating an end to their war on Ukraine was the legal recognition of their blatantly illegal annexations in Ukraine demonstrates the utter worthlessness of believing negotiations could produce results worth having. Those still living since World War II bare personal witness to what reasonable people and responsible powers knew only too well then-they could not negotiate with Axis powers who refused to abide by international law and commit themselves to peace. The only option then was their total elimination from the Europe they occupied and refused to relinquish through international norms of conduct and law. So too must the West now resolve that the concept of negotiating with Russia while it occupies even a square meter of Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders (not to mention Georgia and Moldova) is reckless and sets a poor precedent for world affairs.
It is incumbent upon the West to recommit itself to the lessons of history and help Ukraine expeditiously prosecute the war to entirely liberate their sovereign State from Russian occupation. We in the West must share in the appreciation for the personal cost of war with those sacrificing on the front lines, like Oleksandr and Viktoria. We must finally, truly and utterly commit ourselves to supply Ukraine with any and all weapons available to allow them to win this war, not through harrowing attrition, but in a manner befitting the bravery displayed by Ukrainian women and men fighting for freedom and security as well as the skill and expertise demonstrated by the General Staff in inflicting crushing losses upon what was not too long ago considered one of the 3-most powerful armies on the face of the Earth. Such nobility compels us to act responsibly and without unnecessary reserve.
An American General, George S. Patton, once said, “Say what you mean and mean what you say”. If the West is as committed to Ukraine’s freedom and independence as it proclaims and believes its future rests at the heart of Europe by the restoration of its internationally recognised borders it is incumbent upon all Western powers to match such rhetoric with tangible action. This must include the most advanced weapons systems being supplied to Ukraine for its defense and security. All this must be done with a sense of renewed urgency and unrestrained commitment to win. The West’s benevolent but misguided desire to restrain Ukraine’s military capabilities has only produced a slow attrition of the flower of Ukraine’s youth. Such tarry by the West only feeds into the brutality of war and will prove an enduring regret of the West unless it is remedied now. It is high time to act decisively without reserve and see Ukraine freed as quickly as possible. Restraining Ukraine’s use of force only serves to engender Russian ambitions to linger and thereby consume lives and extend suffer because of ill-conceived half-measures that allow policy makers and diplomats feel noble because of demonstrated restrain even if the evidence is that it needlessly allows the evil that is Russia’s war on Ukraine to continue.