“The military man understands: he may end up in this car body, in a bag, and I will bring him home to his mother”
4 July, 2022
Oleh, the volunteer who delivers the bodies of the dead, next to his vehicle Photo: Myroslava Iltyo / hromadske

Heroes die. Their mutilated bodies lie in black bags. Fourteen soldiers who fell for Ukraine are sent off on their final journey home in the back of a car marked “Cargo 200”. The sweet smell of death goes deep into my mind, but I don’t feel any disgust.

The driver closes the car body. We get in the car, the sun rises over the Dnipro river. Oleh hits the gas saying “Heroes are no longer in a hurry, but their relatives are in a hurry to bury them. And I have to help them”.

We are leaving Dnipro — it is the place where the bodies of the dead from the frontline zone are brought. From here they are taken to the places all over Ukraine. There are two morgues in the city: the Mechnykov Hospital morgue and the Department of Novokodatsky district of the Dnipro Regional Bureau of Forensic Medical Examination.

“Sometimes more bodies arrive per night than we can physically take from here”, the man says.

Олег у своїй автівці

Oleh in his vehicle

Photo: Myroslava Iltyo / hromadske

Before, I transported greengrocery to restaurants by car with a refrigerator, now — it’s the bodies of those who fell in battle 

Oleh is 54 years old and he has more than 30 years of driving experience. The man lived abroad and had his own business, and when a full-scale war began — he asked to be a partner to a more experienced transporter of the dead — Oleksandr with the call sign “Bulldozer”. 

Oleksandr has been transporting the bodies of the victims since 2016. And then he signed a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine and began official service evacuating the “Cargo 200”. In 2020, he left the army and got a civilian job. After February 24, he asked the owner of the company for a refrigerated vehicle, which he used to transport greengrocery to restaurants, and from February 27 he started transporting the dead again. At first, we were driving together, but for the last several months Oleh has been operating alone as part of the AFU project “Evacuation of cargo 200”.

“For the relatives, every hour of waiting lasts forever”

The process of getting the bodies is very long. Each driver gives the paramedics a list of numbers that are used to mark the dead. 

This time, Oleh registered 19 bodies. We are going to transport fourteen heroes, another crew takes five more in a westerly direction. It takes about 20-30 minutes to issue documents and enter each fighter into the Register. You need to make a separate inventory of personal belongings. 

“The death certificate and the certificate of cause of death should be written without errors, so that the numbers and diagnosis match, because they will serve as the basis for the registry office for issuing a stamped death certificate which the relatives will use to receive compensation. You need to be vigilant to avoid troubles for anyone later!”, explains Oleh. It took him more than five hours to get 19 packages of documents. 

“Sometimes you need to find out the serial number at the registry office, if it is not specified. Sometimes, there are no documents — a soldier without anything, then I call the military commissars and ask to send copies of the documents he had when there was a call or mobilization. Place of death, date of death, place where they are being taken to be buried. Sometimes I arrive at the morgue at eight in the morning and leave at eleven in the evening. Then there are two options: either rest before the road for a few hours, or go right away if someone has a funeral planned, and take a nap in the afternoon somewhere. If the funeral is not planned, then I park the car with the bodies right in the yard, there is video surveillance there. Unfortunately, I have to spend at least a few hours sleeping, so I can’t always speed up my meeting with the family. Everyone wants to bury them as soon as possible, but sometimes, due to the route, a body can stay in the back for more than 24 hours waiting until I give away all the others along the route. Every hour of waiting lasts forever for relatives”, the man says.

Олег зі списками загиблих та документами

Oleh with lists of victims and documents

Photo: Myroslava Iltyo / hromadske

“I transport the most precious thing for the loved ones — some time to spend with the deceased”

All the bodies are in bags, mostly black ones, some are in white bags. The driver explains: the country was not ready to such colossal losses, there were not enough bags and a certain amount was provided by the Red Cross. Their bags are of better quality and have handles.

“When you take out a slippery bag from the refrigerator, there is simply nothing to pull it by, because you work in rubber gloves, slippery cellophane without handles slips out, sometimes it breaks, and then you need another bag, because the body just falls out. Many of them are badly decayed — after all, a body that has lain in the sun for at least a day during active hostilities begins to actively decompose”, says Oleh.

If Oleh has a partner, they load the bodies into the back according to the order of delivery on the route, so that the upper ones can be given away first without shifting the rest. However, this is not always the case.

“If we took some bodies in one morgue, quickly laid them out, and then, they added some more, the last ones are put randomly, just to leave quickly”, he shares. He sighs and adds: “I transport the most precious thing for the loved ones — some time to spend with the deceased”.

Oleh was taking bodies from the morgue in Lozova once. The widow of the deceased asked to sit next to the body of her loved one in the back. “The least I could do to help was give her that time. Because every body is someone’s universe”, the man says.

“God willing, there is a hand there,” the morgue orderly whispers, opening the bag

We arrive at the Kharkiv morgue: we must give away the body of one deceased person here. “This whole yard was filled with corpses lying on top of each other, says Oleh. It was hell here”.

In the yard, a man holds a woman in a black headscarf by the shoulders. Their hell is still ahead — they have to identify the body of a relative. It takes some time to find a black package with the corresponding number. The orderly warns relatives that the deceased was not immediately taken away from the battlefield, and specifies what special sign to look for on the body.

“The nails on his left hand, two of them are flattened, he hit them hard with a hammer apparently — and they remained flat” the man says.

One could notice that he feels bad because of the smells, but he holds on.

“God willing, there is a hand there” the morgue orderly whispers, opening the bag.

After a few seconds, he asks to come closer to identify the body: he takes out the hand, the man replies: Yes, these are his own fingers. The identified hero is loaded on a gurney, and Oleh loads several bodies that had to be taken out to get to the body, back in the cabin. The man who received the body is squatting, covering his face with his hands. 

“You do your job calmly. When people are chaotic, when they feel emotional — do not add to their state with your similar state. Just stay calm. Comforting words can also be annoying, and sometimes a sympathetic look is enough not to stir up more emotions in those who have to cope with the loss.” Oleh tells me as we leave the morgue yard.

Oleh and an orderly unload bodies near the Kharkiv morgue

Photo: Myroslava Iltyo / hromadske

When the military help with bodies, they can experience a lot of stress

In several subsequent morgues, there were no relatives — the orderlies and representatives of the military unit received the bodies.

“We don’t want relatives seeing a dirty car with a body, so that parents see that their child is treated with dignity and respect. They don’t think about it, but subconsciously they are more pleased when the white car is clean and not dirty and doesn’t smell. Not all car washes allow us to wash the car. They never allow to wash the car body, we wash it ourselves. Yes, and getting a body when it is not the only one there is still a challenge, relatives are horrified by the extent of pain that Russia has brought us”, Oleh says.

And he adds: “When the military helps to unload bodies, many of them experience severe stress. Somewhere in the subconscious, the fighter understands that at any moment he can also be in this car back, in a bag, and I will also bring him home to his mother. 

I had a dream about bags of corpses once, but it wasn’t a nightmare, it wasn’t a bad dream. I just saw the continuation of work, only because that’s the only thing I see during the day”.

Тіло загиблого в морзі

Body of the deceased in the morgue

Photo: Myroslava Iltyo / hromadske

The son puts on rubber gloves and helps Oleh load his father’s body

Oleh’s phone won’t stop ringing the whole time: he gets calls from military units, from relatives of the victims. We are heading to Zolotonosha, Cherkasy region. Relatives of one of the dead soldiers cannot wait and tell that they will meet us halfway. Oleh agrees. We transfer the body a little further from the gas station — so as not to shock motorists and random travelers.

The seats are removed, the trunk is covered with a blanket in an ordinary passenger car. My grandmother had the same thing in the village, it’s too emotional a moment. All three men are military: these are the brothers of the deceased and his son. The son doesn’t look more than twenty years old.

The young man puts on rubber gloves and helps Oleh load his father’s body. Already in his car, he opens the package again and just looks at the lifeless body for a while: it seems that only witnesses prevent him from rushing to embrace his father.

“This fighter will be sent off on the final journey today, and those who are in our back still need to ride a little”, says Oleh and starts the car. 

Sometimes you have to sleep on the side of the road in the car with bodies

On the way to the next morgue, we damaged a wheel, so we’re going to a tire repair shop.

“A human can handle it, but the car fails more often. On average, a car runs 20 thousand kilometers per month. That’s a lot, really a lot. They change the oil twice a month, it costs about 5 thousand, and there are three cars. They need 30 thousand a month”, says Oleh. 

For more than a hundred days, three cars organized by Oleksandr with the call sign “Bulldozer” transported 400 dead. A total of 15 tons of fuel were burned — you have to search for it and pay for it through personal connections. Drivers of “Cargo 200” never accept anything from the relatives of the victims.

“They have already paid very dearly,” says Oleh. 

Oleh’s longest trip is 1,300 km per 24 hours. If the distance to the nearest city is big, you just have to sleep on the side of the road in the car with bodies. Under the passenger seat there is coffee and a gas burner. Oleh almost never buys coffee at gas stations, and a lunch in a cafe is out of the question. 

After the tire repair, I insist that we should have a snack, Oleh laughs, takes out a bottle of mineral water, says that this can be enough. 

“But you should have time to eat”, I insist. 

“And did they, — he nods skeptically at the car body,— did they have a normal lunch? Did they eat on schedule?”

Олег вивантажує мішки з загиблими зі своєї автівки

Oleh unloads bags of dead people from his car

Photo: Myroslava Iltyo / hromadske

“Before going to the front, Maksym bought a motorcycle. He didn’t even have time to smell the diesel”

We travel hundreds of kilometers with our windows wide open. Oleh calls this smell, which accompanies us all the way, the sweet smell of death. 

I got used to it so much that it doesn’t even bother me when eating sandwiches: Oleh finally agrees to have a snack, but he won’t leave the steering wheel. 

Meanwhile, the phone is blowing up. They ask about the deceased, that we are taking to Bucha. This is a colonel of the General Staff, the funeral is scheduled for the next day. One could notice Oleh being nervous: there is a body of another defender in the back, who should also be buried tomorrow morning. We give away the body in Bucha, and Oleh decides to sleep for three and a half hours. And then we will go from Kyiv to Romny, in the Sumy region.

We arrive in Romny at nine in the morning. The father comes out to meet us and go with us to the morgue.

“Was there a trident around his neck? And the samurai cat on the leg?”, the man asks through tears. The military commissar goes as far away as possible — the smell is unbearable — and lights a cigarette. Oleh tries to get the body out of the car, and his father rushes to help. His deceased Hero was 19 years old. 

“Before going to the front, Maksym bought a motorcycle. He didn’t even have time to smell the diesel”, he says. The man takes out documents and watches from the bag with belongings. He looks at the dial for a long time and sighs: “He didn’t even wear the gift for three days”.

Oleh’s vehicle near the morgue in Bucha

Photo: Myroslava Iltyo / hromadske

It happens that in the morgue they hand over a bag — some part of the arm and leg that they managed to collect after the explosion in the dugout. 

There are four bodies left in the back. We are going to the morgues of Nizhyn, Chernihiv and Kyiv.

“Marilyn Manson at full volume keeps me awake when I’m driving and feel sleepy. I can put on classical music in the morning”, Oleh shares the secrets of endurance and continues to talk about his work:

“The worst thing for relatives is a closed coffin. When mothers see a closed coffin, the first reaction is that it’s not him inside. But you can’t open it. Sometimes a representative of the unit comes in, takes a photo of the tattoo and takes it out to the mother. The worst picture is black burn wounds from phosphorous bombs. How can I show them to their mothers? It happens that in the morgue they hand over a bag — some part of the arm or leg that they managed to collect after the explosion in the dugout. We put it in a large sanitary bag and in a coffin. Otherwise it is impossible for the family to handle it”

“How do you handle it?”, I ask.

“My partner should have three main characteristics: a stable psyche, the ability to drive a car well and the ability to live like a beggar, because this activity is not paid. I can drive on my own, so there aren’t many such people, but someone has to do it. So why not me?”, says Oleh.

Outside the morgue in Chernihiv

Photo: Myroslava Iltyo / hromadske

“We will not exhume until there is a stamped death certificate”

We say goodbye in the capital’s morgue. Two days, 1,800 kilometers, and one long conversation about the hard work of the “Evacuation of cargo 200” volunteer. We make an appointment for the next meeting, but on the same day I receive a text message from Oleh: “You haven’t seen another aspect of our work: sometimes you have to exhume bodies and transport them for further reburial. Tomorrow at the Krasnopilsky cemetery”. This is a cemetery in Dnipro. I buy a ticket for the night train, and the very next morning we meet with Oleh again and a representative of the brigade in which the deceased served. We’re going to the cemetery.

The man who is to be exhumed, has been laying in the morgue for a month unidentified. He was buried in the alley of the Krasnopilsky cemetery along with dozens of unidentified fighters, but as soon as the DNA matched, it became possible to bury the Hero at home. However, employees of the utility company unexpectedly refused to carry out the exhumation: they explained that this required a death certificate. 

“Our brigade has already exhumed seven bodies, there was no stamped death certificate, but everyone is already used to it, used to the war. This is their job, income, but at the same time — grief for their relatives, for a woman who is still waiting and can not bury her husband”, says the representative of the brigade. The widow has to tell you by phone that the process is being delayed due to bureaucracy.

From the cemetery we go straight to the morgue. I meet Oleksandr there (aka the famous “Bulldozer”). The man just took another car for evacuation from Ternopil and is now getting on the road. This time, he takes ten bodies of dead defenders. Oleh takes thirteen.

/ Author: Myroslava Iltyo