A MARTINEZ, HOST:
In Ukraine, hundreds of war crimes prosecutors are visiting places that were liberated from Russian occupation. NPR correspondent Joanna Kakissis met with one of those prosecutors in a small village north of Kyiv. Her reporting on the efforts to document Russian atrocities led to the discovery of a Russian soldiers forgotten body. And we want to warn you this story includes graphic descriptions of a grim find.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Inaudible).
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The war crimes prosecutor is late. So when we arrive at the village of Moshchun, we are greeted by Stepan...
STEPAN: (Speaking Ukrainian).
KAKISSIS: ...A cheery soldier with a nose ring who is guarding the village checkpoint. So he says, "Are you here for the dead Russian, the soldier with the cookies in his hand? An old couple found him. We just saw the body."
Did he have any identification on him? Do you know who he is?
STEPAN: (Speaking Ukrainian).
KAKISSIS: "No, no identification," he says, "but his helmet and vest had something on it, like a label."
Stepan, who won't give his last name for security reasons, says he's waiting for the war crimes prosecutor and forensic team to find out more. The team soon arrives in a big van. And lawyer Pavlo Rebenko jumps out.
PAVLO REBENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).
KAKISSIS: He wears a dark-blue vest with the words war crimes prosecutor printed on the back in English. He came here because his office got worried about a couple of dead bodies. He was surprised that one was a Russian soldier.
REBENKO: (Through interpreter) We actually haven't found many Russian bodies here. We've heard Russian troops collected them and may have even put them in mobile crematoriums.
KAKISSIS: Rebenko says the military told him all the bodies here had been removed weeks ago. He's eager to find out why these corpses were overlooked. So we head out to see them.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
KAKISSIS: Along the way, we also see a village in ruins. Every home we pass in Moshchun is damaged. Posters for missing villagers are everywhere.
REBENKO: (Through interpreter) The Russians thought they would take over the Kyiv area in, like, three days. When they realized they were losing, they unleashed this carnage.
KAKISSIS: We stop at a grassy slope. And there, under a corpse of wild plum trees, lies a body, the dead Russian. He's got army-green fatigues, a lime-green belt, a navy-blue T-shirt, an army-green zip-up sweater, black gloves. He's been here for a long time because his face is decomposing.
The plum trees are flowering, and white blossoms cover his corpse, muting the smell of decomposition. As the forensic staff works, Iryna Matviyishyn, one of NPR's producers in Ukraine, explains what's going on.
IRYNA MATVIYISHYN, BYLINE: They're trying to identify how he was killed. So they're checking the wounds. And he was killed by a bullet.
KAKISSIS: You can see the bullet there.
The team finds a tag engraved with a number, a clue to the soldier's identity. Another clue is on his helmet, a code that suggests he's a paratrooper from the Russian city of Ivanovo.
MIKOLA KOSTENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).
KAKISSIS: Watching the team is local forest ranger Mikola Kostenko. He's angry that Russian soldiers killed his neighbors.
KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) I don't feel anything but revulsion. I don't care what happens to his body. The best thing it can do is enrich our soil.
(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPING UP BODY BAG)
KAKISSIS: Three soldiers zip the corpse into a body bag and lift it onto a stretcher. The rest of the team goes to a bombed-out home nearby.
OK. Holy moly. Is that a human hipbone?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yep.
KAKISSIS: There's a human skull over there. Oh, there's more here, yeah.
It's the second body. The bones are burned and scattered. The forensic team says they could also belong to a Russian. They don't know yet. Both bodies are now in local morgues. Ukrainian authorities say the corpses of thousands of Russian soldiers are piling up in morgues and trains around the country. They say Russia won't take them back.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPOKESMAN: (Speaking Russian).
KAKISSIS: In Russia, the government rarely acknowledges its own war dead. That leaves relatives facing a shroud of secrecy.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: (Speaking Russian).
KAKISSIS: My colleague in Moscow, Charles Maynes, spoke with Valentina Melnikova, executive secretary of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. She tries to help families find soldiers who are missing in action, often with help from Ukrainians who send photographic evidence.
VALENTINA MELNIKOVA: (Speaking Russian).
KAKISSIS: Melnikova says that when she's presented information on missing soldiers, including photos of the deceased and their tags to the Russian military, the officers often dismiss the information as fake. She says she does not believe the military wants to know the truth. Proper, obviously.
MELNIKOVA: (Through interpreter) To be missing in action is nearly impossible because everyone knows where everyone is fighting. Every unit, every military vehicle is fixed by GPS. Finding them shouldn't even be a problem.
KAKISSIS: Back in Ukraine, in the village of Moshchun, we meet the elderly couple who first found the Russian soldier's body.
KAKISSIS: Retired engineers Yuriy Tostopalov and Natalya Tostopalova are outside their shattered house with their two dogs.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
YURIY TOSTOPALOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).
KAKISSIS: We introduce ourselves. And Yuriy says, "Yes, yes, it was me and my wife who called about the soldier. But we actually first saw him back in March when our village was under siege."
TOSTOPALOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).
KAKISSIS: Yuriy says that when they first saw him, he had not been that long. He had a boyish face and blood on his neck, and he was holding some cookies. He was missing his firearm.
TOSTOPALOV: (Through interpreter) We were scared, so we didn't touch him or come too close. He was just lying there.
KAKISSIS: Yuriy wonders if the soldier was brainwashed by his government into fighting this unjust war and says he even feels sympathy for him, forgotten so far from home.
TOSTOPALOV: (Through interpreter) The soldier was young, and he has a mother out there. We feel sorry about that. But what's the point?
KAKISSIS: "We have our own soldiers to mourn," he says. "And every day, there are more."
Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Moshchun, Ukraine.
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