Through the dust, I can see that the brake lights on a van we’re following are lit up.
Another checkpoint. As we headed towards the frontline, we had already passed six to seven checkpoints.
I was suddenly able to stand up. A group of children was manning the checkpoint. The checkpoint was not manned by young soldiers. These were actual children with what looked like guns.
As the dust settled, I was startled and began to look closer.
One boy had a Kalashnikov in his hand. It was a toy. He had a gun with him, a small black BB gun. I don’t know if I wanted tears or laughter.
It is funny on one hand, but it is tragic on the other.
We met them outside in the hot sunshine. The sounds of artillery were constantly thundering all around us.
We are less than seven miles away from Russian tanks and artillery, but the boys tell me that they are out every day between 9am and 9pm to protect their village or what remains of it after all the fighting that saw them pushed back by the Russians.
“They raped the woman in school”
Nazar, their leader, told me that they survived all of it. He boasts that he isn’t afraid anymore, with great bravado.
He is used to the fighting and the bombings, the killing and the brutality.
He told me that they raped a schoolgirl and there were many children and women hiding in basements.
They forced them out, then moved in and shone torchlights through the windows of people at night. Every day, there were cars and tanks driving back and forth.”
This quote is shocking! Nazar is ten years old.
Nazar told us that passing cars will be stopped and that drivers will need to speak two Ukrainian words (words that are difficult to pronounce in Russian) to determine whether they are able to pass.
These words are ‘Ukrazaliznitsa’ and ‘Palianitsa’. The one is a Ukrainian railway company and the other is a type Ukrainian bread.
“Next time, we won’t have so lenient”
While we talked, a car drove down the hill towards their checkpoint. Nazar flagged the car down with all the confidence of a gunslinger and posed his cunning word question.
The truth is that the Ukrainian soldiers do the exact same thing.
The driver obeys and repeats the words. Nazar moves him on.
‘It worked!’ I wept. “Of course,” Nazar replied.
I asked him if he’d ever caught one.
He said “Yes”, which was very serious. He quickly added, “A driver failed the test but we allowed him to pass.”
“Next time, we won’t have so lenient.”
This war is insane.
Hunting for dead Russian soldiers
The boys were found while searching for Russian soldiers who had died.
Vadym is a soldier in the Ukrainian army who is responsible for this unusual body hunter troop.
Maxim and Stas are also there, along with two other volunteers. They’re joined by a pair of brothers who are known for finding bodies.
Vadym and his team have so far recovered 80 Russian soldiers as well as 20 civilians. They found 16 bodies.
They remove only dead Russian soldiers from battlegrounds.
Police deal with civilian victims of crime because the place they are found is potentially a crime scene.
Vadym is aware that it’s a difficult job, but it’s important.
“It’s important for hygiene, but we also have the possibility to swap them with Ukrainian men, alive or dead.”
He explained to us that by collecting bodies, they are also gathering evidence that Russian soldiers were actually on their territory and that the Ukrainian army responded.
“He’s not going anywhere”
Vadym and his assistants begin their search in Sorokivka.
Olha, 53 years old, called to report that there was a strange smell coming from the field next to her house. She fears there may be dead bodies there.
Yurii and Volodia, the brothers, grab their spades and begin digging. We move on, but they don’t find anything.
Local residents must report suspicious behaviour or strong smells by the Russians to help them get out of their territory.
We meet a farmer from Verhnia Rohanka who believes she knows where Vadym’s team can find more bodies.
Svitlana Borisova leads us to the edge her farm and points out a hillside that the Russians used for a base.
She claims that diggers were always working there during occupation. She believes it could be a mass grave.
Vadym and his crew aren’t convinced, but they tell her that they’ll still check it out.
He turns to us and tells us that the route to Russia is mined and that it’s a constant issue for them. We must go around.
Vadym then searches the immediate vicinity – there are no bodies.
We can only see the remains of a number of armoured personnel carriers and a few boots.
One of the men grabs a sachet coffee. He says, “It’s Russian. It’s s ****,”.”
Vadym spies another Russian position in the woods just before we leave.
He is attentive to the tracks, paying attention to mines.
In the village where destruction and torture leave families broken
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Then he looks at him, the corpse of a Russian soldier. He says that there might be more.
I asked him if he’d move it tonight.
He replied, “We won’t do anything today, but we found him, and we will pick him up tomorrow, he’s not going anywhere,”
It is not over, and could return. Unabated shelling continues.
There have been many significant dates, but the date when the war ended is the most important.