The transporter. A Russian officer recounts the harrowing experience of delivering KIA soldiers’ bodies to their families
Никита Сологуб
The transporter. A Russian officer recounts the harrowing experience of delivering KIA soldiers’ bodies to their families
6 March 2024, 10:40

Art: Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

What it’s like: to bring coffins with bodies of dead soldiers to their mothers and widows? A Russian officer shares a poignant account of his three-month mission in Zabaikalsky krai, a remote area in the Russian Far East bordering Mongolia and China, amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine. Tasked with escorting the remains of the soldiers, he saw things he now would very much like to forget.

Heavy lifting. From the morgue to the final destination

I’m a military psychologist by training. So it happened, that my duty involved escorting “Cargo 200”, the remains of soldiers, in Zabaykalsky krai. Ideally, only those with specific training, like myself, are supposed to be assigned to these escorts, but in practice, it’s done by everyone and anyone. This, of course, happens because of personnel shortages. I got into it by accident: they didn’t know what to do with me after I refused to obey orders.

Funerals, unfortunately, are often poorly managed. The deceased are accompanied by people lacking the appropriate training. More often than not, these are regular soldiers, and less frequently, officers who are randomly assigned. When I was selected, I was relieved: better me than someone clueless about what to say to a grieving mother burying her son.

Such escort missions are straightforward. The 522nd Identification Centre, located in a morgue within a military hospital in Rostov-on-Don, serves as a sorting hub or a kind for those killed in Ukraine, preparing them for further dispatch across the country. Representatives from all military units involved in the war work here. Their job is pure hell—identifying and preparing the dispatch of all soldiers from their unit. Upon a fallen soldier’s arrival and identification, a call is placed to their military unit, and an escort is assigned. The escort, chosen from available officers and contract soldiers (if you’re available, you go), then travels to Rostov-on-Don, collects the deceased soldier’s body, their personal belongings to be returned to the family, burial documents, and the Order of Courage, and waits for a flight to be arranged. After receiving a briefing from the centre’s chief, they load the bodies onto an Il-76 airlifter and fly to the destination city. The briefing does not cover how to interact with the relatives of the dead.

Upon arrival at the regional centre, local military draft office commanders assist with organising transport to the deceased’s hometown. The escort must hand over the body to the family and stay with them until the burial is concluded, after which they collect the necessary documents for processing payments and return to their unit.

Flights from Rostov depart almost daily, with delays only due to technical issues or the centre’s high workload. On my flight, the plane was packed—80 wooden boxes, each containing a zinc, a coffin, and about 60 escorts. Normally, a plane serves major cities over several days, with its last stop usually being Vladivostok, but on my flight, there were soldiers being taken as far as Sakhalin island in the Pacific. Initially, each deceased was accompanied by an individual escort, but due to personnel shortages and mounting losses, one person now escorts multiple deceased from a major city or military unit. Upon arrival in, say, Chita, local escorts collect a coffin and take it to its burial site. Thus, it’s no longer necessary to fly to Rostov each time; regional travel suffices.

Art: Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

The identification centre in the Rostov-on-Don hospital presents a horrifying sight. Foremost, it’s the incomparable smell. Despite visiting in winter, it’s unforgettable. One can only imagine it in summer. Second, the treatment of the soldiers’ bodies leaves a mark. Bodies just lie on the ground in large hangars for identification and sorting. Entering one, I saw rows of the fallen, including a head separated from its body. The distorted expression on the face of that head is a sight I’ll never forget. Proper storage and temperature control are lacking, understandably given the influx of the deceased, overwhelming the hospitals’ morgue resources. When I approached the fallen from our unit, I observed as soldiers, even conscripts, were dressing the bodies in military uniforms, applying makeup to make their faces less ghastly through the zinc coffin window, sealing them, placing them in wooden boxes, labeling them, and preparing them for transport.

This mission is essentially the heavy lifting of a common loader. From the Rostov morgue to the final destination, I was constantly lifting and moving coffins. First from the morgue to a Kamaz truck, then onto the plane, at each stop during unloading, and finally, in their hometown. Rank and position are irrelevant. Officer or soldier, it’s all the same—you must do this work.

Never pull the mother away from the coffin. Meeting the relatives

Direct interaction with relatives upon arrival is necessary. Naturally, there’s the terrible mother’s grief. The most heart-wrenching experience is when you’re transporting a young guy, around 20–25 years old. In those moments, you wish you could take their place to avoid witnessing the initial agony of the families as they see the body of their child. Preparing for my first mission, I called a friend, also a military psychologist, who had experience in such tasks during this war. With a proper education, practical experience becomes more manageable, allowing one to avoid many mistakes and not exacerbate the relatives’ already immense sorrow. It’s incredibly sad that others are sent unprepared for these situations. Although I tried to instruct fellow servicemen also involved in these duties, the systematic preparation for this process is lacking.

Upon arrival, the phrase I have to say goes something like, “Dear Mariya Ivanovna, please accept my deepest condolences for your profound loss.” Everything else can be said afterwards. To ease the process, there are simple rules. Plan ahead to have water, tissues, and a place for the bereaved to sit or lie down ready at the moment of meeting. Never tell a mother who has lost her child that “I understand what you’re going through.” You can’t comprehend her grief, and it can trigger aggression. In case of aggression, do not respond, try to prove a point, or contradict. Just listen and wait for the reaction to pass.

Moreover, it’s important to ask what the relatives know about the circumstances of the soldier’s death. If the mother asks how her son died, not knowing the details, it’s kinder to assure her that his death was instantaneous and he did not suffer. This can provide a mother some solace. However, one must be extremely careful and sensitive in such conversations. Also, do not pull the mother away from the coffin, nor allow her relatives to do so. The initial moment requires allowing tears and emotions to flow, which will gradually subside. The mistake some make is to immediately try to comfort or pull people away, not allowing them time to cry. This shouldn’t be done. Often, escorts do not even know this, do not know what to say and remain silent. That’s because they assign just anyone to the task due to personnel shortages.

I found myself dispatched quite frequently, about every week or two. I was personally present at 13 funerals, but there were escorts who participated in even more. The flow was constant. Deploying the honor guard for funerals in nearby areas became an almost daily occurrence.

Art: Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

Cutting open a zinc coffin with a grinder is not for the faint-hearted. Farewells

I remember most vividly the school teacher I brought to the village of Bura, near the border with China, where even mobile signal doesn’t reach. He was mobilised and died from a leg wound that was absolutely not fatal in itself, but he bled out because the tourniquet was applied below the wound, not above as required, and no one was held accountable. He was a simple teacher, perhaps of safety fundamentals or history, forcibly sent thousands of kilometers to a foreign country to kill people. Village people are simple: if they’re told to “fight Nazis,” they’ll go and fight. And in this particular remote village, there was no one to replace him. When I brought him there, I realized how beloved this guy was by the entire village. I have never seen so many flowers and genuine tears in my life.

Another time, I had to bring a mother from the village of Chara her second son to bury; her first had been killed earlier. One son volunteered for a PMC, the other was mobilised, and a third was considering going to war. I faced an intense outburst then—I was blamed for Putin, for [Defense Minister] Shoigu, for everyone and everything. As a uniformed person, I was seen as responsible for starting the war, for killing everyone, including her son. It was profoundly sad. She wanted to lash out at me but lacked the strength from the sheer horror she had endured. She collapsed, nearly fainting.

A particularly difficult moment was when a group of bodies arrived at the morgue for sorting, and many grieving relatives gathered. Two families insisted on opening the zinc coffins to transfer the bodies. They prepared the tools, but when it came to cutting open the coffin, they couldn’t do it and asked me to. It was the first time I had to open a zinc coffin in front of the devastated relatives; it was terribly cold in there, my hands went numb, and the state of one of the bodies was horrific. There was a terrible outburst as we moved them to the morgue for re-dressing. Cutting open a zinc coffin with an angle grinder is not for the faint-hearted.

Reasons for wanting to open the coffins vary. Zinc coffins come with a small window through which the face can be seen. Often, if the face and body are well-preserved, identification is possible through this window. However, some relatives simply wish to touch their loved ones; they want to be close to the body. Moreover, in the Zabaikalsky krai, there are customs and traditions dictating that the body should lie in the house openly on the day of mourning, allowing people to come and say their farewells. Opening the zinc coffin under such circumstances, especially when the body would be lying in warmth and decomposing, seems to me a very bad idea. Personally, when I was responsible for burials, I tried not to allow the coffin to be opened. I had the authority to make this decision, arguing that the window sufficed for identification by relatives. Mothers often wish to open the coffin to see their sons, not understanding the risks and unpleasantness involved.

I permitted the opening just once. We allowed it, and the coffin remained open in the home for a day—winter made it manageable. The man hadn’t been dead long; we had brought him quickly, and the open burial was feasible. All the others, I buried in closed coffins.

Before the funerals, zinc coffins are stored in various places, not necessarily in a morgue, as some areas lack one. In remote villages, I’ve encountered the grim sight of a coffin brought into a school, placed in the assembly hall or even the dining area. So they set it in the center, and everyone would come to pay their respects—right there in the school. These villages are small and impoverished, without space or their own morgues. People make do as best they can.

Personally, I faced little hostility—well, apart from that one mother, but there, I told her I’d do whatever I could to help, left her my contact info, and she got in touch later, I talked with her, helped her out with the paperwork. Everyone else reacted to me normally. They didn’t really blame me for anything. They got it, knew I was just the man who brought the body, not the one at fault, not the one who had taken their lives. Chatting privately, it felt like a lot of them were actually against the war. They saw it for a total mess that it is. Many had family trying to talk them out of going, but they went off anyway and ended up dead.

Initially, it’s tough, but eventually, you adapt. The wake

I always tried to avoid staying for the wake, as I found it incredibly difficult to cope with. The whole thing was dreadful. I’d leave under any pretext, even though they’d invite me to stay, to eat. The food was good, sure, but I usually left. The only times I stayed were when attending funerals with an escort or honor guard because you’re bringing along conscripted servicemen who need to be fed at set times. So where do you feed them? At the wake. In such cases, I had to sit through it. Besides the conscripts, I had to stay when I was in really remote areas where flights only went out every three days, or I could only leave by catching a ride with one of the relatives. While they drank, you were just there. Ready to head out to Chita, you’d get in the car with them and leave. Transport wasn’t always arranged for funerals.

My longest mission was 20 days to Rostov, but that’s because the Il took a long time, had issues on the way. Typically, you arrive at a location, deliver, and then either the next day or the day after, the funeral is arranged. You visit the military draft office, conduct the burial, pick up the documents, and head off. Accommodations vary. Like, when I was in Mogocha, a town in Zabaikalsky krai, the local administration, practically the town head, met us, put us up in a nice hotel, fed us, and the service was excellent. But it’s different everywhere. People find you a place to stay, no one turns you away, everyone helps out. Accommodation and expenses aren’t covered—you’re on your own for lodging and meals. So, people understand: you’ve brought a body, you’ve come a long way—and they help however they can.

The situation is, of course, grim. Everyone in the region is poor, with entire villages collecting money for funerals. The area is dire not just because of its poverty, but also because it’s from there that all the men are taken for the war—everyone! Buryats, Yakuts, all the small ethnic groups nearby. They’re the first to be called up. Through my work with district military commissars, at least two told me they had depleted their “mobilization resource,” meaning, in their words, they had run out of men in those areas.

I spent about three months on this duty, [escorting “Cargo 200”]. It was a harrowing experience, but I’m a military specialist, I knew what I was getting into, was prepared for it. But still, it was very disturbing. Initially, it was tough, but eventually, you adapt.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

Support Mediazona now!

Your donations directly help us continue our work

Load more