The corpse of a Russian soldier and the cold but human urge to watch

HUSARIVKA, Ukraine – There’s a dead guy in there.

It’s charred black, almost as if it was welded inside the Russian military vehicle when it exploded.

How long had this Russian soldier been on display? Long enough to become a monument in this small village in eastern Ukraine, Husarivka, where some people walked by in the cold spring rain, knowing they were walking past a grave.

The Russians, by this time in April, had been out of the area for about two weeks, evidence of their retreat strewn across roads and fields – mixed with bullet-riddled civilian vehicles and hastily dug graves.

The two weeks were just long enough for the approximately 400 remaining residents to take stock of exactly what had happened to them since the end of February: the war, the occupation, the battle to retake their village, their own losses, and the abandoned body inside the destroyed armored vehicle.

He was burned so badly that I couldn’t tell how old he was, but I thought he must have been young because he was sitting in the troop compartment: the back of the armored personnel carrier where half a dozen guys usually crouch holding their rifles, waiting for an older officer to tell them to come out and attack or defend.

Perhaps he was sitting there listening to the gunfire outside the thin armor of his vehicle, known as the BMP, which moments later did precisely nothing to stop the projectile that opened. all like a tin can.

But two weeks later, he’s still sitting, his last thoughts gone from his skull, open and wet from the rain.

If he had been a general, his troops might have tried to grab him, pull him out of the burning wreckage.

The Russians have abandoned the bodies of many of their soldiers, a surprising practice that flouts a common combatant code. Is this a sign of confusion? Low morale? Or was it, in this case, something more personal?

Maybe if he had been popular in the peloton, the guy who picked you up from the bar at 4am no questions asked, they would have fought to put out the flames. Or at least to retrieve his body, so he can be buried under familiar skies.

Or maybe it was so catastrophic that the moment the survivors got to safety and looked around and realized, god, he was gone, they knew there was nothing they could do. He was still in the. Trap.

I look at him, I think about it all, I try to figure out if it’s his rib cage, I listen to the artillery in the distance and I wonder if it’s getting closer or further away.

Husarivka was a speed bump in a failed Russian advance, leaving the village of dairy farms, and little else, briefly occupied by Russian soldiers – and saturated with Ukrainian artillery fire in response – until the Ukrainians advance at the end of March.

Presumably, that’s when the BMP was destroyed. Now the front line was only miles away and we were doing the same thing as the people of Husarivka: taking stock of the damage and casualties.

As has become such a depressing attribute in modern warfare, there are a lot of casualty and killing statistics in this one, as if the violence has become so routine and mechanical, so quickly, that the death toll and injuries can be analyzed. more like sports scores.

For Russians and Ukrainians, these faceless numbers that the rest of the world only looks at mothers, sons, friends. Their empty rooms will have to be repainted and refurbished, or left untouched, awaiting a return that will never come.

And for those who actually experience all that destruction and killing, the detritus of battle carries its own allure after the firing has stopped and the sirens of air raids have died down. Inevitably, the burnt remains of destroyed tanks and other vehicles are surrounded by voyeurs who wonder about the fate of these doomed crews; trying to piece together those last moments or looking in awe at what people are capable of doing to each other.

This urge to gape at the unspoken parts of the war reminded me of my second deployment as a marine to southern Afghanistan in 2010, where there was a lot of death and death, but not to a scale comparable to that of Ukraine.

A wounded Taliban fighter – or a man who the platoon said was a Taliban fighter – had been taken to our outpost of around 50 people so that he could be evacuated for treatment. The Talib was pretty badly shot, bandaged but clinging to life.

Everyone in the outpost wanted to see him. They stopped what they were doing, huddled around the stretcher and watched this man slowly die. Just to see it, to experience it. They walked beside him after the helicopters landed and accompanied him, then returned to their work.


Maybe it was a kind of comfort, the ultimate reminder: He was on that stretcher, and they, at that moment, weren’t.

In Ukraine, the twisted hulks of destroyed tanks and other Russian military vehicles on display in the capital Kyiv drew crowds. Young and old were probably drawn there for many of the same reasons my comrades in Afghanistan were over a decade ago, although Ukrainians have the added justification that comes with resisting an occupier – and the moral distance from participating in the violence themselves.

This wartime, wanting to look – the wreckage, the wounded, and even the dead – seems almost inevitable, something you have to do to make sure it all really happened. But I can’t judge.

A few weeks ago I was there watching this dead Russian soldier in eastern Ukraine, peering into his grave of matted metal and casings and what was left of his cremated body, summoned by a simple statement.

There’s a dead guy in there.

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