Russian-backed separatists fighting in southeastern Ukraine have not always been willing to acknowledge the extent of casualties and mortalities in battle. Frequent gunfire and disruption in communications have made it difficult both to count and to bury the dead.
But last week, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) held a press conference where he made some frank admissions; separatists have had trouble counting their dead in the chaos of frequent battles, but they still are certain that at least 1,000 have already been killed. It’s important to note that this video was posted before the latest iteration of Ukraine’s anti-terror operation (ATO). In contrast, Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council reports that the Ukrainian military has only lost 200 men since the start of the ATO.
In a video uploaded June 26, Andrei Purgin of the DPR describes the help his pro-Russian separatist movement is providing for the families of fighters killed in battle, referred to by the DPR as the “self-defense”.
For the first half of the press conference, Purgin explained that his organization was providing emergency compensation to the families of persons killed in battle, to “fulfill their obligations before the heroes of the Republic.” Relatives of civilians killed in crossfire are given a one-time payment, and families of those who are killed as soldiers who “die with weapons in their hands” are given a higher amount. Purgin said that on 26 June, a total of payments of 850,000 hryvnias ($71,800) had been given out to families of fighters, and 250,000 hryvnias ($21,117) were handed out to families of civilians killed in the conflict. Then on 27 June, the same amounts were given to a total of 2 civilians and 6 fighters. He added that now the fighters are taking oaths to the DPR, they are considered “soldiers,” although still called “militia.”
A reporter wanted to know where the funds came from. Purgin replied, “We were able to accumulate them, we have donations.” But since the banking system has broken down with the forced annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict, he said they had “major complications.” Originally, the separatists had wanted to put the payments on ATM cards, but since it can take a month to apply for such a card, it was decided to pay cash but put some payments on Bank of Russia cards if possible, particularly for those outside of Donetsk.
The Interpreter has provided a translation of an excerpt of the news conference:
Reporter: Do you have a list of the people who will be receiving these payments?
Purgin: Yes, we have it in the office on the desk…I think…but it’s a very long story, because a huge number of people [inaudible] because of information coming in here, so information is very scant. In some places, the morgues are no longer working. So to get some kind of certificates, in zones of combat, for example there were [inaudible], 35 people were buried outside of Slavyansk, they didn’t have the ability to transport the bodies.
Because you see, each time you try to take out a body, that’s essentially another corpse [i.e. because the convoys are caught in gunfire–The Interpreter]. We take out corpses, then we get new ones. So a decision was made to keep them there. The city is under complete siege, there’s no water or electricity, gas, or mobile connection, and so on. Plus, there’s Kramatorsk, there were a whole bunch of encounter battles, without the possibility of being able to, so to say, bury people. The situation, as you know, is out of hand, at the airport, when 41 bodies baked in the sun until the Red Cross came and picked them up, the stench was unbearable.
And now about 50 have been buried in a mound, they are trapped under the wreckage…[inaudible]. So now 102 people have been picked up, but that’s not a final number. I mean…there isn’t any official data. And they won’t come soon. It will be a long accounting of sorts, gradually, the information will come in. But precise information, comprehensible and full, is coming in swathes. A civil war, unlike a position war means that there are numerous encounter battles while on the move. These people died while on the move, for example, they ambushed a road, shot at it, then left. They would be in one place for two hours, then move on. It’s not a position war, but a civil war. So that means there are a huge number of losses in the so-called encounter battles.
For example, two columns of cars with armed people clash, they see each other and then it’s an encounter battle. These types of battles are notable for the fact that they don’t pick up the corpses, of course the losing side for sure doesn’t pick theirs up.
Reporter: Andrei, tell us, is the count of dead now in the hundreds? Or?
Purgin: Yes, definitely in the hundreds. It’s long been in the hundreds. It’s our sense that we can already speak of about 1,000 killed. That’s our sense. Yes, that’s our sense, that we can speak of 1,000 dead. We know in the active phase of the battle in Slavyansk about 30 [a week?] were killed. In Kramatorsk, for weeks, there were about 2-6, 2 amputations, from 8-18 wounded.
Reporter: And these payments?
Purgin: It’s a question of access. Most are made in Donetsk. You understand, we can’t get to Slavyansk. But I hope we can solve these problems with cards, and we must be honorable. In a war, mobilization is the most important thing, there’s nothing more important. We have to fulfill our duties to those who came to the defense.”
There have been repeated reports of the separatists being forced to throw the bodies of their fallen comrades into the lakes or ravines that dot the resort area of Slavyansk and surrounding towns. But these stories are difficult to confirm. Information Resistance, the analysts’ group close to the Ukrainian military reported that recently when a five-year-old girl went missing, authorities sent divers into the lake, and in the process discovered “many” bodies of those killed in combat. There does not seem to be any group that is keeping record of missing fighters and looking for them — perhaps they fear reprisals.
One video uploaded by LifeNews to YouTube on June 10 provoked a lot of commentary on social media and has more than 460,000 views. It reveals a somber scene: in the rain, with a sniper crouched at his back, a Russian Orthodox priest holding an umbrella chants a funeral service for 7 separatist fighters who are then buried in a ditch next to a cemetery. Their name plates are shown by the cameraman.
In other videos uploaded to YouTube in recent weeks, the Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian military take part in a ritual that was common to the Chechen and Caucasus wars: the exchange of the dead. In this shred of shared civilization, both sides meet in order to get back the bodies of their KIAs because their families want to give them a proper burial. So the two warring sides approach warily at dawn waving white flags, either in front of the regional state administration building, or on the open highway, accompanied by the local Red Cross in trucks. A local worker wheels up a cart of rough-hewn wooden coffins waiting to be filled, and the grim procedure begins.