- By Anastasiya Gribanova, Ivan Yermakov & Claire Press
- BBC World Service
Lyudmyla Kupriychuk stood crying in a muddy field.
Her ex-husband wrapped their son’s body in a blanket.
“I was hysterical,” she says. “I said, are we going to take it home in the trunk of the car?”
“My ex-husband yelled, ‘Calm down, we just need to get out of here.’
The divorced couple had bought an old Mercedes and driven hundreds of miles.
They were behind enemy lines to recover the body of their dead Ukrainian soldier son.
And now they plow the fields of the territory occupied by the Russians, riddled with shell craters.
After stopping the car, Anatoliy, Lyudmila’s ex-husband, walks towards charred armored vehicles.
Bodies are strewn on the ground.
“He ripped off the uniform to see if there was a tattoo on his arm,” Lyudmyla says. “And there he was. He said, ‘Never give up.'”
“That’s all we were able to recognize our son,” said the forties, her voice trembling.
“The bodies lay out in the open for days, in the middle of nowhere. They weren’t just burned, wild animals had gnawed on them too.”
Her son Makysm was just 20 years old and died on the second day of the Russian invasion, February 25, 2022.
No one had paid attention to a middle-aged couple arriving in the Russian-held village of Tomaryne.
It’s about a 90-minute drive from the city of Kherson in the south of the country.
The Russians and their allies had yet to establish their administration, so things were chaotic when the couple arrived in March 2022.
They drove outside the village and encountered the first manned checkpoint.
“I got out of the car and walked towards a man who was pointing a gun at me,” Lyudmyla recalled.
“But I was not afraid, I only felt disgust for these people”.
Inexplicably, she says, she managed to coax the soldiers into letting them pass.
She showed them a picture of her son’s body and they drove to the field where Maksym died.
Then, with the body in the trunk, the couple began a 12-hour journey home to Vinnytsia in central Ukraine.
There are no official data on the number of dead or missing Ukrainian servicemen, which is classified information.
As a professional soldier, based in Lviv, western Ukraine, Maksym had not told Lyudmyla that his air assault force had been sent south to stop the Russian offensive.
She was shocked when her girlfriend called to tell her of his death.
One of Maksym’s colleagues had a picture of the field where he was killed and said his body was still there.
He told her that Maksym had been shelled, but that there was no further information on the circumstances of his death.
Lyudmyla phoned Maksym’s military unit. He is told to wait for information.
“Every night I would go crazy knowing that my son was lying in the freezing cold and there was nothing to cover him,” says Lyudmyla.
A few days later, at dawn, Lyudmyla and Anatoliy set out to find and bring Maksym’s body home.
They had no map, just the photo, the name of the village and the contact of a local who had volunteered to guide them.
Ukraine’s presidential envoy for military rights Alyona Verbytska says 15,000 Ukrainians, both civilian and military, went missing between February and the end of 2022.
They could have been killed, captured or are missing.
On the Russian side, up to 600 soldiers are missing in Ukrainian territory, outside occupied areas, according to data from the Russian BBC.
People are using every means at their disposal to find their loved ones.
A famous television presenter has launched a national project to help with research.
And Ukrainians have also donated money to buy equipment such as refrigerated vans to evacuate soldiers’ bodies and return them to their families.
In social media groups on Facebook and Telegram, people are sharing information about the missing and asking for help.
Natalya Karpova, also from Vinnytsia, found a photo of her son Roman’s body on a Russian Telegram channel in April.
The Russian military posts on these instant messaging channels and they are often the only source of information from the occupied areas.
The post suggested that a sniper had killed the 30-year-old engineer.
Friends of Roman called her to announce his death, saying he died at the end of April. This prompted her to do research online.
When she found the photo, she called her Air Force unit.
“They said it was a fake and that I shouldn’t rely on the abuser’s media for information,” she says.
“They said, ‘We don’t have any documentation that your son is dead.
Shrouded in secrecy
The army does not comment on missing soldiers, in accordance with martial law.
Families often have to wait for the government or volunteers to help them find a body.
Natalya, a 59-year-old doctor, quit her job to focus on finding Roman’s body.
She knew which Roman had gone to the front line, but not which one.
The photo posted on Telegram showed his identity and gave an approximate location in eastern Ukraine.
She got help from another part of the military other than Roman’s air force unit and they flew a drone over the site.
They located his body near the village of Dovhenke, outside the town of Izyum in eastern Ukraine.
But heavy fighting and the Russian occupation prevented him from entering.
And then a breakthrough, Ukraine liberated the village in September 2022.
“It was fall, I knew we had no time to waste,” she says.
“When winter came and the snow fell, there would be nothing left of the body.”
She quickly assembled a search team with the help of local politicians and activists, as well as the military.
Under thick vegetation, and in an area riddled with landmines, they found Roman’s body. His military dog tag helped identify him.
“I felt a weight fall off my shoulders,” Natalya said, her voice cracking.
“You can’t imagine what it feels like when you can’t bring your son’s body home and bury it.”
His body was buried in their hometown of Vinnytsia.
The Air Force told the BBC that due to heavy fighting and the Russian occupation, Roman’s unit was unaware of all the fatalities at the time.
lost in mourning
Back in Vinnytsia, Lyudmyla took Maksym’s body straight to the morgue.
“They only let me see my son’s hand,” she said. “They didn’t let me see his body because his head was gone.”
Lyudmyla has turned her son’s room into a sanctuary.
It’s filled with pictures of him smiling, a bottle of his cologne, and some crafts he made for her when he was a schoolboy.
She takes Maksym’s uniform from the wardrobe and pulls it closer to her, as if hugging him.
“Nothing has changed here since his death,” she said.
For Natalya, finding and burying her son did not bring peace.
“My husband and I can’t believe he’s dead,” she said.
She says she received no support from the Air Force to find him.
Although a general later thanked her for finding the body, that didn’t change anything.
“I want victory now so that no other mother ends up in my situation,” she says.
The BBC could not reach Maksym’s military unit for comment on the circumstances of his death.
How two mothers recovered their sons from the battlefield in Ukraine – BBC News BBC Homepage