Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
DNIPRO, Ukraine – Outside a morgue in the city of Dnipro, central eastern Ukraine, a scene plays out all day, every day.
The coffin lid was brought out and against the wall, along with large crosses and flowers. The coffins quickly followed, the pale face of a dead soldier sometimes visible inside. They were sliding inside a waiting truck; top caps.
This is where Oleg Repnoy’s journey begins. He’s a volunteer for Evacuation 200, an organization that returns dead Ukrainian soldiers – or their remains – to their families.
“My job is to accompany these heroes on their last trip home,” he said.
Since the fighting began on February 24, no one has been able to keep up with the number of casualties, he said. So this special volunteer unit was created to help.
The former interior designer with blue eyes has spent the past five months traveling around Ukraine with his precious merchandise. The 55-year-old said he felt like he was helping in the fight.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
“My job is very important because I am also taking care of all the paperwork and administration for the grieving families and they are very grateful,” he said. “But you need to have a strong mental health to do this job.”
While President Volodymir Zelenskyy has said up to 200 soldiers a day could lose their lives in the war with Russia, the exact number of Ukrainian casualties remains a closely guarded government secret. Activities like these provide a glimpse of the real money.
On the day NPR met Repnoy, he was holding a soldier’s papers. It has the number: 3,249. That’s the number of deaths since February 24 in this morgue alone. This activity is taking place in morgues across the country.
Repnoy was on his way to a small village a few hours south of Dnipro, closer to the front line. He was carrying two coffins with the remains of soldiers killed in early May, only recently recovered.
There is no air conditioning in the van’s cabin. It was a hot day and he rolled down the window and smoked. He said that he sometimes feels guilty about bringing young soldiers home.
“One day I was driving the body of a very young man born in 2002 and I thought, ‘That young man is dead and I’m so much older than him and I’m alive.’ It doesn’t seem fair,” he said.
But he says the families never hold a grudge and are always grateful to him when he arrives.
Off the road, the vast plains of Ukraine stretch as far as the eye can see. On one side is a shimmering wheat field, on the other is a bright yellow sunflower.
Repnoy listens to music and thinks about the soldiers he is carrying and the land he is crossing. He says he has traveled a lot in his country and thinks he knows it well.
“But when I started bringing in dead soldiers, I started thinking about how beautiful our country is,” he said. “I never imagined that I would discover my country going from morgue to morgue.”
On his white van – the one used to deliver flowers – the number 200 is written in black. The name of this operation, Evacuate 200, is military jargon for transporting dead soldiers.
The term came into the public consciousness in the 1980s, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and the bodies of Soviet soldiers were brought home after the war in Afghanistan. Each body in its zinc coffin is said to weigh about 200 kilograms – about 440 pounds.
When Repnoy stopped refueling, everyone knew what he was carrying. Olga Bereza, 44, looks over as she fills her flask. But she doesn’t feel any reverence for the dead, she said.
“Honest?” she asked. “We just feel hatred. As war hits our homes and our people are being killed, right now we can only feel hatred, unfortunately.”
When Repnoy pulled up to the village of Apostolove, members of the regiment of soldiers were waiting to meet the coffins. They took them one by one out of the car, along with flags, flowers and crosses, in preparation for their upcoming funeral.
One of the soldiers killed was Andriy Bilay, 47, from Apostolove. His 70-year-old mother, Vira Bilay, was waiting for him.
She said the last time she spoke to Andriy was on May 7, when he told her he was going to undergo a special surgery. She pulled a large photo of the boy out of a plastic bag and cried as she talked about him.
“He worked for the railroad and everyone loved him,” she said.
Bilay said that her son was furious about the invasion and was on the front lines within days.
Bilay said, there were also foreign soldiers who fought for Ukraine stationed here in the village, and she took care of them.
“They don’t speak Ukrainian but I used Google Translate and I brought them food. Bastard, pancakes, homemade dumplings – I fed foreign soldiers. But,” she cried, ” who took care of my son?”
When asked if she had a message for the world, she lamented:
“Everyone please don’t fight, it hurts. It hurts. Don’t kill each other!”
There is a World War II-era tank in her village, a monument bearing the inscription: “To the fighters of the Soviet army who liberated the town of Apostolove, February 1944. From those its grateful people.”
Those citizens are currently not grateful to the Russian military, but there are no plans to take down the monument.