DONETSK, Ukraine — The coffins sat in the loading bay of a local ice cream factory, filled with the battered bodies of fighters. They had gone to Ukraine to support the Donetsk People's Republic, and now they were bound for the border, heading home to Russia.
The men, who were described as volunteers, died earlier this week during a bloody battle for the Donetsk airport. Their corpses had since been stored in an industrial freezer. On Thursday afternoon they were packed in black plastic bags, placed in caskets lined with white fabric and stacked unceremoniously in the back of a truck.
There was no fanfare, no procession, no heroes' send-off. Instead, a shell-shocked work crew looked on while a man hand-painted the side of the truck with red crosses and "Cargo 200" — the Russian label for wartime casualties.
How the men — at least 30 Russian citizens, according to the Donetsk People's Republic — ended up at the front lines of Ukraine's brewing civil war remains a mystery. Neither their names nor their origins were revealed to the journalists who accompanied the cargo through rebel-held territory, a Ukrainian military checkpoint and up to the very edge of Ukraine. Тhe fighters' presence here and Russia's silence on their ominous return point to Russian President Vladimir Putin's precarious position as the conflict on his doorstep descends deeper into violence.
Since protesters seized the Donetsk regional administration building in early April and declared a people's republic in front of two Russian flags, joining the Russian Federation has been central, if not vital, to the movement's ambitions. Despite numerous appeals for assistance from the republic's leadership, Putin has refrained from officially recognizing the self-proclaimed government.
Ahead of the republic's referendum earlier this month on the region's independence from Ukraine, Putin suggested that the rebels reschedule. Last week, before Ukraine's presidential election, he announced the removal of Russian forces from the border — an apparent signal that a Russian invasion was no longer imminent. For the fighters who had been counting on Russian intervention, the month of May was one of disappointment.
"Putin promised help, and what did he do? He pulled back his forces from the border," said Sasha, a pro-Russian fighter from the rebel stronghold Slovyansk. "Putin betrayed what he promised."
However, representatives from the Donetsk People's Republic still speak optimistically in public about the prospect of Russian aid. On Wednesday, Denis Pushilin, speaker of the Donetsk People's Republic's Supreme Soviet, released an official request for Russian support.
"Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich and Russians, the people of the Donetsk Republic need your help and support," Pushilin said in the address. "We want to become a part of Russia. Help us stop this war."
Pro-Russian fighters of the Vostok (East) Battalion in the regional government building in Donetsk during a televised address by Russian President Vladimir Putin after they stormed and seized the site from separatists who took it over in April.Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images
In an interview on Thursday, Pushilin specified that they hoped for any available assistance, in particular a Russian "peacekeeping" contingent to counteract the Ukrainian forces active throughout eastern Ukraine.
"In order to save lives, so that less blood is spilled," Pushilin explained.
Russian involvement seems to have increased recently, with visiting warriors from the Russian republic of Chechnya appearing amid the Donetsk militia and Ukrainian authorities alleging that weapons are being ferried across the border to rebels. On Thursday a Russian presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, announced that Russia would provide humanitarian aid to the republic.
Yet as clashes become more frequent and intense, many here have begun to wonder whether help would arrive and, if it did, whether it would be enough.
Earlier this week, as the airport battle raged on, a car drove up to a crowd of locals at the occupied administration building who were waiting to hear Pushilin speak. The car had come under fire; the driver's window was shattered, its passengers shocked. The crowd seemed incredulous at the events unfolding before them.
"But Pushilin appealed to Putin for help!" one yelled.
"No one is helping us," answered another.
"Who is defending us now? Just our militia?" asked a third, with a hint of despair.