Ukrainian families await news from battlefield’s tragic harvest

by @SabraAyres May 20, 2015 5:00AM ET

Two women are united by grief after finding out their husbands perished in a sunflower field

Ukraine Crisis
Irina Rudenko visits the grave of her husband, Dmitry Rudenko, a Ukrainian soldier who was killed during fighting in the war in Ukraine’s east.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America

This is the second part a two-part series on the Black Tulips, a volunteer group which collects the remains of Ukrainian soldiers and returns them to their families. The first part profiled the group itself and how it was formed.

NOVOHRAD-VOLYNSKYI, Ukraine — Dmitry Rudenko was a 28-year-old trombonist who never wanted to be a solider, let alone go to war.

But he joined the 30th Mechanized Brigade straight out of high school, thinking if he signed up for the army’s orchestra he could play the instrument he loved, and would most likely never have to fight.

He wore his uniform with pride, even as Ukraine’s military dwindled during the country’s 23 years of post-Soviet independence, and the role of the brigade’s military band diminished.  

“There aren’t many ways to play the trombone and get a paycheck,” said his wife, Irina Rudenko, 31. “It was a stable job, and he just wanted to play.”

For 11 years, Rudenko’s service went smoothly. He married, raised three kids and enjoyed family life in this military town of 50,000 in west-central Ukraine. He and his wife planned to move out of his mother’s home and into their own apartment as soon as they could afford it.

The Rudenkos’ daughter, Dasha, 7, in her bedroom.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America

But the Rudenkos' plans never came to fruition. Sometime on Aug. 13 or 14, 2014, the trombonist who never wanted to fight was killed in a tank battle against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

His body was found two months later by a group of civilian volunteers called the Black Tulips, who negotiate with the rebels to cross enemy lines to remove the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed in combat.

“It looked like he probably crawled across the sunflower field after his tank was hit and died there,” said Leonid Sholkovsky, the Black Tulip volunteer who recovered Rudenko’s remains in October from a field in the tiny village of Nykyforove. “There wasn’t much left of him by the time we found him.”

Rudenko’s body was one of four picked up that day, all of them from a unit of the 30th Mechanized Brigade. According to the brigade’s survivors and the Black Tulips, pro-Russia rebels ambushed the unit’s tanks south of Snizhne, about 18 miles from the Russian border.

The soldiers killed were some of more than 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers who have died in the now year-long war between government forces and Russia-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. In total, more than 6,100, mostly civilians, have lost their lives in the brutal war. Millions have had to leave their war-torn towns and destroyed villages.

Despite a cease-fire, fighting continues in the eastern regions with no end in sight. NATO and the Ukrainian government, both of whom accuse the Kremlin of supporting the rebels, warn that Russia is preparing for a summer offensive.

The Black Tulips know there will be more bodies to collect.

Before the war Sholkovsky was a mechanic from Kiev, who would likely never have met Rudenko, the trombone player living some 150 miles west of the capital.

Today, the mechanic is collecting the bodies of his fallen compatriots from the blackened battlefields of eastern Ukraine, and Rudenko is a war hero, buried a few miles from his family home after losing his life in a conflict he based his career on never having to fight in.

A portrait of Dmitry Rudenko above his grave.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America

Sholkovsky and the Black Tulips found another soldier’s body that day in Nykyforove. Bohdan Lutsko lived less than 5 miles from the Rudenkos in a village outside Novohrad-Volynskyi.

The two men, Rudenko and Lutsko, had never met before the war, but their bodies would ultimately be recovered within several hundred feet from each other in a sunflower field, 620 miles from home.

After their deaths, their wives would become friends as they spent months desperately searching for answers about their husband’s remains, the war and their children’s futures in Ukraine.

“We all know it’s Russia who we are fighting now,” Irina Rudenko said. “But none of us ever thought this could happen to our country.”

Like many Ukrainians outside of the capital, the Rudenkos and Lutskos supported the anti-government Maidan protest movement when it erupted in Kiev in late 2013 and resulted in the overthrow of a Kremlin-favored president within three months.

But both families had children and work that required them to stay at home, and the events unfolding seemed far away from their western corner of central Ukraine.

Still, they watched the news from Kiev with concern and questioned how it all might unfold.

“I understood that they were protesting against corruption, but we didn’t have much to complain about here,” said Olha Lutsko, 30, from her modest living room, where her children’s school photos decorate the walls and bookshelves. “It was scary to watch what was happening in Kiev.”

Olha Lutsko in her living room in front of photographs of her two children. The body of her husband, Bohdan Lutsko, was found in the same field as Dmitry Rudenko’s.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America
Oleksandr Lutsko working with a pile of hay that his father, Bohdan Lutsko, prepared for their horse last year.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America

Ukraine’s political crisis quickly spiraled into a larger conflict after the protests on Maidan turned violent.

Angered by the Western stance of Ukraine’s opposition, the Kremlin moved its troops into Crimea in February and annexed the peninsula three weeks later. In April, armed pro-Russia separatists took over government buildings in the industrialized east and declared independent “people’s republics.”

The crisis reached Novohrad-Volynskyi in March. For the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Rudenko and the rest of the 30th Mechanized Brigade began preparing for war.

Thousands were mobilized across the country, including Bohdan Lutsko, who was called up for service on March 17.

He debated with his wife about whether or not he should do what thousands of other men had done, and bribe his way out of the draft. His mother and sister living in the Russian city of Rostov pleaded for him not to fight for what the Russian media described as a far-right, nationalistic government in Kiev.

Lutsko decided to report for duty, albeit initially without any body armor: The Ukrainian military didn’t have enough to go around and had to rely on donations from the United States and volunteer groups in Ukraine.

The eastern operation quickly turned deadly, with thousands of civilians killed by heavy artillery fire and millions of dollars of infrastructure destroyed in the eastern industrial heartland.

Portraits of Bohdan Lutsko and Olha Lutsko, taken around the time they first met, when she was 17 and he was 19.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America

In July, Rudenko and Lutsko were sent to the front line in eastern Ukraine, where they served in the same tank unit at a time when Ukraine had begun to make significant gains against the separatists, taking back territory and liberating several key cities across the east.

Then, according to Kiev and Western sources, the Kremlin sent in its own troops and heavy armor to stop the Ukrainian advances.

Both men made their last phone calls to their wives on Aug. 11 near Snizhne from a mobile phone with a dying battery. About wo days later, they were killed when the Russian-backed rebels blew up their tanks as they advanced toward an encircled group of Ukrainian border guards near Dmytrivka.

On the afternoon of Aug. 13, all of Novohrad-Volynskyi was frantic about news coming in that some of the city’s brigade had been badly defeated. Rumors swirled. Wives and mothers desperately sought answers.

Days passed. Then weeks. News trickled in about local men whose bodies had been brought home for burial. Irina Rudenko’s and Olha Lutsko’s phone calls to ministries, government officials and military officers produced nothing about their husbands.

The women’s frustrations grew. Nobody had any answers, and they feared for the worst.

On Nov. 3, the Black Tulips called Irina and Olha with the news they had been dreading. Volunteer Igor Slyusar had found paperwork belonging to their husbands next to what the volunteers believed were the men’s remains. The bodies had been sent to a military morgue in south Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia, where DNA testing would be done to confirm their identity.

“Of course I had hope until the end,” Irina Rudenko said. “If Igor hadn’t called, I think we would still be waiting.”

Irina Rudenko in her living room.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America

Rudenko’s 7-year-old daughter, Dasha, would provide the swab of cells that would confirm the DNA match with her father. But it would take another four months after Slyusar’s phone call for the Ukrainian authorities to release his remains to the family.

On March 19, Irina Rudenko buried her husband, nearly seven months after he was killed in the eastern battlefields.

“I just hope he hasn’t died in vain, and that his children grow up to know how much he loved them,” Rudenko said.

The wait has been longer and perhaps more painful for Olha Lutsko. Five months after Slyusar called to say he had identified her husband’s body by his military paperwork, Lutsko is still waiting for the DNA testing to be completed by Ukraine’s overwhelmed testing services. The tests have been run six times, but there is still no definitive confirmation.

The wait has been agonizing, even though she’s found a friend and support in Irina Rudenko and other wives who have lost their husbands in the war. But there are still too many unanswered questions for Lutsko.

“I just don’t understand what this war is about, or why the fighting even started,” the young widow said in a calm voice as her children ran out the door into the spring sunshine. “I want to raise my children so that they never have to fight in a war.”