DONETSK: Pro-Moscow rebels in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk are taking such heavy losses in fighting with advancing government troops they no longer have time to give their comrades a proper burial.
That task fell instead on Wednesday afternoon to Igor Yegorov and his crew of three grave-diggers, dressed in track suit bottoms and vests, at the Sixth Capital municipal graveyard on the edge of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
A Soviet-designed Zil flat-bed truck backed into a corner of the cemetery with 12 coffins stacked two deep in the back, each one containing the corpse of a rebel fighter.
The cemetery workers approached the truck to unload the coffins, but hesitated, driven back by the smell of decaying flesh escaping through gaps in the crudely built coffins. Yegorov pressed them to hurry up.
“We need a gas mask here,” said one of the workers.
“A gas mask won’t help,” said Valery, the driver of the truck that brought the coffins.
Two hours later, the burial was over. There was no ceremony, no rebel honour guard, and no relatives at the grave side. The grave-diggers lowered the caskets into graves, then covered them up using an old tractor with an earth-moving bucket on the front.
The new graves were marked with rough wooden plaques with a number. That was supposed to correspond to the dead fighter’s name, but according to a manifest that was sent from the morgue and was shown to Reuters, the identities of eight of the 12 were unknown.
For several weeks now, the separatist rebels - which Kiev and its Western allies say are proxies for Russia - have been forced to retreat in the face of advances by a newly confident Ukrainian military.
Unlike the government forces, the rebels do not release casualty figures. The hasty burials, combined with accounts from fighters, provide a snapshot of the scale of the rebel losses, raising the question of how long they can keep fighting against the numerically superior Ukrainian forces.
The rebels’ ability to hold on has a bearing on how soon an end comes to a conflict that has killed thousands of people, sparked a round of damaging sanctions, and dragged Russia’s relations with the West to their lowest ebb since the Cold War.
Russia denies giving material help to the separatists.
The Sixth Capital cemetery, named after a nearby coal mine, is the only one in Donetsk that receives fighters’ bodies for mass burials, with the first arriving on July 15, according to cemetery workers.
By Wednesday, 41 fighters had been buried there, including the 12 coffins brought in that day. A Reuters photographer who went back to the same cemetery on Thursday said he saw at least another 15 fighters being buried.
But those are only a fraction of the rebel dead. Local government officials said rebels were buried individually at all 28 cemeteries in Donetsk, and fighters spoke too of burying fallen comrades in the field.
One fighter, who gave his nom de guerre as “Americanets,” or American, told Reuters on the outskirts of Donetsk on Wednesday that his unit had started out with 100 fighters.
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