Volunteer the "Black Tulip" Kostyantin Balabanov: "I have seen many horrible things"
Uzhgorod resident Kostyantin Balabanov is the youngest volunteer of the "Black Tulip" search mission. Aged 36, he agreed to go to the ATO area to take part in searching and transportation of bodies of the soldiers killed in the war. A week ago, Kostya returned to Uzhgorod from another two-week trip. He agreed to tell the "Pro Zahid" the unvarnished report of what he saw there.
During the war in Afghanistan, "Black Tulip" was the name of transport delivering fallen soldiers home. Therefore, this name somehow stuck to our mission too. Now it is called the humanitarian mission "Black Tulip" or "Evacuation-200". It was organized by activists of the Nationwide public organization of searchers "People's Memory Union" that until now have been engaged in searching, identification and reburial of the remains of soldiers who were killed in the two world wars - Kostyantin says. - I am a member of the search organization "Search-West", which carries out such work in the western region of the country. For example, last September, we reburied the remains of victims of the First World War in the memorial cemetery located on the Uzhotsky pass.
After the events in Ilovaisk, the Union was approached by the Ministry of Defence asking to help in searching for missing soldiers. The "other party" categorically refused to cooperate with anyone other than civilians, and we have both the experience and the desire to do that. In turn, the ministry promised to help in negotiations with the uncontrolled territories. The funding was scarce. First, we were given two vehicles that were in terrible condition and would constantly break down. We had to perform overhaul. Then, at our own expense and for the money raised by our activists, we purchased two vans, but they break down too because they can not withstand constant stress, lack of roads. Sometimes, volunteers, who understand the importance of this work, help us, people make financial contributions, but there is still critical shortage of money and transport."
The "Black Tulip" has its base in Donetsk region - a house equipped by activists in a village the name of which Kostya does not disclose for safety reasons. From there, almost every day, volunteers depart to search missions. Kostya began his work in the mission with setting up the base. Local residents would fear to pass by the house where buses and refrigerator with inscriptions in Russian "Load 200" arrived every day.
"We work in several groups, the rotation is about once a week. Some stay longer, some less. There is a separate group that conducts searches in Luhansk region. They have it much more difficult because Russian "kazaks" do not want to cooperate. If not for Luhansk Afghan war veterans, who regard themselves as neutral, it would be almost impossible to negotiate. In Donetsk region, it is easier to get access to the militia territory.
In fact, this work is a great risk, and each of us understands that well. Volunteers have come under attacks with small arms and mortars. I've made an ID tag, like those in the military, that I wear on the neck during trips. If our soldiers wore such tags, it would be much easier to recognize them. When we receive the information that people "on the top" agreed on the corridor for us, we go. What do I feel? Stress, because you know that one misstep on the part of any member of the team - and the mission is over. You must be very careful in the occupied terrotiry, both in what you do and what you say. We are always accompanied by representatives of separatists.
During these trips, there are several important rules: do not speak Ukrainian, do not talk about politics and do not call "the other party" other than militias. No separatists, militants, terrorists - only militia. Among escorts, there may be quite reasonable guys, you can even joke with them. And once they put in our car a drug addict with weapons. We were scared to go with him, because we did not know what he was up to.
Searchers receive information about the location of bodies from different sources. First, they have reports from the military, who inform that there was a fight in a certain place and a certain number of victims may have remained there. Volunteers also talk to the local population. If dead soldiers were found in a village, people know about it and can show where it happened. Sometimes villagers bury corpses, sometimes leave them to lie where they found them.
"We find dead soldiers in different places and in different, how to put it, states. Sometimes we arrive to the place, where the bodies are believed to be, and and start searching. We are searching with eyes and nose, while minding our steps because mines and bombs are everywhere. We carefully inspect trenches, bunkers, burnt vehicles, suspicious piles of soil. On some graves, there are helmets, even simple crosses, and once we found a grave beneath a tree, which a cross made of sleeves.
During the trip, I have seen a lot of horrible things. In some abandoned recreation center, we found in the bathroom two corpses: men, civilians, judging by the clothes, killed at the beginning of winter. It looked like execution. By the time we found them, the bodies had already been heavily eaten away by rats. Who were those men, why they were killed - we don't know. We took their bodies, now the police will deal with that. In another village, we had to cut some bodies, probably soldiers, out of ice. One of them had no legs. We do not know how they died, whether they were thrown in the lake still alive or already dead. It was impossible to identify them visually, fish and crayfish mauled the bodies."
It is difficult for Kostya to explain the emotions he feels during search operations of the "Black Tulip" mission. He is convinced that searching, collecting and loading the bodies is not anything scary or disgusting. At first, he says, the pungent odour bothered a little, but then he got used to it.
"I do not dream about it at night, I do not want to get drunk after a trip. Maybe we are so cool about that, because for us they are just dead bodies. I think seeing someone die, seeing the suffering of this person, and especially if he is your fellow soldier, is completely different, much more difficult psychologically. Although, of course, our job is not easy too. It also takes a lot of moral strength, so we always have to block ourselves psychologically" - Kostyantin admits.
During the trips, volunteers constantly expose themselves to risks. To avoid the fire, they wear bright clothing and a helmet with a bulletproof vest just in case. The vehicles of the mission are bright white with large red crosses and labeled "200".
"Another strict rule: do not take up weapons. It's scattered everywhere, but we know that if anyone of us is caught at least once trying to take weapons or ammunition, the whole mission will have a huge problem, it will be closed, and the whole team will likely be shot. When we go to the uncontrolled area, the militia frisk us. Sometimes, they would even force us to delete all the photos from phones. On our side, we are frisked too. Onece we were passing a checkpoint of the "Right Sector", and they were very rude, threw all our things from backpacks, stripped us almost to underwear. Perhaps, they were looking for weapons.
In general, the "Black Tulip" tries to maintain a strict neutrality. If we find bodies of the militias, we pick them up and then exchange for the bodies of our soldiers.
All the found bodies are taken to Dnipropetrovsk. We put in bags not only the body or its remains, but also the items found around. It may help to identify the victim. Although, to be honest, most of the bodies of our soldiers are looted, there are no documents with them, nor any valuables, watches, chains, rings, phone and so on. We even found bodies without shoes."
It is hard to say how many bodies the "Black Tulip" has found in less than a year. The latest data from the official site of the mission is 435, but this figure changes every day.
Uzhgorod searcher Kostyantin Balabanov says that even if the war stops now, the searchers will have to work for another two years. Too many bodies from both sides have been left lying in Donetsk and Luhansk land. Meanwhile, the "Black Tulip" needs more volunteers. Now, only 58 persons are doing this morally and physically hard work. The missions also needs equipment that would allow them to work more effectively. However, volunteers hold on, because they understand that they are doing very important work. Even if no one thanks them for it.
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