When the wounded Ukrainian soldier surrendered to Russian forces in May at the pulverized Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol, he was unable to say a proper goodbye to his slain friend, whose body had to be left behind with hundreds of other dead.
The former POW, known as David, was finally given his chance Thursday at a Kyiv crematorium.
David and other soldiers bid farewell to Ilya Honcharov, whose coffin was draped in the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag and moved carefully on crutches after his left leg was amputated.
David is one of the few POWs from the Azovstal siege released in exchange by Russia. And the 26-year-old Honcharov’s body, one of hundreds swapped by the two sides even as they fight, is one of the few that Ukrainian authorities have been able to identify. One of his tattoos was recognized by his brother.
Few families and friends of those killed or captured have found closure in the two months since the Azovstal fighters surrendered, ending their tenacious defense of the sprawling plant that became a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity in the war against Russia.
If Ukrainian forces ever liberate Mariupol, some families hope to get at least a handful of dirt from the city that was nearly destroyed. The charred ruins, a killing field for thousands of civilians, are hallowed ground for families of soldiers killed while attempting to prevent the strategic city and its port from falling into Russian hands.
In mid-May, more than 2,000 Azovstal defenders marched out of its twisted wreckage into Russian captivity, effectively ending Mariupol’s nearly three-month siege. Their families have no idea when — or even if — they will return home.
David was one of 144 Ukrainian soldiers, including 95 who fought in Mariupol, who were handed over to Russian forces in a prisoner exchange on June 29.
He is still unable to discuss his six weeks in captivity for fear of jeopardizing the release of other POWs, and he refused to be identified by his full name. David, on the other hand, spoke openly about his friend Honcharov, who had been mangled by a mortar round that shattered bones in his arms and legs and embedded shrapnel in his back. Honcharov had clung to life for hours, and his comrades had been dragged to safety in a basement after dark, moving through the plant’s hellscape of twisted metal, overturned cars, and shattered concrete.
Honcharov died on May 16, the day that the siege of Mariupol began to end. The last Ukrainian holdouts in the occupied city, Azovstal’s remaining defenders, began surrendering at that point. They had nearly depleted their supplies and had been told by commanders that their mission of tying down and bleeding Russian forces for as long as possible had been completed.
Before the surrender, a lucky few were flown out in low-flying helicopters in a series of daring and sometimes lethal clandestine rescue missions. However, over 2,400 people remained trapped and surrendered to Russian forces. They included David, who had a portion of his left leg blown off by an anti-tank missile just hours before the surrender began on May 16.
Hundreds of bodies were left behind by the survivors, including Honcharov’s. In one of six exchanges of remains, it was returned to Kyiv. The bodies of over 400 soldiers who died in Mariupol, including at Azovstal, have been swapped. It’s unclear how many are still alive.
The most recent exchange occurred on July 19. Before splitting up, each side gives the other 45 bodies, meeting and signing paperwork. The bodies turned over by Russian forces came from a variety of Ukrainian units. Some body bags are labeled “Azovstal” or “Mariupol,” but the majority are simply “Ukrainian.”
The majority of the remains will require DNA testing to be identified. According to Tolkachova, only 2 to 3 percent are identified by personal belongings, soldier uniforms, or distinguishing marks such as tattoos.
Bodies arrive with no information about where they were discovered. However, Tolkachova and her colleagues who volunteer at the Kyiv morgue have learned that if a body has sand on it, it was most likely buried near the Azovstal mill, which backs onto the Sea of Azov.