Ukraine conflict: Helping one family search for lost soldier

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Media captionOlga Ivshina filed this report on Black Tulip's work in October

When I first met Black Tulip last year, I never imagined its work would become quite so personal for me.

The Ukrainian group is made up of volunteers who risk their lives to bring back the bodies of soldiers killed in action in the east of the country. It has found the remains of more than 600 servicemen.

Back in October we were the first journalists to join the group on a recovery mission. And I will never forget it. Scenes of devastation and human tragedies made my blood run cold.

In a trench near the town of Snizhne in Donetsk region, the volunteers found the bodies of four Ukrainian soldiers.

Image caption The Black Tulip group worked to recover the bodies of soldiers near Snizhne in dangerous conditions

The smell of rotting corpses was hard to bear.

It was dangerous work. There was the risk of unexploded shells or booby-traps. And volunteers had no protective equipment except for gloves and gas masks.

Killed, wounded or captured?

A few days later, I had returned from the visit and was trying to forget the atrocities of the war.

But soon after the report was broadcast on television, I got a message from a lady called Ivanna Pivovarchyk who had watched it.

Ivanna and her sister Iryna wanted my help.

Their brother Sergey Pivovarchyk and three other soldiers went missing in action on 6 August 2014. The family had asked military authorities what had happened, but received no answer.

Image caption Ivanna with her brother Sergey

"Was he killed, wounded or captured? Many relatives were demanding answers from generals. But they seemed reluctant," Ivanna told me.

"These were terrible months: we were searching and praying. We did not even know how to refer to Sergey in our prayers - as dead or as alive."

Not long after he disappeared, Ivanna heard from a resident of Snizhne that documents belonging to her brother had been found on a battlefield nearby.

She was also sent a video apparently showing four dead soldiers near a checkpoint hours after fighting.

Image caption Sergey Pivovarchyk went missing in action on the 6 August 2014

And then she and her sister Iryna saw our report, showing Black Tulip volunteers discovering four bodies near Snizhne.

They wrote to me to try to find out whether their brother was among those found.

Barely recognisable bodies

I remember watching the video and photos of him they sent me, again and again.

I tried to compare his image to the barely-recognisable bodies we saw near Snizhne.

Image caption The volunteers did not know the identity of the bodies they found at the time

Reliving those memories was hard. But it seemed impossible to leave this desperate family without help.

"That is exactly what keeps us moving," says Yaroslav Zhilkin, the head of the Black Tulip group.

"These soldiers died fulfilling their duty. Their relatives are waiting for them. If the government does not bring them back home for some reason, than we will do it as long as we can."

And so Black Tulip agreed to take on the case of Sergey Pivovarchyk and help Iryna and Ivanna find their brother.

Image caption Olga Ivshina interviewed Yaroslav Zhilkin as he recorded the results of the recovery in October

'Desperate for support'

Black Tulip has been managing hundreds of similar requests from families across Ukraine.

The volunteers' challenging work is funded entirely by donations. The Ukrainian army tries to help them with fuel, but that is all.

"We are desperate for government support," says Yaroslav Zhilkin, who was previously a successful businessman.

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Media captionBlack Tulip is struggling to continue its work

Before the crisis, the 43-year-old would spend his spare time helping to search for the remains of soldiers who went missing during World Wars One and Two.

He never imagined that experience would become so useful - now in looking for soldiers killed in the current conflict.

Over the past year Yaroslav has spent over $160,000 (£100,000; €147,000) of his own money to keep the project going. He has already been forced to sell his watch to try to raise money.

Image caption Ukraine buries unidentified soldiers at this cemetery in Dnepropetrovsk

Other volunteers have also sacrificed their own time and money.

But at the moment Black Tulip has debts of almost $135,000.

"We need proper protection equipment and funding," Yaroslav says. "Our legal status needs to be sorted out, because volunteers have started having problems at work.

"We may have to terminate our mission."

Uncertain future

Ukraine's security service says more than 1,100 people are listed as missing because of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Black Tulip believes between 300 and 1,500 missing soldiers are still to be found. It also responds to requests from pro-Russian rebel commanders for their fighters to be returned.

Image caption Sergey Pivovarchyk with his sister Iryna, Iryna's son, and their mother

Ukrainian officials have promised support and some funds - maybe next year.

But it is becoming harder day by day for the group to find and identify missing soldiers.

'Still painful'

At least the volunteers have been able to help Ivanna and Iryna recover the body of their brother.

As it turned out, his remains were among those found by Black Tulip near Snizhne that day back in October.

"It is still very painful. But after we buried Sergey it has become easier to cope," says Ivanna.

"At least we know where he is; we can come to his tomb and talk to him.

"There are no words to express how grateful we are to Black Tulip for bringing our brother back.

"I hope they will be able to continue their work. Not knowing the destiny of missing soldiers is a torture for relatives."

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