Crisis in Ukraine

A Coffin Convoy to Russia

Insurgents in Ukraine send dozens of corpses back to Mother Russia in an attempt to win pity—and firepower—from the Kremlin. There’s no longer a pretense about where they came from.

Vadim Ghirda/AP

DONETSK, Ukraine — Red coffins were lined up on the ground outside the Donetsk city morgue on Thursday, waiting to be filled with the dead bodies of insurgents to be taken back to where they belonged, to Russia. Long hours passed in the close air. The smell of death seemed to seep into the leaves and trees in the yard, into the clothes of those of us watching and the uniforms and suits of rebel leaders getting ready for the symbolic 115 kilometer convoy of the dead to the Russian border.

The commanders believed that the trucks filled with corpses of Russian citizens, accompanied by the press specially invited for the occasion, would be a loud statement addressed to the Kremlin—a cry for help, so that more “Russian brothers in blood” would be summoned to battle, turn into murderers, and fight against the Ukrainian army.

Does Donetsk need to see more death, more coffins?

The civil war has to continue, say the insurgent leaders, their faces twisted with hatred. The horrifying message written in death is meant to wake up Mother Russia, so she will supply the insurgents at last not only with recruits but with “serious” weapons.

“This is not Ukrainian land, this is a Russian land, but the Ukrainian forces destroy our men with military jets or high-caliber weapons that we don’t have,” said Alexander Kishinets, who introduced himself as the defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic.

Recruiting fighters for a civil war and loading coffins was not what Kishinets’s life was devoted to before the revolution in Kiev, he told The Daily Beast. Instead of military operations, Kishinets led an “Island of Freedom movement for those who love life,” he said: he organized festivals, sporting events and contests for young and talented Donetsk teenagers.

Last April, Kishinets invited every Donetsk lover of a healthy lifestyle, as he put it, to do Tai Bo exercises in Lenin Square. Many of his young students took weapons and joined the anti-Ukrainian movement: “We have recruited a women’s unit and if necessary, even babushkas will join us in combat against the enemy,” he vowed. The former sports coach said he hopes that his own 19-year-old son would not have to fight against the professional military on the streets of Donetsk, but he left open that possiblity.

Behind Kishinets’s back, inside the morgue, the ceremonial room filled with the sound of sobbing as mourners cried for a 44-year-old taxi driver, Mark Zverev, a rebel who joined the “self-defense forces” earlier this spring and was driving a truck with Russian recruits on the day it was blown up.

“People, ask me, is my son a terrorist?” Zverev’s heartbroken mother moaned over her son’s coffin. “If so, all of us, all seven million people living in Luhansk and Donetsk, are terrorists and Al Qaeda is a miserable nothing compared to us,” she said.

The heartbroken mother and wife will not be the last women to shed tears over their loved ones, as southeast Ukraine sinks deeper into a war that threatens to rage endlessly through the three-lined avenues of the Donbass region. The ideologues and leaders of the insurgency know full well that this shipment of coffins back to Russia could be the first of many such caravans.

But death from Ukrainian shelling is not the only threat to the self-proclaimed republic. There are also potentially fatal problems from within, including and epidemic of crime and corruption. On Wednesday it the republic’s leaders declared a “clean-up” operation inside their own headquarters at an occupied administration building.

A group of locals gathered outside the barricaded offices watched with sympathy—and relief—as the old contingent of militia left the headquarters. The whole blood-soaked drama seemed suddenly futile, and questions circled circled in the air as plentifully as the flies around the 33 dead bodies traveling to Russia tonight. Were the reasons the rebels gave for dying truly honest, holy and pure? “I have trouble explaining to my own sister in the west of Ukraine that we are not terrorists here,” said Anna Volchuk, a young woman in a red dress, whose voice trembled with bitterness.

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The rebel militia kept pouring out of the building, where they lived for weeks, with all their belongings. An obese man carried his shoes in his hand. Another confused man in camouflage pants and bedroom slippers said as he passed, “Our commander, Kolobok, ordered us to pack all our stuff and leave the building; our bags were searched at the exit.” There had been reports of a robbery at a local Metro supermarket and the commanders were checking for contraband.

Would the cleansing operation revive the image of the republic in the midst of fighting?

“There should not be robbers with guns running around Donetsk, if we want to build Novorossia,” said Elena Lashuk, a devoted volunteer, who spent weeks cooking food and helping the rebellious militia. “This is a holy, Orthodox war; we are all going to fight and bring icons to the battle field; if not the Russian army, God will defend us and deliver us from our sins,” Lashuk said.

But as the building was “cleaned of bums,” according to the commanders, they were replaced by hardened “green men” in balaclavas, who clearly were Russians. Would their war be more holy, or more effective?

In almost every room the floor was piled high with goods stolen from the Metro store—stacks of big round cheeses, bottles of vodka, and even packs of women’s tights—supplies for a siege, of sorts, in a war that grows stranger by the day.