The landfill site on the edge of Kherson offers some visible hints here and there, among the piles of garbage, to what locals and workers say happened in its recent past. Russian flags, uniforms and helmets emerge from the putrid mud, while hundreds of seagulls and dozens of stray dogs scavenge around.
As the Russian occupation of the region was on its last legs over the summer, the site, once a mundane place where residents disposed of their rubbish, became a no-go area, according to Kherson’s inhabitants, fiercely sealed off by the invading forces from presumed prying eyes.
The reason for the jittery secrecy, several residents and workers at the site told the Guardian, was that the occupying forces had a gruesome new purpose there: dumping the bodies of their fallen brethren, and then burning them.
The residents report seeing Russian open trucks arriving at the site carrying black bags that were then set on fire, filling the air with a large cloud of smoke and a terrifying stench of burning flesh.
They believe the Russians were disposing of the bodies of its soldiers killed during the heavy fighting of those summer days.
“Every time our army shelled the Russians there, they moved the remains to the landfill and burned them,” says Iryna, 40, a Kherson resident.
Ukraine’s attempts to gain momentum and retake the southern city began at the end of June when the long-awaited US-made Himars long-range rockets finally reached one of the frontlines there. Kyiv was making good use of them to badly damage bridges across the Dnipro, destroy Russian ammunition dumps and strike enemy artillery and forces.
It was around this time, the residents said, that they first started to fear a new use for the site.
It is not possible to independently verify the claims, and Ukrainian authorities said they could not comment on whether the allegations were being investigated. The Guardian visited the landfill, located on the north-western outskirts of the town, five days after Kherson’s liberation and spoke to employees of the site as well as several more of the town’s residents, who backed up the claims made by others in the summer. .
“The Russians drove a Kamaz full of garbage and corpses all together and unloaded,” said a garbage collector from Kherson who asked not to be named. “Do you think someone was gonna bury them? They dumped them and then dumped the trash over them, and that’s it.”
He said he did not see if bodies belonged to soldiers or civilians. “I didn’t see. I’ve said enough. I’m not scared, I’ve been fighting this war since 2014. Been to Donbas.
“But the less you know, the better you sleep,” he added, citing a Ukrainian saying. Fear is still alive among the residents who lived for eight months under a police state, in which the Russian authorities did not tolerate the slightest hint of dissent. The price was arrest, or worse: death.
Svitlana Viktorivna, 45, who together with her husband, Oleksandr, has been bringing waste to the landfill for years in their truck, said a Russian checkpoint had been set up at its entrance.
“We were not allowed anywhere near the area of the landfill where they were burning the bodies,” she says. “So let me tell you how it was: they came here, they left some of their soldier-guards, and unloaded and burned. One day my husband and I arrived at the wrong time. We came here while they were doing their ‘business’ and they gave my husband a hard blow in the face with a club.”
“I didn’t see the remains,” she adds. “They buried whatever was left.”
Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has said that nearly 6,000 soldiers have died in Ukraine, but the Pentagon in late summer estimated that about 80,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or injured.
The workers at the landfill said the Russians had chosen an area on the most isolated side of the landfill. For security reasons, it is not possible to visit. A truck driver working in the landfill said he did not rule out that the Russians may have mined the area or left unexploded devices.
“I heard the story, but I didn’t go that far with my truck to unload rubbish. But I can guarantee you that, whatever they were doing, it smelled so bad, like [rotten] meat” says the truck driver. “And the smoke… the smoke was thick.”
Residents of a large Soviet-era apartment block facing the landfill said that when the Russians had started burning, a large cloud of smoke had risen up filling the air with an unbearable smell of decay, to the point that it had felt impossible to breathe.
“I felt nauseous when I smelled that smoke,” says Olesia Kokorina, 60, who lives on the eighth floor. “And it was scary, too, because it smelled like burnt hair, and you know, it also smelled like at the dentist’s when they drill your tooth before placing a filling. And the smoke was so thick, you couldn’t see the building next door.”
“It just never smelled like this before,” says Natalia, 65. “There were lots of dump trucks and they were all covered with bags. I don’t know what was in them, but the stench from the smoke in the landfill was so bad we couldn’t even open the balcony door. There were days when you couldn’t breathe because of the smell.”
Some believe that burning bodies of their own soldiers was the easiest way to get rid of the corpses as bridges over the Dnipro River when Russians were virtually cut off on its western bank were too fragile to hold trucks.
Dozens of other Kherson residents corroborated the reports of their neighbors, but Ukrainian authorities have not spoken so far. A local official who requested anonymity said: “We are not interested in the burial sites of the enemy. What interests us is to find the bodies of Ukrainians, tortured, killed and buried in mass graves here in the Kherson region.”
Ukraine’s security service believes the bodies of thousands of dead Russian soldiers are being informally disposed of as the Kremlin is logging them as “missing in action” in an attempt to cover up its losses in the war in Ukraine.
An intercepted phone call from a Russian soldier in May said that his comrades had been buried in “a dump the height of a man” just outside occupied Donetsk. “There’s so much Cargo 200 [military code for dead soldiers] that the mountains of corpses are 2 meters high,” he said in the call. “It’s not a morgue, it’s a dump. It’s massive.”
“They just toss them there,” a Russian soldier said in another intercepted call. “And then later it’s easier to make it as if they disappeared without a trace. It’s easier for them to pretend they are just missing, and that’s it.”