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UKRAINE FORESTS GIVING UP THEIR WWII DEAD

Standing atop a large pit in a dense wood east of Kiev, a digger delicately pulls out a human skull with a World War II helmet still attached.

"There are probably around half a million soldiers buried in the forests around Kiev," says Vladyslav Voloshin as he continues to search for yet more bones in an unmarked grave near the town of Baryshevka."It's the largest hidden burial ground in Ukraine," he said.

Voloshin heads the Ukrainian non-profit organization Shana, a volunteer group dedicated to finding unmarked soldiers' graves and reburying their remains in proper graveyards.

So far this year, volunteers have found the bones of 100 soldiers around Kiev.

Human bones are regularly discovered when people are digging up summer garden plots. In the case of Baryshevka, the remains were just yards from a summer camp for children.

"If we are men and not animals, then we should find these dead soldiers and give them a proper burial," Voloshin said this week. The organization's name, Shana, means "respect" in English.

Most of the bones belong to Soviet conscripts killed in battle by the advancing German Army in 1941, Voloshin said.

Villagers were forced to bury the dead soldiers in shallow graves, and today these elderly Ukrainians often help locate the long-forgotten sites.

Unfortunately, Shana members are not the only ones searching for the hidden graveyards.

They regularly compete with pillagers searching for valuable World War II memorabilia such as buttons, pins, ammunition, and even gold teeth.

"These pillagers break open skulls and other bones just in order to find a bit of gold or weapons. Working after them is almost impossible," said Yuri Hluk-hov-sky, a Shana volunteer.

About 80 percent of the graves excavated by Shana already have been looted, he said.

Ukrainian experts say there still are tens of thousands, if not more, unmarked graves throughout the country, often with multiple remains.

According to prominent Russian military historian, Dmitry Volkogonov, the former Soviet Union lost nearly 26.5 million people, soldiers and civilians, in the war against Nazi Germany.

Many soldiers' graves remain unmarked not only in Ukraine, but in Russia, Belarus and other former Soviet republics, where similar efforts to properly bury the war dead also are ongoing.

However, the costly process of locating and reburying remains is low in priority for many of these cash-strapped nations. Ukraine is no exception.

"Our budget is so small that if we had to budget into it the money for these burials, we would have to fully stop financing everything else," said Culture Ministry spokesman Volodymyr Hrabar.