Wearing face masks, the Ukrainian soldiers poked sticks into the undergrowth along a deserted country road, searching for the bodies of Russian soldiers they hoped to exchange for their own comrades, living and dead. They called it the “road of death” after the number of Russian soldiers killed there when Ukrainian forces retook the southeastern village of Blahodatne at the start of their counteroffensive in June. Three months on, the frontline had shifted south and it was finally safe enough for the three-man team of Ukrainian soldiers to start their operation in this liberated part of Donetsk region. “We’re going to search,” said Volodymyr, a 50-year-old marine, as artillery fire boomed in the distance. “Search with our eyes. And using smell.” The route was dotted with gutted vehicles and shattered buildings. At one point, they used a rope to tug a body to make sure it had not been booby-trapped by retreating Russian forces. “Here’s what we do. We gather up their bodies. We arrange exchanges for our prisoners who are alive. And for bodies. Our boys,” Vasylii, a 53-year-old volunteer, said. “You know, so that a mother can go and visit the cemetery.” Russia and Ukraine have conducted regular exchanges of prisoners of war, as well as the bodies of dead soldiers, since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. The group recovered nine bodies in their day-long search on Friday. Each was loaded onto the back of a truck and taken for forensic examination. Volodymyr said Russian forces had been forced to retreat rapidly from Blahodatne and that the only other route out had been unusable because it was heavily mined. “There was probably an exchange of fire. But they retreated very quickly,” he said. “They left the wounded and killed on the way and escaped to Urozhaine. But they didn’t stay in Urozhaine for long either. There was intense fighting for Urozhaine,” he said, referring to a nearby village that was later retaken. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised what he called Ukraine’s “extraordinary resilience” against Russian aggression during a visit to the Chernigiv region Thursday as he concluded a surprise two-day trip. A day after talks with the Ukrainian leadership in Kyiv, Blinken went to see a school basement in Yagidne, where Russian troops kept dozens of villagers including elderly people and children captive. “We’ve said, many of us, looking at this, hearing the stories, this is the 21st century. This wasn’t supposed to happen again,” Blinken said. “This is just one building,” he said, but “this is a story we’ve seen again and again and again.” “But we are also seeing something else that’s incredibly powerful, and that is the extraordinary resilience of the Ukrainian people.” Russian forces seized parts of Chernigiv region, including Yagidne, soon after invading Ukraine in February 2022. They withdrew after about a month, and Yagidne was recaptured by Ukrainian forces on March 30, 2022, but the Russian army left towns destroyed and land heavily mined. Blinken said up to a third of Ukraine’s territory was now dealing with mines or unexploded ordnance. “But Ukrainians are coming together to get rid of the ordnance, to get rid of the mines, and to literally recover the land,” Blinken said. Blinken later visited a hydroelectric dam alongside Prime Minister Denys Shmygal. Blinken heard from representatives of the state hydro power company that it has suffered $1.5 billion in losses since the start of the war. Blinken on Wednesday met with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv where he also went to a McDonald’s alongside Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, hoping to highlight US companies’ work to keep operating in Ukraine. He announced $1 billion in new US support for Ukraine, hoping to demonstrate commitment by President Joe Biden at a time that some parts of the rival Republican Party are questioning the level of assistance. As he left Ukraine, Blinken denounced Russia’s plans to conduct “sham elections” on Sunday in areas of Ukraine occupied by Moscow. Russia, which controls less than 20 percent of Ukrainian territory including Crimea, which it seized in 2014, is organizing what it calls voting for local officials and regional deputies. The polls would take place a year after Russian authorities conducted widely criticized referendums that led President Vladimir Putin to declare the annexation by Moscow of four areas of Ukraine. “The Kremlin hopes these pre-determined, fabricated results will strengthen Russia’s illegitimate claims to the parts of Ukraine it occupies, but this is nothing more than a propaganda exercise,” Blinken said in a statement. Saying the vote violated the UN Charter’s principle of state sovereignty, Blinken threatened that the United States would impose sanctions on anyone assisting the polls, including self-styled international observers. Besides Russia, only North Korea has accepted the results of last year’s referendums. Ukrainian officials say some residents were coerced to vote and that other voters were bused in. Blinken is expected to head after Ukraine to New Delhi, where he will join President Joe Biden at a summit of the Group of 20 major economies. Putin, who faces an international arrest warrant related to the war, is not attending, although India has maintained cordial relations with Russia.