Anastasia carefully digs through the earth with her trowel. Bit by bit, a human skeleton emerges, piled on top of more bones.
She removes them with care, slipping them gently into a plastic container.
Was it an Italian soldier? Or a Soviet? Identifying the bodies, while possible, is tricky.
What is known is the man died in one of numerous stalags (German prisoner-of-war camps) where Red Army and Allied troops – including Italians after Italy switched sides from the fascist camp – were interned.
The fate of the Italians who had been fighting alongside the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front is one of the war’s many dark secrets.
Treated as traitors by the Nazis after Rome surrendered, thousands were shot, worked or starved to death in the camps.
Now, 70 years after the end of World War II, thanks to the excavations in eastern Poland, these unknown soldiers are getting a proper burial.
Wearing white flu masks and jumpsuits, the dozen crew members sort the remains: shinbones to one side; vertebrae, ribs and small bones to the other.
The skulls go elsewhere, packed in individual plastic bags.
“It’s the only way to count the exact number of victims,” archaeologist Przemyslaw Kolosowski told AFP.
He is in charge of the dig near former stalag number 327 of Przemysl-Pikulice, near the southeastern Polish city of Przemysl.
The bones have ossified over the years, making it difficult to unearth victims one by one.
In six weeks, the crew has dug up the remains of around 3,000 Italian and Soviet prisoners from eight mass graves in the area.
Italians seen as traitors
The remains are then moved to nearby Nehrybka, the site of a new military cemetery scheduled to open next year.
Already buried there are the bodies of the 1,500 victims unearthed by the Polish branch of the Red Cross in 1963.
“We don’t know why they didn’t check all the mass graves then. Maybe they didn’t have the funds,” says Adam Siwek from the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites, the state agency behind the excavations.
“Today we’re finishing up what should have been done long ago,” he said.
Most of the soldiers died of hunger or diseases brought on by the inhumane conditions in the stalag, according to Kolosowski.
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SOURCE: Agence France-Presse