"VOLGOGRAD, Russia (AFP) - Volgograd may have been rebuilt from scratch after 1945, but the city once called Stalingrad is still haunted by the ghosts of World War II's watershed battle which saw Nazi Germany's first crushing defeat.
"The whole city is a memorial," said Mikhail Godun, a young fireman who spends much of his free time digging up the remains of those who fell during the brutal, 200-day clash.
What was arguably the mother of all World War II battles -- and Soviet victories -- claimed the lives of more than one million Soviet soldiers, around 800,000 German, Romanian and Italian axis troops and around 500,000 civilians in Stalingrad and the surrounding area, according to figures from the general staff of the Russian armed forces.
Many of those who died still lie in the ground at the exact place where they were slain during combat that raged from August 1942 to February 1943.
"As soon as the snow begins to melt, we start digging for soldiers' bodies," Godun says.
"In February, beyond the canal, on a construction site on Korpusnaya street, we found 60 bodies of German soldiers," which were then buried in a German military cemetary on the fringes of the city, he says.
Sometimes, bodies are also found by chance, during construction work. "Volgograd residents have long become used to finding dead soldiers when water pipes are being replaced in their streets," Godun says.
The city is dominated by the Mamayev Kurgan battle memorial, which is set set on a man-made hill. It is topped by an 80-meter (262-foot) concrete and steel statue of a woman wielding a sword over her head, meant to personify the motherland.
But while this and other monuments recall the battle as a horror of the past, its physical and psychological vestiges are part of the present for many local residents.
"We are just crossing the frontline" that used to separate Soviet from German troops, Godun said as he stepped across a street in central Volgograd.
On the city's main square, called the Square of Men Fallen in Battle, grows a tree that survived the battle. Next to it, a shrine carries these words: "Here are buried those who died fighting the German fascist invaders."
High school students in military attire parade in front of the memorial and its eternal flame, a landmark of Stalingrad -- the city was renamed Volgograd in 1961 -- which was elevated to the status of "Hero City" following the battle.
"They are the honor guard watching over post number one, the Hero City's eternal flame," said Lidya Metyolkina, assistant principal of a local high school.
"Being allowed to watch over the eternal flame is a reward granted to the city's best schools. The children like it, and it is an honor."
Bordering the central square is the Univermag, a Soviet-era department store whose basement served as headquarters for the commander in chief of German forces in the battle, Marshall Friedrich Paulus.
On February 2, 1943, Paulus, who commanded Nazi Germany's Sixth army, which had been besieged in the city by Soviet troops, finally surrendered.
Today, a little-advertised museum recreates the German headquarters in the Univermag's basement, next to the crockery department.
But few of Volgograd's 1.4 million inhabitants have direct recollections of the battle, as most of them moved here in the aftermath of World War II.
In 1942, now 84-year-old Gamlet Dallakian was a young signals officer with the Soviet frontline general staff.
"The general staff was buried 26 meters deep on the banks of the Tsaritsa river, a stone's throw from the city center, which was held by the Germans," he recalls, wearing a string of medals pinned on his breast.
There, he crossed the path of a Soviet officer called Nikita Khrushchev, who would go on to become Soviet leader following Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, Dallakian says.
Dallakian carried out numerous night-time missions to liaise with Soviet troops posted on the opposite bank of the Volga. During one one of them, he was wounded by a German bullet.
Today, the students who walk along the Volga's banks do not even spare a glance for the memorials marking the once deadly frontline."
Ghosts of Stalingrad
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