Home News DNA tests and stranded bodies: Ukraine’s efforts to identify dead people

DNA tests and stranded bodies: Ukraine’s efforts to identify dead people

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The bodies of two Ukrainian soldiers lay motionless in a field for months. They were surrounded by blood and their rifles.

Relatives of the soldiers identified their bodies through aerial footage taken by a drone. As painful as it looked, it seemed clear: these two men—Pvt. Serhiy Matsiuk and Pvt. Andrei Zaretsky – dead. Yet more than four months later, the Ukrainian military still lists them as missing, although drone footage provided by a fellow soldier weeks later shows them still lying there.

“I hope that in his grave I can come and cry about it all,” said Anastasia, 31, Private Zaretsky’s wife. She has been seeking closure since she was killed in the Zaporozhye region of southern Ukraine.

Far from being an isolated phenomenon, this confusion and the long and arduous process of obtaining an official death toll is another painful consequence of two years of war.

Families, lawyers and human rights groups say Ukraine’s military has suffered too many casualties and cannot account for thousands of dead, adding to the anguish of the families of soldiers.

Relatives of two men at the scene said that as far as they knew, the bodies were still lying on the ground in the Zaporizhia region of southern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government has not disclosed the number of soldiers missing in action. President Volodymyr Zelensky put the number of soldiers killed in February at 31,000, and Kyiv said the number missing was about half that number. (U.S. estimates of the death toll are much higher, suggesting that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died as of last August.)

The high number of missing soldiers underscores the ubiquitous nature of trench warfare, which often resulted in large numbers of corpses being dumped on both sides in the buffer zone between the two armies, making the picture of war casualties even more obscure.

Some soldiers missing from the war have been captured by Russian forces, but others may be dead and unidentified, lying in morgues as the government works to clear a backlog of cases and identify them.

Ben Barry, a senior fellow on land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the growing number of missing troops was a blow to Ukraine’s already low morale. “They are just putting pressure on Ukrainian society, putting pressure on the military leadership and President Zelensky,” he said. “This is a terrible problem.”

The lack of answers has fueled growing civilian frustration that occasionally comes to public view. A massive protest took place in Kiev last October, and several more have taken place in recent months, with relatives demanding greater accountability for the missing soldiers.

Ukrainian officials estimate the number of soldiers captured by Russia is in the hundreds, if not thousands, but say it is difficult to know because Russia does not publish prisoner lists. They say that in almost every prisoner exchange, Russia releases a number of soldiers – sometimes as many as a fifth – that Ukraine lists as missing in action.

Confirming a death is especially problematic when Ukrainian officials don’t have a body, but even when a body is available, confirming a death can be a long and difficult process.

The International Commission on Missing Persons, a The Hague-based organization that helps governments conduct cross-border searches, said that ideally the Ukrainian military should compile a central genetic database from the bodies of the dead and the families of the missing.

One difficulty is the reluctance of many families to submit DNA samples while still holding on to the hope that their loved ones are still alive, said Petro Yatsenko, spokesman for the headquarters for the coordination of the treatment of prisoners of war.

But the government’s testing is also piecemeal. Artur Dobroserdov, Ukraine’s missing persons commissioner, said that although Ukraine has 13 DNA laboratories operating, the process of identifying the bodies could still take up to several months.

To circumvent this bureaucracy, relatives stepped in. They go from morgue to morgue, sometimes with the help of volunteers, looking at the bodies and trying to identify them first through photographs and then asking relevant family members for genetic samples.

Tetiana Fefchak, a lawyer from western Ukraine who often goes to morgues to try to identify bodies, said she found the process more efficient than waiting for an official statement. “What do you suggest? Let them rot there?” she said. “If you can do something yourself, do it.”

A law passed in 2022 would have simplified identification by allowing soldiers to donate genetic samples before deployment. But a senior Ukrainian military official familiar with the matter said the process was “slower than we would have liked” and spoke on condition of anonymity discussing internal matters.

Relatives and supporters of the missing say poor communication from military commanders sometimes makes matters worse.

Private Zaretsky’s wife said the brigade commander had not contacted his family. “Another young man who survived told me, at great risk, how my husband died but the commander did not,” Ms. Zarezka said. “I know a lot of people died, but that doesn’t give them the right to do this to our family.”

Spokesman Yatsenko said that according to Ukrainian military regulations, combat commanders are not obliged to discuss the situation of missing persons with their families. He said the Defense Department kept maps of Ukrainian remains on the battlefield between the trenches in the hope of retrieving them if the battle lines changed.

Early in the war, the army accepted eyewitness accounts of the deaths of other soldiers. But the error kept appearing. “In the middle of a fierce battle, some soldier might lose consciousness, his comrades think he is dead, and then the Russians will find him,” said Olina Bi, who works for a Ukrainian organization that provides assistance to families of missing soldiers or prisoners of war. Olena Bieliachkova said.

As a result, Ukraine’s military is now insisting on a lengthy investigation into the suspected deaths, meaning families may live with painful uncertainty for months. For families, delays are both financial and emotional. Relatives of fallen soldiers will receive installments of 15 million hryvnia (approximately $386,000).

Relatives of soldiers can go to court with evidence of their deaths to seek official confirmation, but the process requires a military commission to investigate each case, which can take two to six months.

The delay will only increase the financial burden on the cash-strapped government, as families of missing soldiers, even if presumed dead, receive monthly salaries of about 100,000 hryvnia ($2,570) until the soldier is officially declared dead . The cost of continuing these payments could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

The closest historical parallels to Ukraine’s plight date back to the world wars of the 20th century, when efforts to find and identify soldiers missing in action continue to this day.

As the war continued, the family became more desperate. Alyona Bondar’s brother has been missing since September.

“I sensed a very careless attitude, no one was saying anything, no one was looking for him,” said Ms. Bondar, 37. In desperation, she sought help from a fortune teller who told her that her brother survived. “But should I believe it?” she asked.

The families of the two soldiers, Zaretsky and Matthewk, who lay on the battlefield, learned of their fate from their surviving friend, Mikola.

Last October, the two men were picking up soldiers being driven off the front lines, Mikkola said. He asked that only his first name be used to comply with military protocol. But while driving back, their car broke down. They crawled out and ran.

They were lagging behind the others when a guided anti-tank missile exploded nearby, and they fell to the ground in a field.

After Mikola reached the safety of a Ukrainian trench, fellow soldiers flew drones over his friend’s body. They lay motionless, apparently dead. Mikola said he returned the next day and tried to pull them into a trench in Ukraine. He was wounded by shrapnel and is now partially paralyzed.

“It’s very important to me that their bodies are brought back,” he said. “For a year, we would eat from a plate together and they would do the same for me. I just felt the need to at least bury them.”

Thomas Gibbons Neff Contributed reporting.

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