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Identifying The Dead In Ukraine's Simmering War

Wooden cross in Kiev
Wooden cross in Kiev
Ilya Barabanov

DNIPROPETROVSK – Last week, in this central Ukrainian city, a public farewell was bid to 21 soldiers, even if their names were never determined. The coffins, draped with Ukrainian flags, were brought to the the square between the Opera and Ballet Theaters on Karl Marx Avenue in Dnipropetrovsk, the country's fourth-largest city.

“The soldiers who are now holding a vigil around the coffins just returned from the front two days ago, and they saw everything themselves,” said Guard Colonel Denis Shlega, who himself spent more than two months battling pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. “We really want unidentified soldier to get their names, so that there can be memorials built for them, so that they can be remembered in their workplaces and in the schools where they studied.”

After the service, which was preformed by representatives of several different religions, the procession left for the cemetery, which had already set aside a special area for unidentified soldiers: 74 have already been buried there so far. Based on the number of graves that have already been dug but are still empty, the cemetery is prepared for 500 burials.

The gravestones are marked with just a number and the same message “temporarily unidentified defender of Ukraine.”

Across the street, instead, are graves for the identified dead. Oleg Eismant, a soldier who died on May 9, already has a stone tombstone. Other graves are marked simply by wooden crosses with pasted-on photographs. The youngest in this section of the graveyard was Vyacheslav Morozuk, who turned 20 in the spring and died at the beginning of August. Sergei Andreev was killed Oct. 3, after the Minsk agreement was signed to bring a ceasefire, which has only partially held.

The vice-governor of the region, Svyatoslav Oleinik, said that as of now, there are some 500 dead soldiers whose identities are unknown. “But the list could get longer, because not all mass graves have been found.” In the regions controlled by the Donetsk Republic and the Luhansk Republic, volunteers go on trips to try to locate, bring back and identify other fallen soldiers.

Russians in the mix?

“We bring back our own, but we aren’t always able to tell immediately whose side the person fought on,” Oleinik said. “We are now developing a DNA database based on the databases used by experts at the Interior Ministry, where we are entering the data on all the unidentified bodies. It’s also possible that relatives in Russia are looking for soldiers who didn’t come home.”

Yuri Bereza, the commander of the Dnepr-1 regiment, says his troops don't take prisoners, and that he’s only lost 18 men, some of whom are Missing In Action. But he also says that when leaving Ilovaisk, his soldiers brought out the bodies of all their fallen comrades.

Ukrainian soldiers training in Luhansk — Photo: Sergii Kharchenko/Pacific Press/ZUMA

“Ten days ago, military intelligence said that there are a lot of bodies that we saw there, that are still lying there — no one is in a hurry to pick them up,” Bereza said. “I don’t understand that. We have crosses here for the unnamed heroes of Ukraine, and it’s possible that we have unnamed heroes of Russia among them.”

Yuri Titorchuk, the head of the office of medical research, which is located in one of the buildings in Dnipropetrovsk’s city hospital No. 4, won’t confirm that Russians have been among the unidentified dead. “Russian documents haven’t turned up,” he said.

Titorchuk had just seen the remains of five soldiers who died during the fight for the Luhansk airport in August. Nearby, unidentified bodies lie frozen in black bags, waiting to be buried on Saturday.

“We get bodies with remains in military uniforms or remains without clothing. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the cause of death is trauma from an explosion, from very high temperatures or from massive damage to the body during an explosion,” Titorchuk explained.

Sometimes the bodies are recognized by identifying items — like watches, crosses and telephones, or things on the body itself, such as tattoos or dental records. According to procedure, bodies are supposed to be buried 10 days after the autopsy. If there is still hope that a body might be identified, the morgue workers try to delay the burial.

Facing the end

All of the DNA samples taken here go into the national database. If the relatives of someone who has disappeared without a trace give a DNA sample, anywhere in Ukraine, they can determine if their loved one is in the system with a high degree of certainty.

“We’ve had cases where the relatives identified the body by his tattoos, but then they had a doubt and asked for a DNA analysis,” one of Titorchuk’s colleagues explained. “We confirmed that it was who they thought it was.”

Some people won’t submit to a DNA analysis because they still hope that their relative is alive. Last week, relatives of missing soldiers protested in front of a government building. “Officials can’t tell us anything about the fate of our sons, they suggest that we go get our DNA analyzed, but that’s just cruel,” said one of the women protesting.

In another hospital, there is an office for volunteers, who help the injured, collect money for medicine, food and clothing, and sit with the sick. The walls of the room are covered with pictures of the missing. Under one photograph and name someone has written: “Went missing on Aug. 29 in a battle zone, could be injured, is among those Missing In Action.”

“They keep looking until the very end,” said Elena, a volunteer. “Going to give DNA for analysis would mean admitting to themselves that the person is dead.”

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