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Who Will Identify Ukraine’s Dead?

Two people walking through a field with digging equipment
Members of the Black Tulip organization search for bodies in the Luhansk section of Ukraine on August 18, 2015. © Alexander Ermonchenko/Newscom

There is a cemetery in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, where 156 unnamed soldiers are buried. “There are some we can’t identify,” said Irina Fedorchuk, the director of the Regional State Administration in Dnepropetrovsk. “Their bones turn to ash when you touch them. There is no DNA to extract.”

Fedorchuk’s administration has the difficult task of processing, identifying, and, if necessary, burying the dead from battles in Donetsk and Luhansk. Due to its proximity to the battlefields and its undamaged infrastructure, Dnepropetrovsk has been largely responsible for dealing with the burden of the country’s dead soldiers.

Since 2014, 9,098 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine. To date, 1,164 bodies, all of them soldiers, have been recovered from these battlefields. Every week, more bodies—and parts of bodies—are delivered to the morgues in Dnepropetrovsk for identification and burial. It is unclear how many more remain to be recovered from the separatist-controlled territories in Donetsk and Luhansk.

When the armed conflict broke out in Ukraine’s easternmost provinces, the number of dead and missing overwhelmed Ukraine’s limited capacity to identify them all. “Things became very difficult for us in the summer of 2014,” said Fedorchuk. “More than 100 fragments of bodies were delivered here within just a few days, and we didn’t have any information on how to identify them or who their relatives were.”

An international forensic expert and observer based in Dnepropetrovsk also spoke to the challenges faced by Ukrainian officials in dealing with the dead. “Last winter, they [Ukrainian morgue workers] were storing bodies in railroad cars, sometimes in black garbage bags because there was no room, no resources. The bodies were not stacked or organized properly, and there were many opportunities for cross contamination, meaning you’re leaving yourself open to misidentifying bodies.”

When soldiers die in combat, recovering their remains is a difficult task. In Ukraine’s case, many of the battle sites are off limits to the Ukrainian authorities, preventing them from systematically recovering and identifying their dead. The separatist authorities, Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), have access to more sites, but little is known about their efforts to recover bodies or their ability to identify them.

A volunteer group called the Black Tulips has been filling this role, since the separatist authorities allow civilian volunteers to cross the border into their territory. Director Zhilkan Yaroslav told us his volunteers had recovered more than 850 bodies—700 Ukrainian soldiers and 150 suspected members of armed groups—and handed them over to the Ministry of Defense for transportation to Dnepropetrovsk. But retrieving the bodies is only half the work.

“I know mistakes are being made,” said Yaroslav. “We still have a lot of bodies in Donetsk and Luhansk to find, and we don’t want to make mistakes. Misidentifications worry me, and I know they happen quite a lot as well. There is no coordination of the work. There is quite a bit of disorder.”

Yaroslav said he often receives calls from mothers and wives who claim that the body parts the government returned to them do not match the physical descriptions of their relatives. Some say they distrust DNA tests because of the government’s reputation for corruption and reports of faulty DNA tests. Moreover, lack of coordination between the military and investigators leads to failure to return correctly identified bodies to relatives.

During visits to Ukraine, we found poor information management between government agencies and departments working on the identification of the dead and missing. There is little coordination and frequent duplication, and databases are not well maintained. Civil society groups warned us not to trust numbers reported by state agencies, as they are likely to be inaccurate.

The right of families to know the truth surrounding the fate of a missing family member is expressly provided for by the Geneva Conventions, which apply to the Ukrainian conflict. International human rights bodies have expanded that right to include serious human rights violations in general, linking it to the duty and obligation of the state to protect and guarantee human rights, to conduct effective investigations, and to implement effective remedy and reparations. It is also critical that authorities conduct independent investigations into the circumstances of death in each case.

To be sure, Ukraine’s current scale of missing and dead is small in comparison to places like Afghanistan and Libya, where the missing and dead number in the hundreds of thousands. But Ukraine’s conflict is still in its early stages, and the country has the opportunity to prevent the caseload of those who are missing and unidentified from growing unmanageable. If fighting breaks out again this year, new casualties will place an even greater burden on an already strained system.

The government has taken important first steps to address the problem. Officials have attended dialogues brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross to identify and fix gaps and inefficiencies. But to effectively overcome the backlog and prevent misidentifications, the government must strengthen coordination between departments and pursue investigations into the circumstances surrounding all cases of missing and dead. This is the only chance to fulfill the right to truth, and to offer the victims’ families the closure they deserve. 

Physicians for Human Rights is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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