World · June 24, 2022

From DNA samples to children’s drawings. How Ukraine is trying to identify some of those lost in the war

Dressed in full protective coveralls and masks, they lower the body bags, one by one, onto the stretchers and roll them inside. Investigators stand back, notes in hand, waiting to begin their grueling work.

Inside each bag is a “John Doe”, a person whose remains have been left in the ruins of war for weeks and are so badly decomposed that they are unrecognizable.

“Of course, it’s difficult. But this isn’t a normal job. It’s a desire to help,” said Olena Tolkachova, head of family services for the Azov regiment.

Thousands of war dead in Ukraine are not identified. Police, soldiers, investigators, funeral homes and forensic experts, desperate to return the remains to loved ones, are working tirelessly to find out who they are so their bodies can rest properly.

In most cases, only DNA analysis can provide the necessary answers.

Clue of the child’s drawing

The 64 bodies that arrived on the day CNN visited the morgue were recovered from the Azovstal steel mill, one of the last standings for Ukrainian defenders in the port city of Mariupol, where fighters eventually surrendered. in mid-May.

They were handed over by Russian forces in exchange for 56 of their own dead fighters, Tolkachova said.

The body of Daniil Safonov, a 28-year-old Ukrainian policeman who became popular on social media for posting updates from the frontline, which was believed to be among the remains recovered by the Azovstal.

“Keeping the line, but it’s very difficult,” he posted on Twitter on April 3. “If I stop writing, I’m sorry, we’ve done everything we can. Glory to Ukraine!”

Policeman Daniil Safonov was believed to have been killed in a mortar round in Mariupol in May and his body is among those recovered from the city's Azofstal steel mill.

But when Olha Matsala, Safonov’s sister, examined what she thought were her remains at the Kiev morgue, she says she couldn’t make out any of his features. Safonov is believed to have been killed in a mortar attack in early May; his body had been warm for nearly six weeks.

“He was an extremely good man. He gave his life for Ukraine. He told me he agreed to never go back to Mariupol, and I feared that was what happened,” Matsala said.

But hidden in Safonov’s uniform pocket was the evidence needed to identify him: two small pastel drawings of his 6-year-old son, one of a Christmas tree, the other of a rain cloud, somehow still. intact.

Olha Matsala's brother Daniil was identified by two pastel drawings, made by her son, found in his uniform pocket.

“This makes it easier,” Matsala said, crying. “Now I can bury him and I’ll be calmer knowing his grave is near. I’ve been waiting for him.”

His relief is rare. In almost all cases, the only hope of identification is through DNA analysis, but it is a long and complex task.

Matched DNA samples

The process begins inside the morgue, where funeral home workers extract tissue samples from the dead. Due to the advanced states of decomposition of the bodies, often a piece of bone is the only option.

The samples are delivered to a laboratory in Kiev, where analysts work to build the DNA profiles.

Analysts process DNA samples at the Ministry of Internal Affairs' laboratory in Kiev, Ukraine.

“If the bone is disintegrating, we have to make dozens of attempts to extract a DNA profile. Sometimes it can take months, but we never stop trying,” said Ruslan Abbasov, head of the DNA laboratory at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. .

“We work 24/7 to help Ukrainians find their loved ones. We hope to be able to name every victim, identify every soldier. And bury them with dignity.”

Using special software, a forensic expert then tries to match the remains by comparing John Doe’s DNA with a government database of thousands of people looking for their loved ones.

“The more profiles we have, statistically, the more matches we make. It is obvious that we don’t have enough DNA from the relatives of missing persons,” said Stanislav Martynenko, chief forensic expert at the laboratory.

“It will take years after the war is over to find all the unidentified human bodies.”

Of the 700 unidentified bodies so far cataloged, 200 have so far been matched to a family, according to Abbasov.

Martynenko is behind many of these identifications. “When I play a game, I feel like I’ve done my job,” he told CNN. “And I have to inform everyone about this match, starting with the police.”

Analysts at the Ministry of the Interior 'laboratory in Kiev processes DNA samples.

To expand the government database, authorities have set up a hotline for families to report a missing person and arrange for a DNA sample to be delivered to a local police station. About 1,000 people have come forward to do so since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.

But some of those lost in this war will likely never be returned to their families.

“Some bodies are so damaged that it is impossible to extract the DNA,” Tolkachova of the Azov regiment explained tearfully. “We have parents who tell us, ‘I understand you can’t find my son, but at least bring me some of the land they walked on from Mariupol to bury it.'”

His voice conveys the agony felt by those who will never know the fate of their loved one, will never receive a body to bury and perhaps will never find a conclusion.

This is the result that Ukrainian forensic experts are working so hard to avoid. But with more remains arriving day after day and the war progressing in the east and south of Ukraine, the task is daunting.