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



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Kyiv, Ukraine

Exterior an already overwhelmed morgue in Kyiv, morticians swing open the again door of a refrigerated truck, and the heavy stench of demise fills the air.

Wearing full protecting fits and masks they decrease physique luggage, one after the other, onto gurneys and roll them inside. Investigators stand again, clipboards in hand, ready to begin their grueling work.

Inside every bag is a “John Doe,” an individual whose stays have been left within the ruins of conflict for weeks and are so badly decomposed that they’re unrecognizable.

“After all, it’s laborious. However this isn’t an abnormal job. It’s a need to assist,” mentioned Olena Tolkachova, chief of household companies for the Azov Regiment.

Hundreds of Ukraine’s conflict useless are unidentified. Police, troopers, investigators, morticians and forensic specialists — determined to return stays to family members — are working tirelessly to search out out who they’re, so their our bodies may be laid correctly to relaxation.

Usually, solely DNA evaluation can present the solutions wanted.

Bodies being delivered to a morgue in Kyiv on June 15.

The 64 our bodies that arrived the day CNN visited the morgue had been retrieved from the Azovstal metal plant, one of many final holdouts for Ukrainian defenders within the port metropolis of Mariupol, the place fighters lastly surrendered in mid-Could.

They had been handed over by Russian forces in trade for 56 of their very own useless fighters, Tolkachova mentioned.

The physique of Daniil Safonov, a 28-year-old Ukrainian policeman who grew to become standard on social media for posting updates from the frontlines, was believed to be among the many stays recovered from Azovstal.

“Holding the road, however it’s very tough,” he posted on Twitter on April 3. “If I don’t write any extra, I’m sorry, we did every thing we may. Glory to Ukraine!”

Policeman Daniil Safonov is believed to have been killed in a mortar strike in Mariupol in May. His body is among those recovered from the city's Azofstal steel plant.

However when Olha Matsala, Safonov’s sister, examined what had been regarded as his stays on the Kyiv morgue, she says she couldn’t distinguish any of his options. Safonov is believed to have been killed in a mortar assault in early Could; his physique had lain within the warmth for nearly six weeks.

“He was a particularly good man. He gave his life for Ukraine. He informed me he accepted he could by no means return from Mariupol, and I feared that’s what occurred,” Matsala mentioned.

However tucked into the pocket of Safonov’s uniform was the proof wanted to determine him: Two small crayon drawings from his 6-year-old son, one in every of a Christmas tree, the opposite of a rain cloud, in some way nonetheless intact.

Olha Matsala's brother Daniil was identified from two crayon drawings, made by his son, found in the pocket of his uniform.

“This makes it simpler,” Matsala mentioned, crying. “Now, I can bury him, and I shall be calmer figuring out his grave is close by. I used to be ready for him.”

Her reduction is uncommon. In almost each case, the one hope for identification is thru DNA evaluation, however it’s a prolonged and complicated job.

The method begins contained in the morgue, the place morticians extract tissue samples from the useless. Due to the our bodies’ superior states of decomposition, usually a bit of bone is the one choice.

The samples are delivered to a Kyiv laboratory, the place analysts work to construct DNA profiles.

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

“If the bone is disintegrating, we should make dozens of makes an attempt to tug a DNA profile. Generally it might probably take months, however we by no means cease making an attempt,” mentioned Ruslan Abbasov, the top of the DNA laboratory of the Ministry of Inner Affairs.

“We work 24/7 to assist Ukrainians discover their family members. We hope that we will title every sufferer, determine each serviceman. And to bury them with dignity.”

Utilizing particular software program, a forensic professional then tries to discover a match to the stays by evaluating the John Doe’s DNA to a authorities database of hundreds of individuals looking for their family members.

“The extra profiles we’ve got, statistically, the extra matches we make. It’s apparent we don’t have sufficient DNA from kinfolk of the lacking individuals,” mentioned Stanislav Martynenko, chief forensic professional on the lab.

“It would take years after the conflict ends to search out all of the unidentified human our bodies.”

Of the 700 unidentified our bodies to this point catalogued, 200 have been matched to a household to this point, in keeping with Abbasov.

Martynenko is behind a lot of these identifications. “Once I make a match, I really feel like I’ve achieved my job,” he informed CNN. “And I want to tell everybody about this match beginning with the police.”

Analysts at the Ministry of Internal Affairs' laboratory in Kyiv process DNA samples.

To widen the federal government database, authorities have arrange a hotline for households to report a lacking individual and organize to present a DNA pattern at an area police station. About 1,000 individuals have come ahead to take action since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.

However a few of these misplaced to this conflict will probably by no means be returned to their households.

“Some our bodies are so broken it’s unimaginable to extract DNA,” Tolkachova, of the Azov Regiment, defined by tears. “We’ve got mother and father who inform us: ‘I perceive you can’t discover my youngster, however at the very least carry me a few of the grime they walked on from Mariupol to bury.’”

Her voice conveys the agony felt by those that won’t ever know the destiny of their cherished one, by no means obtain a physique to bury, and maybe by no means discover closure.

That’s the end result that Ukraine’s forensic specialists are working so laborious to keep away from. However with extra stays arriving daily, and the conflict grinding on in Ukraine’s east and south, the duty is daunting.