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

Wearing full protective suits and masks, they lower the body bags, one by one, onto the gurneys and roll them inside. Investigators stand behind, clipboard in hand, waiting to begin their arduous task.

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

“Of course, it is difficult. But this is no ordinary task. It is a desire to help,” said Olena Tolkachova, head of family services for the Azov regiment.

The identities of the thousands of people killed in the war in Ukraine are yet to be ascertained. Police, soldiers, investigators, death row and forensic experts – desperate to return the remains of their loved ones – are working tirelessly to find out who they are so their bodies can be properly laid to rest. could.

In most cases, only DNA analysis can provide the needed answer.

kid’s drawing clue

The day CNN visited the morgue, 64 bodies were pulled from the Azovstal steel plant, one of the last holdouts for Ukrainian defenders in the port city of Mariupol, where fighters finally surrendered in mid-May.

Tolkachova said she was handed over by the Russian army in exchange for her 56 dead fighters.

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

“Staying on the line, but it’s so hard,” he posted on Twitter on April 3.

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

But when Safonov’s sister Olha Mtsala examined his remains in the Kyiv morgue, she said that she could not distinguish any of their features. Safonov is believed to have been killed in a mortar attack in early May; His body had been lying in heat for almost six weeks.

“He was a very nice man. He gave his life for Ukraine. He told me that he admitted that he might never return from Mariupol, and I was afraid of what happened,” Mtsala said.

But the pockets of Safonov’s uniform contained the evidence necessary to identify him: two small crayon 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 Daniel was identified by two crayon drawings made by his son, which were found in the pocket of his uniform.

“That makes it easy,” said Matsala, crying. “Now, knowing I can bury him, and his grave is nearby, I’ll be at peace. I’ve been waiting for him.”

His relief is rare. In almost every case, the only hope of identification is through DNA analysis, but this is a long and complex task.

DNA samples matched

The process begins inside the morgue, where morgues remove tissue samples from the dead. Due to the advanced stages of decomposition of the body, often a piece of bone is the only option.

The samples are delivered to the Kyiv laboratory, where analysts work to create a DNA profile.

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

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

“We work 24/7 to help Ukrainians find their loved ones. We hope that we will be able to name each victim, identify each soldier and bury them with honor.”

Using specialized software, a forensics expert tries to match the remains, comparing John Doe’s DNA to a government database of thousands of people searching for their loved ones.

“The more profiles we have, statistically, the more matches we have. It’s clear that we don’t have enough DNA from relatives of missing persons,” said Stanislav Martinenko, the lab’s chief forensic expert.

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

According to Abbasov, of the 700 unidentified bodies listed so far, 200 have been matched to a family.

Martinenko is behind many of these identities. “When I make a match, 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 from the Ministry of Internal Affairs' laboratory in Kyiv processes DNA samples.

To expand the government database, officials have set up a hotline for families to report a missing person and arrange for a DNA sample to be delivered to the local police station. Nearly 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 probably never be returned to their families.

“Some bodies are so damaged that it is impossible to extract DNA,” Tolkachova of the Azov Regiment explained through tears. “We have parents who tell us: ‘I understand that you can’t find my child, but at least bring me some of the dirt they drove from Mariupol to a burial.'”

Her voice expresses the anguish felt by those who will never know the fate of their loved one, will never receive a body for burial, and may never find closure.

That is the result that forensic experts in Ukraine are working so hard to avoid. But with more remnants arriving by the day, and the war intensifying in Ukraine’s east and south, the task is daunting.

Daria Markina and Yulia Kesaeva contributed to this report.