Bone by bone, Ukraine identifies its dead

Bone by bone, Ukraine identifies its dead

ZAPORIZHIA, Ukraine - Before the war, Ms Oksana Biryukova's lab helped investigators connect criminals to crime scenes. Now her equipment is buzzing around the clock trying to identify the charred remains of Ukrainian soldiers.

The DNA laboratory in the south-eastern city of Zaporizhia is the only one in the country charged with creating genetic profiles for the unidentified bodies of Ukrainian servicemen killed in the conflict with pro-Russian separatists.

"These samples arrive every day," Ms Biryukova, the chief analyst at the interior ministry lab told AFP, nodding at brown boxes stacked in the corner of her gleaming white workplace.

"The full picture - nobody knows it," she said. "The 400 that we have handled is just some of the work."

Trying to put a name to the remains of those killed in the seven months of brutal fighting in east Ukraine can be a difficult task.

Body fragments sent to Ms Biryukova's lab are often so degraded that specialists have to run tests several times, she said, showing vacuum-packed bones and a piece of jaw lying in an unassuming refrigerator.

"Most of the time we can only use bone tissue (to run tests) because samples come from people who have burnt almost completely." Even then, family clinging to hope that their loved ones are still alive sometimes refuse to give their DNA for testing.

Getting the bodies of those killed from the battlefield to the laboratory takes a lot of hard work. Commanding officers can no longer do it if the area has passed to hands of separatists.

Volunteer group Narodnaya Pamyat - which works with the authorities to try to recover and return the remains of those missing - estimates that more than 500 soldiers remain unaccounted for.

As military casualty figures spiked at the end of the summer, members from the organisation who have experience searching for World War II remains offered to help Ukraine's overwhelmed military find those left behind.

But their operations are makeshift at best.

"The vehicles we have are junk on wheels, and de facto people do this work on their own money, on their own time," says Konstantin, an army officer who helps put together search parties to scour rebel territory for the dead.

So far his groups have helped to recover some 160 bodies from the conflict zone.

Once a body is found, the first obstacle is often the lack of any identification as Ukraine's cash-strapped military cannot even furnish dog tags.

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