Between life and death

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”The war will not end until the last soldier killed in the war has been buried.” The latest opinion from Ukraine about current state of deal by Olha Bohomolets – Head of the Parliamentary Commission on Health and Advisor to the President on Humanitarian Affairs for lb.ua.

Every day in Ukraine begins with a summary of the news from the front. You listen to the bald numbers of casualties and you tremble knowing that each number represents a fallen hero. For the families whose sons are in the ATO zone listening to the news is horrific and to hear the words “the casualties list does not include those who are missing” is even worse.

In modern warfare fierce new weapons render the victims not-human. The bodies of the dead are mutilated beyond recognition, burned to the bone by the shelling of officially prohibited weapons. Relatives and friends cannot identify the body. They cannot be sure that it was him they had buried, the one whose return they had awaited more than anything else in the world…

Fortunately there are brave people, volunteers, who work in the battlefields and find the remains of the fallen.

After the first massacre of peace loving civilians on the Maidan; after the first cases of kidnapping; after the many disappearances we realized the importance of timely identification. We understood how urgent it was to find the names of the victims so they would not remain the unknown missing, causing their loved ones everlasting, unstoppable pain…

On February 20, 2014, the day of the mass executions on the Maidan, we became aware of how important it was to identify the victims immediately. Since we did not find any documents on the victims we pulled their mobile phones out of their pockets and called the numbers they had last called, the numbers of their relatives, friends and colleagues… As a result not a single body was lost and all the relatives were able to grieve and to bury their loved one and to receive a death certificate. But those who had been killed earlier, those we were unable to identify right away and whose body it was impossible to retain – to this day they are listed as missing. And somewhere the hearts and souls of their loved ones are broken.

Investigation based on the place of residence

This is the first time since becoming an independent state that, due to the war, Ukraine has had to deal with such huge numbers of the killed and missing and the hundreds of unidentified bodies and human remains that had to be identified without a working system in place. For the first time in the history of our country meeting after meeting was held in the Office of the President with the participation of representatives of the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor General, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Social Policy to work out one good strategy, to find ways to resolve the issue. We had to put an end to the endless trips families took all over the country in search of a dead loved one as had happened at the outset of the war; we had to make sure the body would not be moved unnecessarily before being properly identified.

It took three months to create and develop a single identification system. Of course mistakes were made from which we immediately drew lessons. For example, at the beginning of the war the DNA analysis was conducted by the Ministry of Health which complicated matters when it came to working jointly with the investigative department of the Interior Ministry. Also in the first months of the war there were cases where soldiers were buried without having been identified. At present all the known burials have been exhumed, DNA samples were collected and an examination was conducted. The DNA samples of these men are now stored in the database.

The relatives of the missing no longer have to travel all over the country in search of answers. Now all they have to do is file a request with the Interior Ministry and they will be directed where to go to get a free DNA analysis.

From the start the government has taken on the responsibility of identifying the bodies in the ATO zone at government expense. Today it can be stated with confidence that establishing genetic traits through molecular genetic testing is a mandatory procedure which the employees of the Interior Ministry of Ukraine carry out upon receiving bodily remains or bodies that cannot be identified. A special database has been established in which are stored all the DNA results conducted on the bodies found in the war zone. Special units have been set up at regional police stations to receive citizens’ claims of a loved one’s disappearance, a loved one being taken captive, or kidnapped. The police units respond quickly by opening criminal cases and directing the family members of the missing person to DNA sample collection stations and assigning an appropriate DNA test.

The internet site of the Ministry of the Interior lists all the relevant information about where to call in each regional center to learn and understand what steps to take to provide a DNA sample. It suffices to follow the links on the site. All procedures and analysis are done free of charge to the citizens.

For foreigners there is a charge

There are cases where foreign nationals, often times Russian citizens, are missing in the ATO zone. The fact that they are afraid of retaliation and are therefore reluctant to pursue official channels in their search for the missing is unfortunate and exacerbates an already difficult situation. Their feelings of guilt that their loved one is an armed soldier in a foreign country makes them postpone the moment of truth for as long as possible. That’s not right. It is vital to shake off the excess emotions and to agree to provide a DNA sample that will be entered into the central database so that a match of probable kinship with the DNA of an unidentified body from the ATO zone can be found.

A citizen of any country has the right to a DNA search for a fee. The cost of the procedure for a foreign citizen is 2538,00 UAH per DNA sample. DNA samples of at least two blood relatives are required. This is somewhat costly and problematic for foreign citizens but it is far better than languishing in uncertainty about the fate of a loved one.

The bodies of unidentified soldiers whose DNA is stored in the database and are waiting to be identified have been interred in the cemeteries of Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhia. Some of the bodies have been exhumed and handed over to the relatives, after the DNA tests proved kinship, to be reinterred. Some families, after matching the DNA profiles, have chosen to leave the bodies in the military cemetery but with the name of the deceased inscribed on the crosses.

Be aware that there are unscrupulous people who take advantage of vulnerable, grieving relatives. With tears in her eyes a widow of a fallen hero told me that she had paid 20000 UAH (out of the ‘required’ 40000 UAH) to some middle men who had demanded payment for the release of the body of her dead husband who was killed in the ATO zone. Those middle men vanished after she paid them and in the meantime the body had been transferred to a morgue after undergoing the usual identification procedure. Just think of it, in a time of war there are people in Ukraine who find ways to profit from human suffering.
I am telling all of you: there is no charge for receiving the body of a loved one from the Ukrainian volunteers who search for the victims in the occupied territories. The searchers risk their lives every day as they perform their superhuman work in searching for the bodies. They find them and then they identify them and they do not ask for any compensation.

I appeal to all of you: do not trust any maneuvering, exploitation and deception, do not indulge thieves, fraudsters, and their accomplices. Fight for the truth and for justice – our compatriots are dying for truth and justice.

The statistics of life

People usually dislike statistics. Over the decades the credibility of statistics has been undermined because distorted facts and figures had always been applied. But today the statistics made available on the identification of the corpses are the data of life. Because today, thanks to genetic testing, the fallen soldier is brought back to life by being given back his name. The family’s livelihood is restored with guaranteed compensation and support from the government. Otherwise the fallen warrior would lie in a nameless mound at a cemetery near Dnipropetrovsk, under a nameless obelisk, and the tears of the mothers, wives and children would never stop in the absence of officially authorized government compensation.
The statistics that deal with the identification of the fallen are not fixed, they are ever changing as is the situation in the ATO zone and as the families comprehend more fully the necessity and importance of DNA testing. Every day cross-checking and comparing the existing database with the newly submitted data from relatives is performed. From this we can see how effective our work with the Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry has been and how well I have performed my job as advisor to the president in humanitarian affairs and as Head of the Commission on Health, and as deputy of parliament.
According to our latest figures as of today 1227 relatives of the missing have given tissue samples to the appropriate authorities.

In the span of 9 months, the time during which this study was conducted, 1170 DNA samples were entered into the central database of human genetic prints in the search for probable kinship with the DNA of the unidentified bodies and body parts that had been documented in the ATO zone.

340 bodies for whom 340 relatives, friends and colleagues had been searching have been identified and the families have received the death certificates. There are 1482 bodily remains that have not yet been identified. From those 673 DNA samples have been collected and entered into the database. They are somebody’s sons, husbands, brothers, sisters… They are waiting to be found and they will be found.

Strategy in a time of war

Plundered, devastated and disarmed, Ukraine was unprepared for war. We thought the whole world had become vegetarian, that there was no appetite for war. We had forgotten the ageless axiom: “Those who want peace must prepare for war.”

Now we must catch up fast and remind ourselves the things we had forgotten. Because identifying the remains of our fallen heroes is but a small part of an overall system of measures we have been working on, the underpinning of the Military Medical Guideline of Ukraine. Its objective is to teach Ukrainians the basics of health care in their own lives and the lives of their family in times of peace and in times of war.
I am often asked what the development and implementation of the guideline will mean for the ordinary citizen and how will it change the government? I respond to the question by asking more questions: do you know what to do if martial law is imposed? Do your children and your parents know where the nearest bomb shelter is located? Where will you look for your loved ones if mobile phone communication is lost? Would you be able to provide first aid if someone close by was injured?

The questions are many and few know the answers. In the event of martial law there will be panic and chaos, crowds at airports and at train stations, empty shelves in super markets, and overloaded hospitals.
This is a simple example of civic life everyone can understand which in a time of war takes on a much more formidable form. That is why I insist on a rapid implementation of the medical guideline as an integrated system for the protection of the life and wellbeing of the citizens of Ukraine.

With regard to DNA identification: the Military Medical Guideline will have a section dealing with the identification of military personnel during lifetime and the postmortem identification of remains. We have created a single electronic register of all the wounded. We have established a system for informing a special civil-military operational headquarters within the Ministry of Defense for coordinating medical help for the wounded. We have set up a mechanism to collect DNA samples and to store them in a database.
These are far from all the tools, both technical and organizational, the world utilizes. Based on the analysis of our situation, and based on the analysis of the main causes of death in the ATO zone, discussions with NATO officials have been held on improving the system of lifetime and postmortem identification.

Assistance in health and health care issues within the framework of NATO-Ukraine cooperation has been discussed as well. We hope that with the help of the highly qualified experts of NATO we will in the near future have new methods and procedures for identifying people. These might be lifetime fingerprints and X-rays of teeth. In any case, it is anticipated that all these measures will minimize the number of unidentified remains. “The war will not be over until the last soldier is laid to rest.”

Instead of an epilogue

War is a time of great tragedy and fatal mistakes. We identify with those who have lost loved ones in an undeclared war. Grief and sorrow obscure vision and lead to terrible misunderstandings. I do not want to accept the stark and bitter truth of the DNA tests that there is a person waiting to be buried. The truth is painful and cruel. But it is no less cruel that a nameless soldier is officially listed as unknown only because his relatives either cannot or will not accept the inevitable.

Thus it is always essential to seek and to trust; to believe that there is the likelihood that by giving a DNA sample the truth may be found. Because each soldier who has not been buried, who is missing, is an abandoned soul left suspended between life and death. A soul with faith in Mom, that Mom will come and retrieve him, will bring him home to Volyn or Vynnytsia, to Odesa or Bila Tserkva. The body she had given life to must not be forever lost in the morgues because we lack the fortitude or the willingness to accept life as it is today.

 

EMPR, O. R. contributed to this publication

The original article in Russian is available on lb.ua

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