Identifying Ukraine’s War Dead

Maintaining dignity for the dead. A Ukrainian military cemetery in Dnipro, May 2022. Image: rospoint / Alamy Stock Photo

As the numbers of fallen soldiers and civilians killed continues to rise, how is Ukraine working to recover, identify and remember its dead, and what are the implications for future force design?

War in Ukraine has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian combatants and civilians. This has highlighted the importance of civil–military responses to recover and identify the dead. These processes are complex, involving engagement with multiple agencies and experts throughout the process of investigation. The Ukrainian authorities have started this work, supported by international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Criminal Court, and the International Commission on Missing Persons. Due to the volume of deaths and the ongoing fighting, this work will not cease with the conclusion of the war and will likely continue long into the future.

Casualties at such scale have not been seen in Europe since the First and Second World Wars. During these conflicts, we learned that field graves were easily ‘lost’ due to poor record keeping, shelling or extreme weather, and those who were not immediately buried were not always recovered at a point where their identity could be confirmed, creating thousands of unknown soldiers. Archaeologists continue to recover the dead of these conflicts today. But given the advances in science since then, why do processes of recovery and identification still take so long? Is it a question of scale or access to expertise? Here we explore some of the factors which will shape Ukraine’s ability to identify and bury its dead, and why this is important knowledge for armed forces.

Recovering the Dead

Since 1906, the Geneva Conventions have required combatant states to bury or cremate those killed on the battlefield, forward personal possessions back to their home state, and to maintain the dignity of the dead. However, few armed forces have been faced with the reality of mass losses in recent decades. However, this duty is not simply a military task, nor is it purely civilian due to the security risks associated with locating the dead during an active conflict.

Casualties at such scale have not been seen in Europe since the First and Second World Wars

From the first days of the invasion of Ukraine, there have been reports of extensive military losses by both Ukraine and Russia. Fatalities among combatants and civilians have continued to grow. The Ukrainian armed forces have worked with their domestic forensic infrastructure, supported by national and international partners to locate, recover, identify and return the dead for burial.

Media reports have shown instances of mass burials performed by soldiers (typically to report cases of perceived indignity shown to Ukrainian dead by Russian soldiers), but also of individual graves (more commonly performed by civilians or within civilian spaces such as gardens). Reports also describe bodies which have been left without burial, particularly civilians, and there have been accusations that Russia has failed to provide an adequate response to its own dead. Each body or burial located must be recorded by the Ukrainian police, but it is not always possible to immediately identify the individuals recovered. In most cases, recovered human remains (whether buried or unburied) are recovered and transferred to mortuary facilities to await identification, burial or repatriation.

Where there is a delay in accessing a body, decomposition will advance whether buried or unburied; this changes the appearance and identification potential as the body becomes skeletonised. It is also possible that identifying artefacts or associated evidence which could explain the cause of death may be lost or begin to degrade. A range of variables influence the rate of decomposition, for example, the type of clothing worn, the presence of associated objects and exposure to the elements. Environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and the presence of insects or scavengers will determine the speed and effect of the decomposition process. For bodies undergoing decomposition, preservation by refrigeration is considered essential to maintain evidential integrity.

Identifying the Dead

The ability to identity an individual depends on many factors, often requiring a multi-specialist approach. Identification considers the human remains present and any objects worn or carried, but also objects in close proximity of the body and the recovery scene.

It is essential to recover as much information as possible to help investigators to determine the identity of the deceased and the cause of their death. It is always preferable to locate a body before advanced decomposition because it increases the potential for DNA and fingerprint recovery, and visual (including facial) identification, which may include identifying marks such as tattoos.

It is essential to recover as much information as possible to help investigators to determine the identity of the deceased and the cause of their death

As decomposition advances, processes such as bloat change the visual appearance of the human body, particularly the face. These changes will become more obvious as time progresses. Such changes are also naturally distressing for relatives.

Methods exist to investigate the identity of an individual where decomposition is advanced or skeletonisation is complete, examining items such as DNA from bone, dental and medical records, healed broken bones, or surgical plates or implants.

For any investigation to begin, military personnel and civilians alike must report the location of the dead to the appropriate body, whether the police or the ICRC, who may authorise or oversee the recovery, or may choose to conduct the recovery themselves. This ensures that responders always conduct a dignified, forensic recovery and begin the appropriate investigation processes with the support of the required professionals. Although many who have lost their lives during the war in Ukraine will be identified, there will also be many who will be buried as unknown soldiers and unknown civilians. Numbers of unknown recoveries will increase as time progresses.

Remembering the Dead

The duty to protect the dignity of the dead will met by a civil–military response to allow individuals, families, communities and nations to remember those they have lost. Although the Geneva Conventions have required armed forces to maintain the dignity of the dead until burial or cremation since 1906, the psychological burden to enact these duties is not experienced as an exclusively military phenomenon. Since the First World War, British and Commonwealth military cemeteries have been designed to accommodate all ranks to allow for individual mourning within collective mass loss. The establishment of new memorial cemeteries will undoubtedly be a long-term development within Ukraine to commemorate both military and civilian losses. Such cemeteries must be designed with sufficient space to allow for future interments of those who cannot be reburied for some time due to legal or investigative reasons, and for those who may not be recovered for years to come.

The loss experienced in Ukraine will reshape the physical landscape, and the practical response will determine future generation’s engagement with human remains in their day-to-day life. Once the post-war rebuilding of Ukrainian cities commences, it is likely that more bodies will be recovered from the remnants of destroyed buildings, and these individuals will also move through investigative processes before burial. It is unlikely to be possible to locate and recover every person killed during this war, and, as in previous wars, it is likely that future generations will encounter the dead of this conflict haphazardly through building or agricultural works. Armed forces must understand their role in the recovery of the dead as not only vital for their personnel and their home nation, but as essential for the long term physical and emotional recovery of the nation which is host to the losses.

Force Requirements for Responding to Mass Casualties

The war in Ukraine is a reminder that force design should not be built on an assumption of low casualty numbers, typically evacuated by air, as was the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Support from national and international partners within the forensic sphere will be essential in future wars, as in the case in Ukraine, and such relationships or knowledge of local forensic and mortuary provisions must not be treated as an afterthought to be dealt with after mobilisation. This is reinforced by what little information has become apparent about the treatment of the Russian dead; Vladimir Putin’s peacetime policy developments to prepare for mass losses did not prevent the Russian armed forces from becoming overwhelmed by their dead at times, with thousands of Russian dead remaining unburied on Ukrainian soil (although there is also evidence of the transport of some Russian soldiers back to their homelands so this is not a universal experience).

The loss experienced in Ukraine will reshape the physical landscape, and the practical response will determine future generation’s engagement with human remains in their day-to-day life

The existing mortuary affairs provision should be reviewed within the single services to reflect the truth that single regiments cannot consistently provide this service alongside their core warfighting capabilities. During Iraq and Afghanistan, the UK has benefited from the ability to ‘plug-in’ to US mortuary services, but the sharing of facilities may not be possible in the event of mass casualties, so the UK must ensure that it retains the ability to deploy and maintain a mortuary service within each domain. All deploying units must possess appropriate quantities of body bags and equipment to provide a dignified, sanitary burial, and each force should possess appropriate access to refrigeration facilities for the purpose of storing the dead.

Each force must ensure it possesses the ability to respond to the dead without air support for repatriation during fighting, whether due to the enforcement of a no-fly zone, because of any security risks associated with attempted recovery, or as a result of limited capacity for air support due to competing constraints.

As such, the single services must expand on training for field burials, incorporating practical experience of grave digging where possible to ensure both practical and psychological preparation for losses at scale. The legal requirement to maintain the sanitation of the battlefield and/or populated civilian areas, and obligation to maintain the dignity of the dead should be enhanced within the existing training so that the importance of such works is not overlooked during an emergency situation such as war.

Prior to any deployment to another country, armed forces should make themselves familiar with the forensic infrastructure of that nation. Local mortuary facilities should be assessed to ascertain if the system is able to accommodate intensive losses, or if additional support is required. Engagement with international organisations which bridge the civil–military response, such as the ICRC and any civilian NGOs with appropriate experience, should begin at the earliest stage possible to ensure that support is available during a prolonged conflict.

Governments must ensure that the armed forces have the funding required to enact their duty to the dead not only to ensure operational capacity is not overwhelmed, but because of the moral, legal and political duty to ensure the dignity of the dead and their families in any future war. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that it is no longer possible for the UK to ignore the potential for mass casualties, and it has a duty to its personnel who choose to risk their lives in defence of the nation to ensure that they can trust that they will be provided with a dignified burial should they pay the ultimate sacrifice.

This commentary builds on the recently published article ‘Environmental Conditions and Bodily Decomposition: Implications for Long Term Management of War Fatalities and the Identification of the Dead During the Ongoing Ukrainian Conflict’ published in Forensic Science International: Synergie.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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