Against the backdrop of the full-scale war in Ukraine, Every Casualty Counts commissioned students at the University of Groningen to conduct a short research study into how the Ukrainian authorities are upholding their legal obligations to account for every death or disappearance that has occurred as a result of the conflict.
In this series of blogs, student researcher Anastasiia Liulina shares her findings on the steps the Ukrainian authorities are taking to ensure casualties are recorded, recognised and remembered during an ongoing war. She also sets out what other countries can learn from Ukraine’s approach.
This second of three blogs explores how the bodies of the deceased from both sides of a conflict are recovered and identified, and what happens to their remains once the death has been recorded.
Search and recovery
On the Shield is a humanitarian project overseen by the Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) department of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). Originally established in 2014, when it was called ‘Evacuation 200’, it updated its name in 2022. The aim is to find, exhume and transfer both Ukrainian and Russian combatants’ remains.
CIMIC representatives work together with volunteer searchers and head to the frontline as soon as they can after a battle. As well as Ukrainian military units, there are also independent volunteer groups undertaking this work – such as the Black Tulips.
As far as possible, identification starts immediately after finding the deceased. The identification process involves examining, describing, and photographing the body followed by the removal and storage of documents and name tags. Forensic experts examine each body to determine the cause of death. The bodies are then transferred to the relevant authorities to be returned to their families for burial.
If, after 12 months, the body has still not been claimed by relatives then the local administration will organise a burial.
Return of remains
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for arranging the transfer and repatriation of bodies. Ukrainian nationals can be repatriated home whether the body has been identified or not. However, the transfer of unidentified bodies from Ukraine to other States is not allowed. The country requesting the transfer is required to provide the Commissioner on Persons Gone Missing under Special Circumstances with information on the genetic characteristics of the deceased person, or the genetic characteristics of their relatives before the body is released.
The Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine stated on 3rd March 2023 that since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, 1,426 fallen Ukrainian soldiers have been returned from temporarily occupied territories.
There are multiple ways that the relatives of Russian military personnel suspected of being killed can be actively involved in identifying and repatriating bodies:
- They can directly provide their genetic characteristics to the Commissioner for Missing Persons under Special Circumstances for identification purposes.
- Once the remains of a Russian combatant has been identified, Ukrainian authorities try to contact the families of the dead.
- The Ministry of Defence of Ukraine launched a hotline for relatives of Russian combatants on 26 February 2022, called “Come back alive from Ukraine”. This allows families to contact the Ministry to find out whether these soldiers have either been captured or found dead. If their loved one has been killed, they can discuss when and how to return the body.
- Russians can also find their relatives through the “Look for Your Own” project, run by the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Relatives can fill in the online form on the website, identifying the soldier’s name, address, rank and military unit.
Read the previous blog in this series (blog 1)
Read the final blog (blog 3)