The Krasnopilske cemetery, just outside the city of Dnipro, is the biggest burial ground for soldiers who died during the conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine but whose identities are still unknown.
The majority of those who were buried here have been identified over the past five years - but nearly 104 graves are still decorated with crosses with the inscription: “Temporarily unidentified soldier.”
“September 11, 2014 was our first burial. Then every week - 11, 20 [bodies],” said Iryna Fedorchuk, director of law enforcement cooperation and security at the Dnipropetrovsk Regional State Administration.
Fedorchuk used to be an investigator, and she has been handling the burying of unidentified soldiers from 2014 onwards – ever since she received a call one night and was told to start digging graves.
“We got really frightened, to be honest, in September 2014 when we were told,” she recalled.
“We asked how many, and were told: ‘A lot.’ ‘But how many graves?’ ‘You need to start digging immediately.’”
Fedorchuk’s task is to coordinate the activities of everyone searching for missing persons in the Dnipro area – investigators, soldiers, experts who have access to DNA databases, and relatives of those who died.
“Once we receive information about a 99.9 per cent [DNA] match, the investigator learns about everything connected to the case, the base of evidence, and handles the identification process, after which he contacts any relatives, and passes all this to them,” she explained.
“If they understand it all, then they turn to us – in Dnipro or [the south-eastern city of] Zaporizhya, and here we help them with organisation. We show where to go and help them in the reburial process, if the relatives want.”
Over the past five years since the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists began in the country’s east, Fedorchuk has been witness to some appalling tragedies and unsettling incidents.
Once, she recalled, her office received the corpse of a soldier whose identity seemed impossible to establish.
“We couldn’t identify the body, because he didn’t have any parents, any direct relatives, no one to take [DNA] samples from. Enter his girlfriend, who says: ‘I’m pregnant.’ And once the child was born, we took a DNA sample and found a 99.9 per cent match,” she said.
“In another situation, one woman was calling us constantly: ‘I know that you gave me a body without a head. I know that you have some expert research going on – I have part of the body, please give it to me, I’ll be waiting for the head.’”
A ‘cyborg’ goes missing in action
The search for people who disappeared during the conflict was supposed to have been aided by Ukraine’s new law on missing persons. The law envisages the creation of a database to help government bodies coordinate the search for missing persons and a mechanism for helping their families, including financial assistance.
But although the law was adopted by parliament and came into force in August 2018, it has been stuck in bureaucratic deadlock since then and is yet to be implemented.
The law was supposed to help people like Alina Fridrikh, the sister of missing soldier Oleksandr Bondar.
Bondar was a so-called ‘cyborg’, one of the Ukrainian soldiers who fought a long-running, horrific battle against pro-Russian separatists who were trying to seize control over the airport in the eastern city of Donetsk. Heavy fighting continued for months, and government forces were eventually overwhelmed in January 2015.
Bondar has been missing since then. His body wasn’t found in the rubble left behind after the last airport terminal was destroyed.
Fridrikh said that her brothers’ fellow soldiers told her that he was wounded and disorientated, but that they did not believe that he had been killed.
“They all tell me: ‘Alina, Sasha is alive. We’ve all seen him. But the only thing is that he suffered a serious contusion. He didn’t understand where he was or what was happening,’” she said.
Bondar’s fellow soldiers said he was calling out the names of his relatives and then wandered off in the direction of the airstrip, saying: “I need to serve.” They never saw him again.
Fridrikh has spoken dozens of times with soldiers, volunteers, international organisations, security service officials, police officers and even mercenaries in an attempt to find out where her brother ended up.
“It would be very nice if there was a single database, where someone could check, and even people from that [separatist-controlled] side [of the frontline in Donbas] – they also have pro-Ukrainian people – they might have some information. But with them living in [separatist-controlled] Donetsk, they don’t know that people are being searched for,” she said.
A few months later, Fridrikh received a call telling that her brother’s body might have been found at the Dnipro cemetery.
“There’s a buried body - the remains of a body - and the tag on the trousers reads ‘Bondar’. And I say, but our parents submitted their DNA - there was no match,” she said.
“Then I rang Olga Zhytovetska, an investigator from Dnipro. [Zhytovetska said:] ‘Why are you worried? What body? You submitted the DNA. I’ll check the database for any matches.’ And I said: ‘OK.’”
Two days later, Zhytovetska told Fridrikh that she had checked the database and there was no DNA match.
But after two months passed, she was told that there was a match after all, but that there was a slight difference in the DNA.
She called Zhytovetska again, but was told: “‘Don’t you worry, that’s too big a difference, it can’t be your body.’ So I relaxed again.”
Another month passed, and an investigator rang to say a second test had been carried out, and the body was that of her brother. “And I say: ‘Who carried out this test and what was used for it?’ No answer followed,” Fridrikh recalled.
A year later, Fridrikh still doesn’t have any confirmation that her brother was buried as an unknown soldier. She is continuing to speak to investigators.
“We’re feeling desperate because we don’t know what to do next, who to call in order to find the truth,” she said.
Missing persons commission ‘only exists on paper’
The law on missing persons is supposed to be implemented by a commission formed by Ukraine’s cabinet of ministers. The commission includes members from various departments - the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, the State Security Service and others.
The commission’s 16-person membership list was confirmed in April 2019. Among its members is Mykhailo Kotolevskyi, the head of the Ministry of Defence’s Evacuation 200 mission, which retrieves the bodies of soldiers who have been killed.
Kotelevskyi said that the Ukrainian armed forces are conducting their own head count of soldiers who went missing in action. The army is trying to update this information on a monthly basis, cooperating with the Ministry of Defence and the State Security Service, and speaking to relatives.
“We collect grains of information,” he said. “We don’t have free movement within that [separatist-controlled] territory [in Donbas], but we use any chance to work in the occupied territories.”
But the missing persons commission has not met yet, and the information compiled by the Ministry of Defence is not being uploaded into a unified database that would bring together data received by all the various agencies and institutions working on the missing persons issue.
“Ukraine is waiting for the moment when the first meeting will be held, and when the commission will be able to work independently. And, according to the law on the legal status of missing persons, the commission has the authority to create a single database of persons missing under special circumstances,” Kotelevskyi said.
When the database is created, families will be able to receive financial assistance if their loved ones are listed on it.
But Kotelevskyi said he could not comment on why the database is not ready yet.
“Why it hasn’t started working, I can’t say – I don’t manage this process, but I’m an officer who’s ready professionally to work in the commission,” he said.
The reason why the commission has not started work yet is simple – because it has not yet been told to convene by the cabinet of ministers.
But the reason why it has not been told to convene is apparently because the cabinet did not know that it was responsible for giving the go-ahead.
“I’ve sent missives as an MP three times to former Prime Minister [Volodymyr] Groysman with the question: ‘Why isn’t the law on missing persons implemented?’” said Iryna Gerashchenko, an MP who was a co-author of the law.
“I perceive the fact that the commission was recently created but only exists on paper as a lack of action from the responsible parties. I sent a couple of missives as an MP, and received the response that ‘yes, the commission has been created but hasn’t started working yet’. This is seen very negatively by the families of the missing,” Gerashchenko added.
Since Gerashchenko’s letters to former premier Groysman, Ukraine has held parliamentary elections and a new government has come to power.
However, it remains unclear when the new administration will start implementing the law and order the missing persons commission to start work.
In the meantime, like other families whose loved ones have disappeared amid the continuing conflict, Alina Fridrikh will continue to wait and hope for the truth about what happened to her brother.
/By Anna Tokhmakhchi
The story was produced as part of a transitional justice project jointly with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN).
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