Dressed in full protective suits and masks, they lower the body bags, one by one, onto stretchers and roll them inside. Investigators stand back, clipboards in hand, waiting to begin their grueling work.
Inside each bag is a “John Doe”, a person whose remains have been left in the ruins of war for weeks and are so badly decomposed they are unrecognizable.
“Of course, it’s difficult. But it’s not ordinary work. It’s a desire to help,” said Olena Tolkachova, head of the family services of the Azov regiment.
Thousands of Ukrainian war dead remain unidentified. Police, soldiers, investigators, undertakers and forensic experts – desperate to return the remains to loved ones – are working tirelessly to find out who they are, so their bodies can be buried properly.
In most cases, only DNA analysis can provide the necessary answers.
child’s drawing index
The 64 bodies that arrived the day CNN visited the morgue were recovered from the steelworks in Azovstal, one of the last strongholds of Ukrainian defenders in the port city of Mariupol, where fighters eventually surrendered to the mid-May.
They were handed over by Russian forces in exchange for 56 of their own dead fighters, Tolkachova said.
The body of Daniil Safonov, a 28-year-old Ukrainian policeman who became popular on social media for posting updates from the frontlines, is believed to be among the remains found in Azovstal.
“Holding the line, but it’s very difficult,” he posted on Twitter on April 3. “If I don’t write anymore, I’m sorry, we did everything we could. Glory to Ukraine!”
But when Olha Matsala, Safonov’s sister, examined what was believed to be his remains at the Kyiv morgue, she said she could not make out any of his features. Safonov was reportedly killed in a mortar attack in early May; his body had been in the heat for almost six weeks.
“He was an extremely good man. He gave his life for Ukraine. He told me he agreed never to come back from Mariupol, and I was afraid that was what happened,” Matsala said.
But in the pocket of Safonov’s uniform was the evidence needed to identify him: two small pencil drawings by his 6-year-old son, one of a Christmas tree, the other of a cloud of rain, still intact.
“It makes things easier,” Matsala said, crying. “Now I can bury him, and I’ll be calmer knowing his grave is nearby. I’ve been waiting for him.”
His relief is rare. In almost all cases, the only hope for identification is DNA analysis, but this is a long and complex task.
Paired DNA samples
The process begins inside the morgue, where undertakers extract tissue samples from the dead. Due to the bodies advanced states of decomposition, a piece of bone is often the only option.
The samples are delivered to a laboratory in Kyiv, where analysts work to establish DNA profiles.
“If the bone disintegrates, we have to make dozens of attempts to extract a DNA profile. Sometimes it can take months, but we never stop trying,” said Ruslan Abbasov, head of the DNA laboratory at the Ministry of the Interior.
“We are working 24/7 to help Ukrainians find their loved ones. We hope to be able to name every victim, identify every soldier. And bury them with dignity.”
Using special software, a forensic expert then tries to find a match to the remains by comparing John Doe’s DNA against a government database of thousands of people looking for their relatives.
“The more profiles we have, statistically, the more matches we make. Obviously we don’t have enough DNA from relatives of missing persons,” said Stanislav Martynenko, chief forensic expert at the lab.
“It will take years after the end of the war to find all the unidentified human bodies.”
Of the 700 unidentified bodies listed so far, 200 have been associated with a family so far, according to Abbasov.
Martynenko is responsible for many of these identifications. “When I play a game, I feel like I did my job,” he told CNN. “And I have to let everyone know about this game starting with the police.”
To expand the government’s database, authorities set up a hotline for families to report a missing person and arrange to give a DNA sample to a local police station. About 1,000 people have come forward to do so since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.
But some of those who lost this war will probably never be returned to their families.
“Some bodies are so damaged that it is impossible to extract DNA from them,” said Tolkachova, of the Azov regiment, in tears. “We have parents telling us, ‘I understand that you can’t find my child, but at least bring me some of the dirt they walked on from Mariupol to bury him.'”
Her voice conveys the agony felt by those who will never know the fate of their loved one, never receive a body to bury, and perhaps never find the end.
This is the result that Ukrainian forensic experts are trying to avoid. But with new remnants arriving day by day and the war continuing in eastern and southern Ukraine, the task is daunting.