On February 24th, 2022, Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, launched a special military operation leading to the invasion of Ukraine in the direction of the capital, Kyiv. By the end of February, Russian forces have taken the city of Bucha located in the suburbs of Kyiv and occupied the field for a month. At the end of March, Russian troops were pushed back by Ukrainian forces and redeployed to the east and south of the country. Retreating Russians left territories and military equipment destroyed by the fighting as well as traces of violence on civilians.
In Bucha, hundreds of corpses are found in the streets and in several improvised mass graves. Russia stands accused of war crimes, as western leaders condemned the killings of unarmed civilians. The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, responded favorably to the request of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and sent experts from the Forensic Science Laboratory of the French Gendarmerie (IRCGN) to identify the victims and determine the causes of death. To this end, the IRCGN has projected a task force of 16 military experts in DNA, odontology, fingerprints, legal medicine and ballistic. During 5 weeks from April to May 2022, the mobile DNA lab patented by the gendarmerie and ISO/CEI 17025 certified, was used on site to perform more than 200 DNA analysis from cadavers and victims’ families. Therefore, the mobile system provided real time victim identification with DNA typing. This specialized mobile lab unit enables collection, extraction, quantification and analysis of DNA from all types of human samples including bones at the same level of performance as a traditional laboratory setting.
In his presentation at ISHI 33 this year, Sylvain will present on the system, tools, protocols and expectations from a theatre of war. We chatted with him to discuss some of the unique challenges faced when identifying victims of war and what made the mobile lab uniquely suited for this purpose.
What are some of the unique challenges you faced when working on identifying war victims? What types of specialists were sent in to assist in the identification efforts?
The most difficult challenge on identifying war victims is the war context himself because for Ukraine the war is still going on. So, it’s an open disaster for which there is not a definitive missing person list. Another difficult challenge is the type of victims (civil, military) combined to a diplomatic aspect (natural death, war crime, Ukrainian soldier, Russian soldiers)
For technical aspects, one of the most difficult challenges is the time. In order to define the cause of the death (firearms, explosions etc….) and identify rapidly the victims, you need to have access to the bodies as quickly as possible. In the war context, you have to wait first the end of the fighting to access on site. It can take several days to several weeks or months and during this time, the bodies degrade and forensic evidence disappears especially when bodies are piled up in mass grave.
Specialists in legal medicine, firearms, fingerprint, DNA and dental were sent to assist in the identification efforts.
What made the mobile lab uniquely suited for this type of work?
The mobile lab allows to perform all the forensic investigations directly on site near to the mass grave that:
is very benefit for the traceability of each victim, the collection of all evidences to identify the victims
limit the logistical needs for transport each body to the standard lab or to the mortuary
reduce time to identify the victim and so limit the degradation of bodies
is the unique forensic lab solution when infrastructures of standard lab are not longer functional
Can you briefly describe the process for identifying the victims using various specialties? How important was DNA analysis in this process? Were there challenges with collecting reference samples from family members?
The process that we used follows the Interpol DVI guideline. The identification is certified from primary means like dental, fingerprint, DNA match or medical implant match. Secondary means like personal description, tattoos, ID documents are used in support of primary means.
Depending on the degradation of bodies (putrefied, burned, fragmented) DNA was the most important primary means of identification used. There were difficulties in collecting reference samples because most close relatives of missing person were also missing or left Ukraine for their safety.
I imagine that many of the analysts who were sent to help had never experienced a situation like what they saw in Ukraine. Were they provided with mental and emotional support while working there?
All the team of the IRCGN sent to help already had extensive experience in mass disaster identification because France has already dealt with this situation for air crash or terrorist attack. The unknown was the duration and the context of insecurity. Examining bodies all day during 6 weeks in a war context is different than 6 days in France. For the mental support, the team spirit is important, the mission of assistance to Ukrainian people does the rest. For emotional support, we have assistance by psychologist of the French Gendarmerie. An emotional support had also been set up in France for the families of the analysts in order to reassure them and give them regular news.
What tips would you give to someone who is just starting out in the field of forensics, or what is the best advice that you’ve received?
The best advice I’ve received: always give the best of yourself and keep the team spirit
If you had to pick one thing, what do you enjoy most about your job?
Serve justice and protect citizens. In DVI context, the best reward is to have allowed families to find their relatives
If you currently work in the lab, or have in the past, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever collected DNA from?
It was a menstrual cup during a DVI mission of a fighter jet air crash in France in 2019. I didn’t know what it was at this time but i found curious the presence of this object in the snow with nothing around.
I’ve collected it and used a swab to collect inside. I found the DNA profile of pilot whose body was fully disintegrated upon impact with the ground.
If you could have dinner with anyone (dead or alive), who would it be? Why?
Leonardo De Vinci. I totally agree with his way of thinking: “the simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”
If you’ve attended ISHI in the past, what do you most enjoy about coming to the conference? If you haven’t, what are you most looking forward to?
Share experience, meet fascinating people in other context than a zoom meeting, and of course attend to the event!
What’s one thing that others may not know about you?
That I may be the only French guy to attend at ISHI. If someone has never seen a French guy this is the opportunity!
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