Ukraine using French mobile DNA lab to investigate Russian war crimes

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Ukraine is jump-starting its war-crimes investigations with a French mobile DNA lab

Ukrainian forensic scientists investigating Russian war crimes are — in a wartime first — using a mobile DNA lab van, a bid to better preserve evidence of atrocities committed on civilians this year in eastern Ukraine.

“This is the first use of mobile DNA in a war context,” said Lieutenant Colonel Sylvain Hubac of France’s National Gendarmerie (IRCGN), a branch of the country’s military, speaking late last month at the International Symposium on Human Identification in Washington, D.C., about the van forensic team’s findings.

Using the van, a French gendarme team investigated victims of the Russian occupation of Bucha, north of Kyiv, in April and May — sequencing the DNA of victims’ remains and of people searching for missing and presumed dead family members. Now newly trained Ukrainian investigators have deployed the van to investigate mass graves found in Izium, outside Kharkiv, uncovered in September. In testing at the mass grave site behind St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church in Bucha, victim samples produced identifiable DNA in 98 percent of cases tested by the mobile lab, Hubac reported, calling the on-site analysis “very efficient, fast, and easy to use.”

Typically, in wars, investigators must wait for fighting to stop, weeks or months in which bodies degrade and forensic evidence disappears, especially when bodies are piled up in mass graves. Performing the analysis instead in a mobile lab speeds the time of identification to help other investigators, eliminates travel time to morgues that degrades evidence, and replaces government labs destroyed by war.

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The van contains a full, sealed laboratory for analyzing genetic results from victims. Even burned, co-mingled remains yielded good and distinct genetic profiles from swabs of the victims, the team found. Those results were matched against those of relatives to confirm the identities. The final number of victims identified in Bucha is confidential to Ukraine’s investigation. But Hubac reported that the van investigated the remains or bodies of 184 people and collected DNA for comparison from 73 relatives.

“The use of [the] mobile lab changes war-crime investigations not in the future, [but] right now,” he said in an email to Grid.

Cataloging crime scenes

In other settings, portable DNA kits have rapidly identified victims of California wildfires or migrants who died along the U.S.-Mexico border, said Tom White, an editor of “Silent Witness: Forensic DNA Evidence in Criminal Investigations and Humanitarian Disasters.”

“But the French Gendarmerie effort seems unique in conducting the forensic DNA in a mobile DNA lab and combining that with teaching Ukrainian scientists traditional forensic methods on-site,” White said.

In the last century, the prosecution of war crimes has played an increasing role in historical reckoning with warfare, most notably in the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia led to war-crimes trials more recently — with DNA evidence playing a role, for example, in investigation of the massacre of thousands in Srebrenica, Bosnia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for war-crimes trials of Russian military units, and President Joe Biden also suggested in April that Russia’s Vladimir Putin should also face a war-crimes tribunal. The advent of a mobile DNA lab aiding forensic investigators on the scene of war atrocities marks a step forward in these kinds of investigations, suggested experts.

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“These are crime scenes,” said forensic anthropologist Nicholas Marquez-Grant of the United Kingdom’s Cranfield University. “There is a real need to identify victims as soon as possible because of the risk of samples degrading, and in a way that preserves the chain of custody of evidence.”

Last chapters

France sent the mobile lab and its equipment to Kyiv, a roughly $1 million donation, in response to Zelenskyy’s call for investigations after the massacres at Bucha were discovered in April. The mobile DNA lab, emblazoned with a Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office sign, helped investigate some 450 initially unidentified bodies found at Izium, according to Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Dmytro Chubenko. The van has helped to identify 150 of them, so far.

“The mobile van is very useful in DNA sampling and DNA analysis,” Chubenko told Grid, because quickly identifying the victims helps investigators trace their movements and tie them to sites of crimes. “This is especially important in wartime.”

People stand outside a white van with a pop-up enclosed tent to take DNA samples in Izyum, Ukraine, on Nov. 4.

Besides the French investigators, who trained 11 Ukrainian forensic scientists in using the DNA lab van, Dutch investigators are also helping Ukraine document atrocities, said Chubenko, and working with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands. “Our top priority right now is war crimes,” he added, suggesting that investigation of thousands of suspected atrocities outside Kharkiv would take several years.

Ukraine is better positioned for war-crimes investigations in some ways than other locations, said Eric Stover, faculty director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, who participated in investigations in Argentina and Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia, where DNA first produced solid war-crime evidence in the 1990s. Ukraine has recaptured territory from Russia weeks to months after the invasion, rather than years, and it took Hubac’s gendarme team only two days to first drive the van from Paris to Kyiv in April.

The key to successful war-crimes prosecutions, Stover added, will be meticulous cooperation with the ICC and bodies like the International Commission on Missing Persons (which Chubenko said is occurring). As well, Ukrainian officials need to carefully involve families in the recovery of their relatives’ bodies for proper burial.

“Everyone should be counted, and everyone is accountable,” said Stover. “When you’re going and you’re investigating a grave, you’re writing the last chapter of somebody’s life, and you want to get it right.”

The DNA lab van is now back in Kharkiv awaiting full supplies, with Ukraine hoping to acquire another mobile DNA van to help in future investigations, as reports grow of abuses in the recently liberated Kherson region. France intends to donate a second mobile lab van early next year, according to Hubac.

“The analysis is very accurate,” said Chubenko. “The problem we are facing is a large number of samples. One laboratory is not able to cover them all.”

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.

  • Dan Vergano
    Dan Vergano

    Science Reporter

    Dan Vergano is a science reporter for Grid.

  • Kseniia Lisnycha
    Kseniia Lisnycha

    Freelance Reporter

    Kseniia Lisnycha is a freelance journalist based in Ukraine.