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

France donated the vehicle and trained Ukrainian experts who are scrutinizing mass graves outside Kharkiv.

“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.

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.

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.

“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

“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.
The mobile DNA lab provided by French authorities is seen Nov. 4 in Izium, where Ukrainian scientists have been trained to take DNA from bodies to identify them and to gather evidence for potential war-crimes trials.

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 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.”

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