It will take decades to identify Ukraine war victims, authorities predict


It could take decades to identify Ukraine’s war dead, a leading forensics body has predicted.

As the war reached its one-year anniversary, The Independent revealed that at least 100,000 civilians are believed to have been killed in Russia’s brutal assault – more than 10 times the current official death toll, according to the country’s leading war crimes prosecutor.

Forensic anthropologist Photis Andronicou of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) said identifying victims in the horrific war could take decades without significant help from the Ukrainian authorities and the international community.

“From other contexts that I have worked on – and experience – I would say this process in Ukraine will take years, many years,” Mr Andronicou told The Independent.

“As an example, the situation and events in Cyprus happened in the 60s and 70s … it is now almost 2023 and the identification rate there is close to 50 to 60 per cent.

“Half the people have not been identified… 48 years later.”

Mr Andronicou’s insights form part of a new documentary, The Body in the Woods, by The Independent’s international correspondent Bel Trew. The documentary, which will be released on March 1, follows the stories of Ukrainians seeking to identify their loved ones lost in the early months of the conflict.

The documentary spotlights the raw and unfiltered devastation in towns surrounding key cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv which Russian forces bombarded heavily to capture in quick succession.

Independent TV releases trailer of feature length documentary The Body in the Woods

(The Independent )

In April last year, just two months into the war, mass graves with civilians tied up and bullet holes at the back of their heads were found in areas Russian troops were pulling back, such as Bucha – a city close to Kyiv.

Bucha’s mayor said that they had buried 280 people in mass graves – while some of the few civilians who stayed and survived were on the brink of starvation.

A mass grave is seen behind a church in the town of Bucha


Matthew Holliday, ICMP programme director for Europe, said the identification of victims was about bringing justice against war criminals as well as giving families the truth about their loved ones.

He added, however: “Ukraine is quite unique in the sense that the authorities have actually launched an investigation into missing persons cases while the conflict is ongoing.

“As soon as territory is de-occupied by the Ukrainian authorities they seek to exhume graves sites.

“This creates a challenge because they are not very far from the frontline, there may be unexploded ordnance, mines etc. Another one of the challenges is that many Ukrainians have fled and taken refuge in other countries bordering Ukraine.”

Members of a forensic team carry a plastic bag with a body inside as they work in an exhumation in a mass grave in Lyman, Ukraine

(Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

As Ukraine marks the one-year anniversary, it is braced for a new wave of fighting, with both sides expected to ramp up their military offensives in the coming weeks.

Ukraine has called for more heavy weapons and ammunition from the West so it can hold off any Russian advance and replenish its military supplies and push forward its own counteroffensive.

ICMP, the Hague-based organisation, created in the wake of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, opened an office in Kyiv in July 2022 to help Ukraine to document and track down missing people. The group supported the identification of the thousands of victims killed in the 1970s Cyprus and Turkey conflict amid rising violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

The premiere of The Independent’s documentary is due to be held at Kyiv railway station on 25 February, and will be followed by charity screenings in London and New York.

The documentary will be available to watch online at the Independent TV hub (, on The Independent’s new smart TV app, and on the Independent mobile app.

The Independent TV app is available globally on a number of smart TV (‘CTV’ – connected TV) platforms: Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, and Sony smart TVs, with LG, Samsung and Roku to be added in the coming weeks.

To find out more about The Body in the Woods documentary and our new Independent TV smart TV app click here.

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