Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Army Morgue Tries To End War Horror




ROSTOV-ON-DON, Southern Russia -- The conflict in Dagestan is likely to pour new salt on an old wound f the problem of identifying the bodies of those Russian servicemen maimed beyond recognition.


These latest victims of ethnic conflict in Russia will join more than 300 bodies and body parts still unidentified from the Chechen war in a special lab set up in Rostov-on-Don.


Although the fighting ended three years ago, thousands of Russian families have been unable to bury their sons along with their sorrows. And those who were given the remains of their relatives were often deceived, according to Russian media reports. One mother received a set of three legs instead of her dead son. Other parents opened the zinc coffins they received only to find strangers inside.


Many have no choice but to wait. Progress is slow at the Rostov lab, which identifies only four to six bodies a month, leaving only skulls by the time the process is completed. Meanwhile, officers from the military laboratory keep going to Chechnya to dig up new remains.


The responsibility for identifying the bodies falls on Colonel Vladimir Shcherbakov, head of Rostov's laboratory No. 124. But with limited records, his task is a difficult one.


In order to create a system that might eventually make his job easier, Shcherbakov prepared and submitted a draft bill to the State Duma last year. The legislation would establish a procedure enabling the Russian military to identify its dead by requiring the government to collect finger, palm, toe and foot prints of everyone serving in the armed forces. This information, the bill states, would then be entered into a special database.


"Imagine a tank driver who was completely burned and only his feet remained in the tight boots. We would be able to easily identify him through his sole prints," says Shcherbakov, adding that this method is much more economical than the forensic tests that currently are the only methods available to identify the bodies.


However, the bill has yet to be passed by the Duma.


"As of today, nothing has changed," Shcherbakov says.


So far the bodies of only a few soldiers killed in Dagestan were sent to Shcherbakov's lab. But scientists have already been unable to identify one of the bodies.


Adding to Shcherbakov's problems is the fact that his lab has not received a single ruble of the 109 million allocated to it for 1999. The lab has had to operate on the 4.5 million rubles it managed to save from last year's budget.


As a result, he is unable to buy supplies and equipment needed to be able to perform mitochondrial DNA tests. The most sophisticated forensic tests available, they enable scientists to identify remains by comparing the victim's cells with those of samples from surviving female family members. The tests were used to identify the remains of Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II, and members of the Romanov royal family.


There has been some relief, if not in the form of legislation or cash.


The military has sent in reinforcements to aid Shcherbakov in the lab. In fact, the facility itself was elevated in April from the status of a local unit to one serving the chief medical department of the Defense Ministry. As such, Shcherbakov was able to increase his personnel from 16 to 60.


Serving in the lab is not necessarily a plum for the many rank-and-file soldiers who work there. Among their duties is the gruesome task of boiling or soaking the rotten remains of comrades exhumed from shallow graves. Anyone who has been close to that smell, Shcherbakov says, never forgets it.


"They are contract soldiers," he says. "They have no other option."