“He is neither among the living nor among the dead”. The story of the Desna barracks shelling, in which 68 soldiers “disappeared”

31-year-old Andriy Lukyanchuk from the Zhytomyr region was mobilized at the very beginning of the full-scale war. The next day, he reported to the draft board, and within a few days, despite having a child with a disability, he was already in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

They sent the man to the Desna training center, where Andriy had previously served his conscripted service.

In the morning on May 17, 2022, the soldier’s family, like hundreds of his comrades, saw in the news that the Russian army had attacked the town of Desna with rockets.

“Preliminarily, we have casualties and many wounded,” reported the head of the regional military administration, Vyacheslav Chaus.

Later, Volodymyr Zelenskyy briefly announced: 87 people were found dead under the rubble in Desna.

These numbers do not fully reveal the tragedy of that day. And it’s not just because the data on Ukrainian military losses are classified.

Andriy Lukyanchuk’s body was never found. He was declared “missing in action” after the devastating shelling by Russians on the barracks. His family was left almost alone in the midst of this tragedy and the struggle to preserve the memory of the soldier.

The absence of a death certificate is not only a legal entanglement, such as with inheritance and the inability to receive payments. It’s also the uncertainty and ambiguity in which the family lives, not being able to accept the death and bury their loved one.

Ukrainska Pravda (media outlet) learned that there were at least seven dozen soldiers who were then labeled as “missing in action.” Some remain in this status to this day. Meanwhile, a military unit’s internal investigation revealed violations that were kept silent both from the families and from the public.

“We don’t know who they buried.” How 68 soldiers “disappeared” in Desna

“For a week, we called the rescuers who were clearing the rubble. The answer was the same: he is neither among the 200 nor among the 300, he is considered missing in action,” recalls Victoria Polischuk, Lukyanchuk’s sister.

The same chronology is described by another woman who spoke with Ukrainska Pravda anonymously. On that day, she was searching for her husband in Desna.

According to her recollection, the clearing of the rubble took about 4-5 days.

“They told me that he is neither among the living, nor among the dead, nor among the wounded,” says Victoria.

Lukyanchuk’s family tried to look for him in hospitals. But, as his sister explains, they were not allowed in, and they were told that everyone who was brought in for treatment had already been identified:

“I called the deputy commander of Desna. He told me, ‘What do you want to hear from me? He vaporized.’ I told him, ‘Does your conscience allow you to say such things?'” Victoria recalls.

The military unit no longer maintained contact with the family. They, like everyone else, were offered to provide DNA samples and wait for investigators to find the remains.

“A missile hit the group of people there. At the epicenter of the missile “arrival” people were torn to pieces,” explains a source from Ukrainska Pravda within law enforcement agencies.

It is precisely the absence of bodies that led many soldiers to be classified as “missing.” Lawyers explain that without a body, determining death is more difficult but still possible. This can be done using evidence of the deceased’s presence at specific combat positions, such as reports from comrades, the results of official investigations, orders from commanders, battle logs, and so on.

“Usually, the military unit takes care of such matters, but the close relatives of the deceased can initiate this process independently,” says Andriy Panchyshyn, a lawyer at PwC Legal Ukraine, who has dealt with similar cases.

The relatives of those considered missing in action are supposed to receive their salaries every month. According to the families of the Desna soldiers, these payments did come through, although sometimes with delays of several months.

However, the most challenging aspect remained the uncertainty they lived with. Due to the lack of answers to their questions in the months following the tragedy, the relatives joined forces in the search for their loved ones. They created a chat group and have partially maintained contact to this day.

“No one in that group has found their relative alive,” says Victoria Polischuk.

According to Ukrainska Pravda, as a result of the Desna shelling, 63 people were officially declared deceased, 39 were recognized as wounded, and 68 went missing in action.

Ukrainska Pravda counted a similar number, at least 66 missing in Desna, in public sources: online announcements about searches, unofficial lists of the missing, and court registry data.

In August 2022, the Lukyanchuk family received news that investigators had found a match of their DNA with two fragments of a body. Official documents confirming this match were awaited by the relatives until March 2023.

“They called us and said: come and pick it up, there are two legs from the knee to the ankle,” says Victoria.

The relatives signed papers to retrieve the remains. Afterwards, they were taken to the morgue, where only a closed box measuring 10 by 15 centimeters was handed to them.

See also: Killing of prisoners of war in Olenivka and search for survivors: what are international organizations doing? Results of the trip to Geneva

They were told, “If you want, take it; if not, we’ll dispose of it.” The mother replied, “Whether he’s mine or not, I won’t leave him here. I will take him and bury him,” says Victoria.

“To this day, we don’t know who was buried,” she adds.

The contents of that box were not shown to the relatives. According to the sister, even the DNA match results were not specified in terms of percentages.

Considering that the family had already signed the papers, Andriy Lukyanchuk is now officially considered deceased.

A year after the tragedy, some families began independently obtaining the status of deceased for their loved ones. They turned to the courts, arguing that there had been no information about their husband or son for a year.

“Such a practice is not widespread, but unfortunately, there are more and more court decisions to establish the fact of death,” says lawyer Panchyshyn.

The lawyer specifies that this procedure, meaning going to court, does not in any way affect the rights of the deceased defenders’ families to receive payments and benefits.

In other words, the families of those who perished in Desna have the right to receive legitimate compensation. Since they did not die directly in combat, these payments should amount to approximately 1.3 million hryvnias (35 thousand dollars) for them.

According to Ukrainska Pravda’s calculations, nearly 20 families from Desna have already had their military relatives recognized as deceased through the courts. They wanted to put an end to the uncertainty that had lasted for a year and finally bury their defenders.

In most cases, the courts side with the families right away. However, there have been isolated instances to the contrary. For example, Judge Tetiana Dubas in Kyiv refused the wife of a fallen soldier, arguing that she had provided insufficient evidence of death.

But more than a year after the tragedy, not all families are ready to accept the term “deceased.”

“When more than half a year had passed, some from the unit asked me: will you close it through the court? No, no body, no court. If they offered me to declare him deceased, I wouldn’t agree. I still hope to find him,” says a woman whose husband served in Desna.

Her motivation stems not only from boundless faith and hope but also from distrust. For over a year, the authorities have not found the time to communicate openly with the families.

Those who shared their stories with Ukrainska Pravda complain that neither the unit’s command nor law enforcement agencies investigating the tragedy have spoken to them. No one has familiarized them with the materials of the official investigation.

This silence, firstly, has raised many doubts and suspicions among the relatives.

Secondly, as Ukrainska Pravda has discovered, it may indicate an attempt to conceal misconduct within the Desna barracks.

Are there those responsible for the tragedy in Desna?

There is no doubt that Russia bears responsibility for the deaths of Ukrainian soldiers in Desna.

However, one of the important questions raised by the relatives of the missing is whether there were any violations on the part of the Ukrainian command that contributed to the scale of the tragedy.

In particular, officially, the families are told that there were 250 people in the publicly known Desna barracks, which were likely to become a target for Russian troops sooner or later. But families have heard rumors from surviving comrades that there were 2,000 soldiers present at the time of the tragedy.

Military units always conduct official investigations to establish the circumstances of soldiers’ deaths.

Ukrainska Pravda has learned from its own sources within law enforcement agencies that the investigation into Desna indeed identified violations.

Specifically, it pertained to non-compliance with the requirements of personnel dispersion for their safety, as well as violations of the procedure for organizing combat duty.

In its conclusion, the official investigation places responsibility on three individuals: the head of Desna, his deputy — chief of staff, and the duty officer.

The military unit was supposed to forward these results to law enforcement agencies, which would, in turn, initiate an official investigation.

Currently, the Security Service of Ukraine is conducting an investigation into the events of May 17, 2022. However, this investigation pertains to the fact of the Russian attack on Desna. The case has been opened under articles related to “intentional actions aimed at changing the borders of Ukraine” and “murder.”

Sources from Ukrainska Pravda indicate that the Security Service of Ukraine is working on identifying potential perpetrators of the attack.

Possible violations by military personnel were supposed to be subject to investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI). However, the SBI has responded that it is not conducting any investigations related to Desna. Unofficially, the SBI has added that it allegedly did not receive conclusions from the military unit.

Ukrainska Pravda has sought comments from the Ukrainian Ground Forces, which Desna falls under, inquiring about the reasons why a significant number of individuals were declared “missing in action” and whether anyone has been held accountable.

For a week, the editorial office has not received a response.

– Am we correct in understanding that you are primarily waiting for the military leadership to have an honest conversation with you? – Ukrainska Pravda asked the wife of one of the missing defenders.

– Yes. But I know that no one will say anything.

Indeed, when the authorities lack the courage to talk to people, they begin to live with distrust, constant doubts, and conspiracy theories. Especially when these are people engulfed in despair and a sense of loneliness in their grief.

Could the tragedy in Desna be a manifestation of the irresponsibility of the leadership? Yes. Just as it could be a manifestation of inadequate experience in managing troops in the conditions of the full-scale war, for which no one could be fully prepared.

The only thing that can be said unequivocally is that answers to these questions should not be left for society or, at the very least, the relatives of the deceased to search for on their own for months.

The families of fallen soldiers deserve not to be lied to about the recovered body parts. They should not be forced to navigate the bureaucracy and go to court to obtain a death certificate.

Telling the truth to people in grief requires courage, strength, and empathy. But that’s precisely why leaders exist: in the military unit, law enforcement agencies, and the state, to take responsibility.

Originally posted by Sonya Lukashova on Ukrainska Pravda, translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: “We were asked to remain silent, and then a terrorist attack happened in Olenivka.” Wife of the captured Azov soldier speaks about the investigation of the crime by the Russian Federation

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