In the trap of silence, queues, and thousands of pieces of paper. How does the state test the families of fallen soldiers?

However, if a tragedy happened and a person died or went missing, new trials begin for the family of a soldier. Their defender fought with the Russian army, and now they have to fight with the Ukrainian bureaucracy.

Read about these trials in our article.

The soldier did not get in touch

The first challenge that relatives often face when they lose contact with a soldier is to find out what happened to him.

Mykhailo Zorivchak lived in Liubashivka, the Odesa region, and worked at the railroad all his life. His usual clothing was an embroidered shirt, and his political authority was Viacheslav Chornovil.

When Russia started its armed aggression against Ukraine in 2014, Zorivchak wanted to go to war, but his family did not let him. A third-group disabled veteran who suffered an extensive heart attack a year ago — the family persuaded Mykhailo to stay at home.

However, after the full-scale invasion, the family was unable to stop the husband and father. On February 26, 2022, he went to the draft board. After the training, Zorivchak was transferred to Avdiivka (the Donetsk region).

The last time he communicated with his family was on February 16 this year. He had to go to the position, so he warned that he would get in touch on the 19th or 20th.

But he never did.

First, there were rumors. It is unclear who was their source. Mykhailo held a managerial position at the railroad, and many people in Liubashivka knew him. According to rumors, the soldier was killed.

The family called the unit commander. But he said that he was in the hospital and did not know anything about the fate of his soldier.

Unsure of what to do, the family went several times to the local territorial recruitment center, which is still called a draft board. But even there they could not get an answer.

Finally, the family managed to find the phone number of Zorivchak’s fellow soldier. He told them about Mykhailo’s death, giving the word that the family would not tell this anyone.

Later, Mykhailo’s death was confirmed by another of his comrades. It was a driver who drove up to the position that had been abandoned by the Ukrainian military the day before. He was supposed to pick up ammunition and saw Zorivchak’s body. But he could not take him into the car.

Mykhailo Zorivchak

“I understand that he was not taken away from positions during the evacuation. There was a shelling, people have to save their lives, not the dead. But the fact that on the February 19 healthy people came to this position and he was left there again. I am very angry about this. I don’t have enough emotions to express it,” says Nastya, the deceased’s daughter.

She found out about her father’s fate, but it was still not official information. The military unit has to inform the local territorial recruitment center that their soldier is missing, and the center, in turn, has to inform the relatives.

In practice, it is usually the relatives who start the search themselves.

Dmytro Yovdiy, a lawyer and managing partner of the Social Parity Law Firm, recommends doing exactly what the Zorivchaks did: try to get through to the unit commander or his deputies. If that doesn’t work, seek information from comrades-in-arms. If this fails, go to the draft board and write a statement that the person is not in touch — then the draft board will request information about the person from the military unit.

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The thing that cannot be done in this situation is to publish the personal data of soldiers who are being searched for by their relatives in special groups on social networks. Dmytro Yovdiy warns that this will be useless, but if a person is in captivity, it can endanger his or her life.

“We wrote to the Ministry of Defense and to the Security Service of Ukraine, police, we wrote a registered letter to the President’s Office because we had no information. We were not given information either that he had died or that he was missing,” says Nastya.

Later, the commander of the unit where Zorivchak served changed, and the family was able to talk to him. He turned out to be a neighbor of the Zorivchaks and promised to tell them the details of Mykhailo’s death when he found time to go home.

But the family was officially informed about Zorivchak’s fate only a month after his death.

“My mother received a notification at work that her son was killed during hostilities. The military unit also called and said: “How do you have such connections that even generals are already calling us and asking where your father is?” Nastya recounts.

However, the exchange of bodies with Russians has not yet taken place.

Mykhailo Zorivchak’s will was to be buried in his favorite clothes, an embroidered shirt, in case of death. And now the family is waiting for the day when they will be able to fulfill his will.

The soldier was killed but is considered missing

The situation with Mykhailo Zorivchak, when a soldier is recognized as dead, although the body has not yet been received, is an exception, not a rule.

Usually, if a soldier’s body could not be evacuated from his position, he is declared missing. Even if his colleagues witnessed his death.

The 30-year-old poet and musician Illia Chernilevski was killed in action on May 7, 2022, on his mother’s birthday. In the following days, she tried to find out what happened to him, and why her son did not get in touch.

Illia Chernilevski

Olha Chernilevska called the commander of the battalion where Ilia served, but he said nothing. On the sixth day after the disappearance, she managed to reach the person responsible for the civil-military cooperation of the brigade. He said that Ilia was not on the list of wounded and dead, which meant that he was missing.

Chernilevska filed statements about her son’s disappearance with the local territorial recruitment center, the Ministry of Defense, and the police. The police took a DNA sample and opened a criminal investigation. The military registration and enlistment office sent a request to the unit and received a response: “the investigation is underway”.

It was only by calling her son’s comrades-in-arms one by one that Olha found four witnesses who confirmed that Ilia had died.

“Listen, I understand everything: when you have a hundred souls “disappear” (die) in a few days, you [the commander –  ed.] will not talk to every mother, wife, sister, it is impossible. Perhaps a commander should not do this. Let a psychologist call, I don’t know, some staff member, but someone has to call because it’s not pencils or consumables that have disappeared, it’s PEOPLE!” Olha wrote in despair on her page.

The Chernilevski received an official response only 60 days after their son’s disappearance — they were notified that Ilia was considered missing. But the parents were not going to accept this status of their son.

See also: Unfair trial and loss of soldiers. Why the law on toughening military punishment is dangerous for the army

“What is a missing person? If relatives have the opportunity to achieve the status of the deceased, it is first and foremost an honor for the soldier. He left honestly, he died honestly, and everything should be done right,” says Olha Chernilevska.

And then the next stage of her struggle began — to get the state to recognize that her son was killed during hostilities.

Dmytro Yovdiy calls the situation when a unit has sufficient grounds to believe that a person has died, but still declared missing a large-scale problem. And one of the most frequent in his legal practice.

Getting legal confirmation that a person has died is a great deal of trouble, nerves and time for relatives. As a rule, if relatives do not make efforts, the case will not move forward, and the person will remain missing.

Yovdiy does not dispute that in times of war, it can be difficult for military units involved in combat operations to deal with paperwork. But he has a different theory about why some unit commanders meet relatives halfway and some do not.

“When a person goes missing, payments continue to be made to him or her. However, if the soldier is not in captivity, no one is currently transferring money to the card,” says the lawyer. “That is, the salary is charged to the military unit, and in fact, this makes it possible to use this money while the situation is up in the air. It can be used for various purposes, although, of course, it will also have to be reported.”

Another motive is the desire to underestimate the statistics of the dead. This is about commanders who are making a reputation and a career for themselves. The dead in their command is a minus. That is why, in order to avoid bad figures, the dead are registered as missing.

Recognizing a soldier as missing not only leaves his relatives in a difficult psychological state but also prevents them from taking such legal steps as applying for  payment for the deceased or deciding the fate of the inheritance he left behind.

After a soldier goes missing, the unit conducts an internal investigation. The results of the investigation should indicate the circumstances under which the person disappeared and who can confirm this. The data reflected must match the data in the combat registration log kept by the military unit.

At the same time, the document must also state (if true) that the death of the soldier was not related to a crime, did not occur due to actions in a state of intoxication or due to intentional bodily harm, that the deceased was wearing personal protective equipment and that his death was related to the defense of the homeland.

If the official investigation does not come to an end, the situation can be expedited by a lawyer’s requests to the military unit, Dmytro Yovdiy adds.

When the investigation is completed and its results show that the person died and did not go missing, you can go to court. The goal is to recognize the fact of death in court in a separate proceeding. If the court recognizes this, you can obtain a death certificate based on its ruling and proceed with the processing of payments and other documents.

If there is no evidence that the person died, then depending on the circumstances, the court may declare the person dead no earlier than six months after his or her disappearance. Or, in general, 2 years after the end of hostilities.

Olha Chernilevska appealed to the court after the official investigation into her son’s disappearance was completed. She warned Ilia’s brothers that the court might need their testimony, which was reflected in the results of the investigation.

However, the brothers did not have to go to court. The judge decided that there was enough evidence and declared the poet Ilia Chernilevski dead.

It is not known where his body is. Whether it will be found — no one knows.

But the Motherland recognized: her son died defending his land. Although it was very resistant to this recognition.

The body of the soldier was found. What’s next?

Yevhen Buderatsky, deputy editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda (Ukrainian news website), knows how difficult it is for the family of a soldier to go through the process of obtaining the status of a family member of the deceased.

His godfather, Andriy, who in civilian life was a department manager at a food retailer and a machine gunner in the war, was killed on the battlefield. Yevhen had to accompany his friend’s mother and wife to help them get through the millstones of the bureaucratic machine.

Andriy’s fate remained unknown until Ukrainian troops launched a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region in the fall of 2022. In the liberated territory, one of Andriy’s comrades-in-arms found a mass grave of Ukrainian soldiers. The bodies were taken to Kharkiv. The police opened a case.

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The relatives had to be interviewed by the police about the disappearance of a person. To get an appointment, Andriy’s mother had to travel from Kyiv to Kharkiv three times. Because of the long lines, some of the relatives of the victims rented housing in Kharkiv to avoid wasting time on the road until they could file a statement.

After submitting the application, the mother also took a DNA test. Later, she will have to do it again —  her friends recommended it to be more certain. Because Andriy’s belongings were recognized, but his body, which was lying on the ground, was not.

DNA of people whose relatives are missing is collected in a single database of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. Data from bodies found or recovered after an exchange is automatically sent there.

The exchange of bodies with the Russian occupation forces takes place periodically. The Ukrainian side keeps the bodies of Russian soldiers in refrigerated trucks, while the Russian side keeps the dead Ukrainian soldiers mostly in morgues.

“We cannot take all of our dead because we are negotiating with the Russian Ministry of Defense through the International Red Cross. And it is difficult to communicate with such units as Wagner Private Military Company or Kadyrov’s followers, and they do not always hand over the bodies to us,” said Oleh Kotenko, the Commissioner for Missing Persons.

The day before he spoke to Ukrainska Pravda, another exchange took place. Ukraine took the bodies of 82 of its soldiers.

Buderatsky was unofficially told about the results of the examination by his friends in law enforcement two months after the test. If not for them, it is unknown how long the body would have remained in the morgue because no one was in a hurry to inform his family. The examination confirmed that the deceased was his godfather Andriy.

In his work, lawyer Dmytro Yovdiy has encountered the fact that the identity of the deceased has already been established through DNA testing, but the military unit is in no hurry to pass on information about this to the draft board. And then the morgue wonders why the body has not been taken away yet.

Therefore, he recommends that people whose relatives are missing call the morgues of regional centers themselves and find out if their loved one is there. According to him, it often happens that the morgue already knows the name of the deceased because, for example, his comrades-in-arms recognized him.

To take Andriy’s body from the morgue, they needed a document from the military unit about the circumstances of his death. The team sent the document and informed the volunteers about the deceased. They were supposed to take the body from the Kharkiv morgue and bring it to the Kyiv morgue.

However, the morgue did not give the volunteers the body —  for some reason, its employees did not prepare the documents. Buderatsky had to go to Kharkiv again. It was only when he came to the morgue himself that the problem was quickly resolved, without explaining what the delay was about.

Yevhen admits that the bureaucratic machine takes so much time and effort that sometimes it seemed easier to just take the body from the morgue, bypassing legal procedures, bury the defender by the family and thus calm it.

When the deceased was brought to Kyiv, the draft board took care of all the burial arrangements: transportation, cemetery space, coffin and wreaths, funeral service, and burial ceremony.

But at that time, the mother and wife had no idea what bureaucratic challenges they would face in the future.

Assistance in connection with the death of a serviceman

After the burial of a serviceman, his family needs to fill out several documents to receive financial support, funeral benefits, one-time financial assistance, and the status of a family member of the deceased.

The most well-known of these is one-time financial assistance. The Cabinet of Ministers’ resolution of February 28 last year stipulates that the family of a soldier who died defending his homeland is entitled to a one-time payment of 15 million hryvnias.

“If it takes six months from filing to the first payment, that’s good. Often it takes up to a year,” says lawyer Dmytro Yovdiy. “In practice, 20% of this money is given out after the appointment of the payment, and the remaining amount is divided into 40 months in equal installments”.

It seemed like a simple task —  to get an appointment at the local territorial recruitment center, Yevhen Buderatskyy managed to complete it only the fourth time.

The thing is that the draft board is open twice a week for four hours. On average, half an hour is given to one person. To get an appointment, I had to queue up at 7 a. m. In total, the number of people who came to the local territorial recruitment center to get in line before it opened was about a hundred.

Once at the local territorial recruitment center, Buderatskyy was shocked by the bureaucratic forest that families had to get through to obtain all the necessary documents.

Six pages of instructions! If you take into account the repetitive papers, you need to bring about 50 documents and their copies.

The local territorial recruitment center also provides phone numbers of lawyers who can help a person get through all the bureaucratic procedures for free. However, Buderatskyy failed to get through to any of the numbers.

“I got the impression that they made this procedure as complicated as possible to either delay the process or to make sure that there were fewer people who would make it to the finish line. Not all relatives will have the patience for this,” says Yevhen Buderatskyy.

Originally posted by Rustem Khalilov on Ukrainska Pravda. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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