To lose a child in war is a nightmare. But when your quest to find them is met with lies and abuse its a nightmare that never ends. Lily Hyde travels with the Ukrainian mothers seeking their sons

In the early evening of 28 August 2014, Andrey Lozinsky phoned his mother.

Andrey, a 21-year-old conscript in the Ukrainian armys 93rd Mechanised Brigade, was calling from just outside the eastern town of Ilovaisk, where Ukrainian forces were fighting to reclaim territory taken by pro-Russian insurgents. His mother, Yadviga, was at her office in Dnipropetrovsk, 350km to the west. The conversation was short: in the background, Yadviga heard another soldier say Theyll get a fix on us, and she cut off the call almost immediately. Everyone knew mobile phone calls at the frontline could give away a position to the enemy.

If Id known what the situation really was, I would have asked him more, she told me 10 months later. But in their brief call, Andrey had time to tell her, as he always did, that everything was fine.

Earlier that day, another soldier in the 93rd Mechanised Brigade called home from the front lines. Artyom Kalyberda spoke to his mother, Svetlana, and his sister Lena. Everything was not fine he told his sister that Ukrainian forces around Ilovaisk were completely surrounded. Weve had nothing to eat for three days. Were supposed to break out tomorrow. I dont know what to do. Artyom was 24, but he was still Lenas little brother. Breaking out of the rows of encirclement sounded like madness. Stay where you are, she begged him.

The next morning, 29 August, brought another baking end-of-summer day in eastern Ukraine: the maize past ready for harvesting in the great, flat fields; the sunflowers drooping their withered heads. The war was four months old. Officially it was and still is not a war but an anti-terrorist operation, intended to suppress a Russian-fomented separatist uprising that had taken control of much of Ukraines eastern Donbass region. By late August, Ukrainian armed forces had been boosted by two waves of conscripts, many of them dispatched to the area around Ilovaisk.

At 9am on 29 August, the Ukrainian soldiers began to retreat, having been promised safe passage out of their entrapment through a green corridor that was agreed upon in the early hours of the morning. There is still no definite consensus about what happened next. As Yadviga and Svetlana waited through that long hot day with increasing panic, news began to arrive from Ilovaisk, which had become the scene of the worst military disaster in the history of modern Ukraine.

It took 12 months for a Ukrainian parliamentary commission to produce a report that declared that separatist and Russian army units had reneged on the agreement. The commissions casualty figures, released in August 2015, were 366 Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters killed, 429 wounded, 128 taken prisoner, and 158 missing in action.

Andrey Lozinsky and Artyom Kalyberda, who were in the same GAZ-66 military lorry in the retreating convoy, were among those 158 missing in action. Over the next year, Yadviga and Svetlana worked tirelessly to determine what happened to their sons, along with other missing men of the 93rd. In the face of official indifference and incompetence, the two women became close friends at the centre of a network of mothers, wives, and daughters battling to find out the truth.

If everything had been all right, we would never have met each other. But as it was, thank God we did, Svetlana Kalyberda told me. It was almost a year since she and Yadviga had heard their sons voices. In all that time, Ukrainian authorities had not decided who should be responsible for investigating the fate of their children: the police, the military prosecutor, or the security service (SBU).

No centralised database of missing troops had been established. The SBU published one list, the Ministry of Internal Affairs another. Both set up a hotline for families of missing soldiers, but if relatives managed to get an answer from one, they were often just told to call the other. Soldiers who had been buried by their families remained listed as missing in action months later, others who were still actually missing ended up on memorial plaques for the dead. One soldier who went missing in August 2014 was sent his call-up papers in May 2015.

It has just been searching, suffering, promises, excuses, evasions, Svetlana said. And, I think, theres maybe some unspoken order not to reveal what really happened, because anything we parents have found out, we have found out by ourselves.

I thought it wasnt my war, Yadviga told me. But it came into my home uninvited and became mine. Yadviga was a tall, strong-minded woman, used to making her own decisions. If the state would not find her son, then she would.

After years of corruption, a revolution in 2014 and the subsequent armed conflict, the Ukrainian state was unable or unwilling to fulfil some of its basic duties. Over the last year, Yadvigas search had involved her in a massive volunteer movement that did everything from supplying the armed forces with boots and bulletproof vests to negotiating prisoner exchanges and recovering the dead. She had given much of Andreys salary still being paid to relatives of missing soldiers in the 93rd, thanks to lobbying by families to help treat the wounded or bury those who had been killed. In a military hospital she had met Sergey, an army instructor. Perhaps some day they would get married.

But not yet. Yadviga was unable to move forward from her present nightmare. She had been thrown into a bewildering, all-consuming search for a son who was officially neither alive nor dead, in a war that is not officially a war. To be an unknown soldier in the 21st century is simply impossible, she said. Either Andrey comes back, or Ill have to bury him.

Andreys father had died in 2012. Andrey was called up in April 2014. There was little sign of Andrey in the cramped one-room flat he had shared all his life with his parents. His girlfriend Lera had taken his aftershave, to remind her of him. The computer where he played games into the small hours, keeping his exasperated mother awake, was half hidden by a mound of papers. Above it his framed photograph looked down, unsmiling, in his marines uniform, his head tilted back, giving him the haughty air that Yadviga shared.

The photograph was surrounded by scale models of aeroplanes. They belonged not to Andrey but to his mother. Before her only son was born, Yadviga had worked in an institute developing planes and rockets. She had hoped to become a fighter pilot, but few Soviet girls achieved such dreams. When doctors informed her that she was expecting a girl, she corrected them: it would be a boy and he would grow up to be an astronaut. I wanted to make him extraordinary, she told me.

* * *

In early September 2014, Yadviga began to search through photographs of corpses, looking for her boy. Shortly after the Ilovaisk disaster, nearly 300 bodies had been brought in ambulances or open trucks to be unloaded at morgues in Zaporizhia and Dnipropetrovsk, the two government-controlled cities nearest to Ilovaisk.


A photograph of Andrey Lozinsky at his mothers home in Ukraine Photograph: Olya Morvan

Some of the bodies were almost undamaged. Others were swollen like balloons. Many were in pieces. Nothing had prepared staff to deal with such an influx of the dead, or their desperate relatives. When the Kalyberda family arrived in Dnipropetrovsk to look for Artyom, they were initially sent to the wrong morgue. Relatives from further afield slept at the railway station. No one had thought to arrange accommodation for them.

Ukraine had not been ready for armed conflict, and the Ilovaisk disaster revealed the inadequacy of its military and forensic identification systems. Following a long Soviet tradition, soldiers had been sent to the front without dogtags. There was no centralised database of medical records to aid identification in case of death. Unidentified bodies were assigned a number and buried in cemeteries where hundreds of unknown soldiers from the conflict have been interred.

The war in eastern Ukraine fought primarily with Soviet-era artillery, such as Grad rockets is particularly brutal. In 40% of combat deaths, the entire body is destroyed, according to Olha Bohomolets, a doctor and adviser for humanitarian affairs to the Ukrainian president.

In 12 years work I thought Id seen a lot of bodily damage, Andrey Golubovich, the acting director of the Zaporizhia region medical legal bureau, told me. But when I saw the result of a Grad bombardment, I realised Id seen nothing. He held out a palm cupped round an invisible handful. Sometimes just 150g left from a body.

Where possible, morgue workers recorded postmortem data: height, body shape, hair colour and length, teeth, distinguishing marks, clothing and personal items. The men were robbed of individuality; the majority of the descriptions read simply: male aged 25-35.

Theyre practically all dressed the same, theyre all young, tall, handsome boys, forensic expert Olena Yaschenko said when I visited the Zaporizhia morgue last summer. She told me how hard it was to explain to relatives the effects of death on the human body.Staff showed me the form for postmortem data, which included a rough diagram to mark dental details. They had developed the form themselves. In the dingy forensics department, where pieces of scalp and bone lay in mismatching plastic trays, Yaschenko said: Sometimes I look back and think we should have done better. I cant believe what we did.

It took until October 2014 for DNA laboratories under different ministries to be integrated into a national database. Now all DNA samples from the war dead go through a single laboratory, which sends the results to Kiev to be matched with those of relatives. By September 2015, 758 individual DNA profiles had been created from 1,671 body parts, and 418 had been matched with relatives.

Some parents were reluctant to give DNA, and not just because they mistrust the authorities, said Bohomolets. They dont want to believe their children are dead.

Both Svetlana and Yadviga provided samples for DNA profiles in September 2014. But they did not see their sons among the photographs in the morgues, and they had reason to hope their children were alive. Four other soldiers in the lorry transporting Artyom and Andrey out of Ilovaisk had been taken prisoner and released 48 hours later. Perhaps Andrey and Artyom had also been captured.

No one knew how many, or where, Ukrainian soldiers were being held prisoner. Russian and separatist media published videos of Ukrainian servicemen being abused by their captors, shut in unidentifiable basements and holes underground. They posted online the passports and military IDs of soldiers allegedly captured or killed, and photographs of bodies that might be dead, might be unconscious, or might be from a different war altogether.

Yadviga, Svetlana and her daughter Lena shared these videos and photographs with other families. They studied them till they knew them by heart. Sometimes relatives saw their men, or someone who looked very like them. Soon, at the bottom of the videos on YouTube, adverts appeared for Ukrainian psychics.

And then the phone calls started.

* * *

In October 2014, Lena Kalyberda got a call from an unknown number. A few weeks earlier, she had posted a photograph of her brother online, along with her phone number, appealing for information. She snatched up the phone.

The man at the other end of the line explained he was a doctor from a hospital in Luhansk region, in the conflict zone north east of Ilovaisk. One of his patients was a tall, dark and young Ukrainian soldier: Artyom Kalyberda.

He said, Hes in bad way and urgently needs medications. I understand you cant bring them yourself, so send money, Lena told me. She scribbled down everything the caller said: the physical description of Artyom, the hospital address, the medications and their cost, a bank account number. She contacted the bank: the account name did not match the name the caller had given her. She checked further. The hospital did not exist.

By the summer of 2015, Lena now 27, with a two-year-old son to look after had filled two fat, much-thumbed notebooks with similar conversations. The notebooks record a year of desperate hopes, disappointments, promises and lies. There were calls with alleged Ukrainian counterintelligence officers, who offered leads that led nowhere; separatist commanders who claimed they were avenging Ukrainian army atrocities in Donbass; volunteers on both sides who asked for money or aid for prisoners; chatshow hosts who might publicise a missing persons case; priests and psychics to offer solace. Lena visited several psychics and noted down what they told her: Artyom was alive, in a dark place and facing a difficult road home, but she should wait for him to return.

Every family I spoke to kept such notebooks. Many believed the psychics, who delivered almost identical messages of hope. They sent clothes, food, medications and money to swindlers who subsequently disappeared. Sometimes callers offered apparently conclusive proof. Two young women from the Dnipropetrovsk region, whose father in the 93rd had gone missing at Ilovaisk, were sent a photograph over social media that clearly showed him being held prisoner. The daughters sent medicines, and asked if they could bring him warm clothes. Come if you want, was the reply. But you may end up locked in the same basement along with your dad. Soon after, their contact vanished from the internet.

Families built up a blacklist of scammers. They shared names and details with the SBU, the police, the army. But the answer was always the same: were looking, let us know if you have any more information.

No one does anything, Svetlana said. We crawl to them on our hands and knees and they say Yes, yes, yes, just to get rid of us.

* * *

While Lena struggled with the phone calls, Yadviga visited police stations, forensic laboratories, military and prosecutors offices to chase up investigations that were going nowhere. After one such visit in October 2014, she got into a taxi driven by an energetic 56-year-old named Irina Semchenko. Irina was from Donetsk, a city at the centre of the conflict near Ilovaisk. She had fled with her family to Dnipropetrovsk earlier that year.

Like Yadviga, Irina was a tough woman in a mans world, little given to sympathetic platitudes. When Yadviga recounted her story, Irina made a practical offer: lets go and look for Andrey ourselves. They could stay in Irinas house near Donetsk airport, and if Yadviga covered the costs Irina would drive. Irina was confident they would not be shot or taken prisoner: Who needs us? Were just two grannies, she said to me.

Yadviga did not take up the offer right away, because she hoped Andrey would soon be released. Since the east Ukraine conflict began, small numbers of prisoners had been exchanged through semi-official and volunteer organisations, which compiled lists of names that often contradicted each other. But September brought more concrete measures: the two insurgent regimes of the so-called Donetsk Peoples Republic (DNR) and Luhansk Peoples Republic (LNR) had agreed a ceasefire and an all-for-all prisoner exchange with Russia and Ukraine. The ceasefire did not come, but the first prisoner exchange was scheduled for 26 December, and Yadviga had seen the name Andrey Lozinsky on the list compiled by Ukraine.

On 22 December, Yadviga called Lilya Rodionova, who dealt with missing persons for the DNR prisoner exchange commission. Rodionova said there was no Andrey Lozinsky on the DNR list. The same day, a police investigator handling Andreys case called Yadviga to inform her that her DNA was a partial match with a corpse from Ilovaisk.

Thats impossible, Yadviga said. She called Irina. Yadviga loaded Irinas taxi with biscuits and cigarettes for Ukrainian prisoners, and the following day the two women drove through a crossing point from Ukraine-controlled territory, and on to separatist-held Donetsk.

Mnohopillya, Osikove, Novokaterynivka, Starobeshevo: the villages along the green corridor from Ilovaisk were half-destroyed. Instead of the head-high maize and sunflowers into which soldiers had crawled to seek sanctuary that burning August, the fields were frozen hard as iron, and the 2km convoy of burnt-out vehicles had been towed away for scrap. I saw all that road; black earth, destroyed trees, Yadviga told me. It was terrible. But imagine what was there in August imagine a thousand people wiped out in a few hours.


A burnt-out tank on the road to Ilovaisk, on 3 September 2014. Photograph: Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images

Irinas house had been looted. Even the winter tyres had been taken from the garage. The two women skidded on summer tyres along roads treacherous with black ice and artillery damage, hurrying through rebel checkpoints to get back to the house each day before the DNRs military curfew. In the evenings they huddled round a stove, listening to the shelling that went on until dawn, lighting the sky with repetitive yellow flashes. On New Years Eve, they looked together at a dating site on Yadvigas laptop, searching for a rich foreign man with an aeroplane for her to marry after Andrey came home.

Their planned three-day trip stretched to three weeks. Yadviga had thought she would simply have to confront the separatist leaders with her evidence the prisoner list with Andreys name on it and she would recover her son. Instead, when she met the leader of the DNR, he just asked why she had let her son join the fascist Ukrainian punishers who had attacked Donbass. Following possible leads on where prisoners were or had been kept, she visited different towns to give photographs of her son and the other missing 93rd troops to hospital staff, militants, aid workers, taxi drivers. She spent a day in Donetsks central hospital and morgue, where bodies lay on the floor behind bloodstained plastic curtains. No one had seen her son, no one offered to help search for him.

I perfectly understood they are not obliged to look for our children. We have our own state that our boys fought for, she told me angrily. The Ukrainian state had not allocated a single penny towards recovering the missing. After the Ilovaisk disaster the defence minister was replaced, a new SBU head had been appointed. But the system remains. Nothing changes, no one takes responsibility.

On the other side, the DNR had no public lists of those who were dead, missing and being held prisoner. Rodionova, a former midwife, was another tough woman brought by the war to a job she could never have dreamed of in peacetime. She loathed the Ukrainian authorities, who had detained her for several weeks in the spring of 2014, when she had been providing medical aid to rebel fighters. And yet she relied on a Ukrainian volunteer organisation to recover corpses from both sides on DNR territory.

I asked Rodionova about the missing from Ilovaisk. Ninety-five per cent of them are dead, she said flatly.

She told me she knew where all prisoners held by the DNR were, and that it was a small number she would not disclose. (She also told me that the DNR only holds military prisoners, but when 12 Ukrainian prisoners were exchanged a few days later there were civilians among them.)

Throughout Donbass, locals talked of prisoners kept in the cellars of conscription offices, makeshift military bases, even private houses. Rumours on both sides of the frontline said that missing Ukrainian soldiers were working in the hundreds of illegal mines that dot the blighted industrial landscape. Another theory was that they had been transported over the border to Russia, to be sold for slave labour. Ukraine officially states that there are around 30 Ukrainians held in Russian prisons. It is impossible to judge the accuracy of any of these claims.

Disillusioned with official structures, and realising there was no goodwill in the DNR, Yadviga decided to try another angle: she was going to start trading in live goods.

* * *

On 29 January 2015, the night before her 44th birthday, Sveta Anikina sat alone at her son Maxims computer, which she barely knew how to use, browsing various social media sites. At 11.50pm, among messages from men looking for attractive women under 45, a new user appeared, with an image of her son in uniform.

Son is it you? she typed with trembling fingers.

Maxim, a 24-year-old sergeant in the 93rd Mechanised Brigade,had been missing since August 2014. But he had made himself a dogtag, and the last time Sveta had seen him, home on leave just before he went missing, she disapprovingly noted the new tattoo of a shark on his wiry, sunburnt left arm. Its needed, he had told her.

A month later, as she stared at pieces of burnt bodies that had been brought back from the massacre at Ilovaisk, Sveta understood why: neither Maxims dogtag, nor his tattoo, had been found.

Over 40 minutes that January midnight, typing his words without spaces, Maxim sent love to his baby sister and girlfriend, told his mother not to send money to anyone, and named several other soldiers with or near him, imprisoned in a dark, abandoned building site somewhere he did not say where in Ukraine.

Sveta asked if he knew where Andrey Lozinsky was. Mum were all here cant write logged off sorry, he replied. Then he went offline.

The relatives of two soldiers Maxim said were imprisoned with him had already received 99% matches with DNA profiles in the national database, indicating their corpses had been found. But now Maxim if it was him provided strong reason to believe all the missing soldiers from the 93rd could be alive. They were just waiting to be found and exchanged.

Official exchanges of prisoners had stalled. But in April 2015, a contact in Donetsk sent Yadviga a list of DNR prisoners held by Ukrainian authorities. Now she could start organising an exchange for Maxim Anikin, or another Ukrainian soldier it didnt really matter who, so long as it led to more exchanges, to a prisoner who knew where Andrey was, to Andrey himself.

Yadviga tracked down a potential candidate for exchange, a taxi driver from Donbass named Anatoly Bulatov (not his real name), who had been captured by Ukrainian forces and was being held in Dnipropetrovsk on charges of aiding terrorists. When she showed him photographs of the missing men from the 93rd, he swore he had seen two of them among Ukrainian prisoners in now rebel-controlled Ilovaisk, where he had allegedly delivered food to their captors.

Yadviga got Bulatov moved to hospital so he could be treated for lung problems. She paid for his medicines and food, and for a lawyer who could get him cleared of the criminal charges, so that he could be exchanged for a prisoner held by the DNR.

By this time, Yadviga estimated that she had spent 150,000 hryvnias (over £4,000) on looking for her son. Im covering all the expenses to free our terrorist, Yadviga explained it was her term for Bulatov. And then hell help us in our search.

* * *

A photograph of a face filled Yadvigas laptop screen. A pot of tea was getting cold on the kitchen table, in the July heat, a fly buzzed round the cakes I had brought. The face was battered, puffy and blackened, but with its closed eyes and tilted-back head it appeared strangely calm.

If you look at it directly, its like him. Look, it could be Andrey, Yadviga said. But the description says reddish hair, and he was never red. The red could be from blood. She stared at the screen, talking rapidly. Now when I look its nothing like him. On the first look its like him, but when you look properly it isnt. It simply isnt him.

On 16 May 2015, Yadviga received a letter from the military prosecutor. It confirmed a partial match between her DNA and a dead soldier who had been given the number 3207. Nine months after Ilovaisk, she had a corpse. It had been brought in naked in September, and buried in a plot for unknown soldiers in the city of Zaporizhia. This was the face we were looking at.

She opened another picture. It was hard to look at. My boy is thin, with long legs. Here, what can you see? A third picture showed a crucifix around 3207s neck. Andreys girlfriend Lera was the only one who might identify it. She had a bracelet that went with it. Yadviga had not shown Lera the picture. Who in their right mind would show someone photos like this?

As the national database continued its slow work, more full or partial DNA matches were being sent to relatives of missing soldiers. But Yadviga did not believe the results. To show me why, she pulled over the pile of papers next to her computer: they were photographs and postmortem data for bodies that had already been matched by DNA to families of missing soldiers from Andreys brigade.

This one was the wrong height. This one was the wrong age, wearing boots the wrong size. And both these profiles belonged to soldiers Maxim Anikin had confirmed were alive. A few months earlier, Svetlana and Lena Kalyberda had received a match for Artyom. The body, number 3210, was described as having red hair, when Artyom had black hair, with just one missing tooth when Artyom had several fillings. To the families of the missing men, these matches looked fake meant to quiet relatives who kept insisting the state should properly look for their men.


Yadviga talks to a Ukrainian soldier who was taken prisoner by separatists about what happened to her son. Photograph: Olya Morvan

Svetlana Kalyberda had requested an exhumation of body 3210, to take samples for an extended DNA test. She and Lena were awaiting the results in July when Yadviga went to the 93rds army base in Cherkaske, near Dnipropetrovsk.

This was the base where Andrey had trained before he was sent to the front. Yadviga was a regular visitor, in search of information, and to obtain certificates confirming that Andrey and Artyom were still serving in the conflict zone. These certificates enabled their families to continue collecting their salaries more than that, they showed that the army had not given up on finding the men alive.

On that July day, the base was unusually quiet the brigade was preparing to move up to the frontline. The red-faced officer responsible for personnel, who Yadviga accused of failing to find his missing soldiers, was less than welcoming. We dont deal with that, he bellowed at Yadviga, clearly not for the first time. Finding them is not even close to my job.

The previous autumn, on another visit to the base, Yadviga had met Taras Tischenko (not his real name), one of the four soldiers from the vehicle Andrey left Ilovaisk in who had been taken prisoner and subsequently released. He told Yadviga that six of the 17 soldiers from the retreating lorry had been shot dead by their captors. Four had been killed because they were injured, or did not strip fast enough when ordered to. One, a dark boy, had been shot when he became hysterical. Another had died because he asked for a phone to call his mother.

Tischenko looked at the photographs of the missing men from the 93rd on the laptop that Yadviga carried with her everywhere. The man who was shot for being hysterical, he said, was Artyom Kalyberda. The second, who had asked for a phone, was Andrey Lozinsky.

Did you see them fall? Yadviga insisted.

No, he told her. I heard it.

None of the other three released soldiers from the lorry confirmed his story. Yadviga still hoped to find other witnesses.

This time, a soldier was waiting at headquarters with a batch of papers to be signed. His name was Alexey, and he was a 23-year-old soldier replacing documents he had lost almost a year ago, when he was taken prisoner at Ilovaisk on 29 August.

Outside on benches, where trailing willow branches swiped our faces and soldiers in mismatching camouflage came to smoke, Yadviga showed Alexey photograph after photograph. Who was with you? Did you see this one, or this one? What can you remember?

Alexey froze as he looked at each picture, before looking away toward a point in the distance. He recognised Maxim Anikin, who had lived next-door to him in barracks before the war. Turnov hes dead, he was our driver What about Simko? Alexey said, his thousand-yard stare focusing briefly. Our machine gunner. No one knows anything about where he is.

Someone said they stripped prisoners naked, Yadviga said.


And they shot the injured.

Alexey nodded.

No one had debriefed Alexey and his fellow soldiers when they returned from three days as prisoners. Their commanding officer had broken down in tears; a sheaf of death certificates had already been made out with their names.

If only someone had got you all together straight away, and found out who was where, Yadviga said, frustrated. Are you sure you didnt see my Andrey?

I dont remember, Alexey said. Im trying to do the opposite. There were tears in his blue eyes. All I want is to forget it, like a bad dream. But its unforgettable.

Afterwards, as we walked towards her husband Vovas sisters flat, Yadviga told me she had been too busy to ever visit the base when Andrey was training there. Now he was gone, she had made more than 40 trips to remind reluctant officers of their duty to their missing soldiers. The other women sit at home on the internet, they collect information but they dont understand that no one will come to them at home and say heres your son, heres your husband. You have to go out and look yourself, she said. People call me a bitch. I am a bitch you have to be, to get anywhere.

At her sister-in-laws, she talked about long-ago summers spent test-flying machines as fragile-looking as dragonflies. She came alive when she talked about flight. When Andrey was little I still went flying at weekends. Then Vova announced, Youll crash, and Ill put Andrey in a childrens home. And that was it.

She had set up an accounting firm, sometimes working 36 hours non-stop. Every year, Vova and Andrey went on holiday without her. When Andrey finished school she enrolled him in college, but he dropped out. The college would only take him back if he completed a year in the army first. So, in 2012, Yadviga paid to get her son into the marines.

Yadviga believes Andrey was called up in April 2014 because he had that year of military experience. I made his fate for him, she said, by sending him to the army.

* * *

On 22 July 2015, Svetlana Kalyberda, without waiting for the results of the extended DNA analysis, accepted that body number 3210 was her son Artyom. The funeral was scheduled for 25 July in Zaporizhia, and she wanted Yadviga to come.

Yadviga felt shaken and betrayed. She had been determined to prove that the DNA match for Artyom was fake, to set a precedent for doubting all the others. Now she decided Svetlana had only accepted the match owing to financial pressure, so the family could obtain the government compensation of 610,000 hryvnias (£16,400) for a soldier killed in the conflict.

But Svetlanas decision stirred Yadvigas doubts again. She had begun talking once more about the photographs of body number 3207. It looks like him. But then you look again, and its not at all like him. There were so many ifs. If she could have seen the actual body. If there were more photographs of it. If the army, the SBU, the forensics staff could only be made to do their job to care. If she had never sent her son to the army. If.

In fact, Svetlana Kalyberda told Yadviga she had recognised her youngest son by his teeth. Unlike many families, she had her sons dental records to compare with the body. It seemed it wasnt the DNA tests that were false; it was the sloppy postmortem data recorded by workers in the morgue for each body before it was buried, misstating identifying characteristics. It was simple carelessness and human error.


Yadviga looks at the photo of a body that has a partial DNA match to her son. Photograph: Olya Morvan

But it had been more complicated than that too. In mid-July, as they stood in the Zaporizhia morgue beside the exhumed body identified as Artyom, wrapped inside a zinc coffin in just an old cloth, Svetlana looked at her daughter Lena and asked: Do we recognise him or not?

We have a different position from Yadviga, Lena told me, after the funeral. Our warrior was someones son, and someone is looking for him. Its better that hes identified; there shouldnt be a single unknown soldier left.

Lena stopped short of saying whether she believes our warrior is truly Artyom. For 11 months, the journey with Svetlana and Yadviga had taken them from morgue to army base to church to police to psychic to prosecutor to SBU to prisoners and, at last, back to the morgue. In her black dress she was thin, her high-cheekboned face strikingly beautiful. I dont know. I light a candle for Artyom and I dont even know what to ask for any more. The strength to carry on until I meet him again.

Artyom Kalyberda had already been buried twice once in autumn 2014, once after his body had been exhumed. His family did not want to move him again. On the unbearably hot morning of 25 July, the freshly dug mound in Kushugumskoye cemetery still bore only a number, like the mound two rows along where body number 3207 was buried.

The cemetery was far from town, a great, featureless field where the municipality buries its homeless, penniless and nameless under planks used as grave markers. Mourners waited in a scorching wind that rattled the flowers cellophane wrappers but gave no relief, until a gravedigger in shorts and flip-flops brought a new memorial cross bearing Artyoms name. A priest circled the grave, taking care not to fall into a deep hole alongside one of dozens dug ready for the next interment of unknown soldiers.

Four survivors from Ilovaisk had to be persuaded by Svetlana to say a few awkward, reluctant words at the ceremony. Let me get at them, Yadviga muttered. She was wound to an unbearable pitch. Like those four from our vehicle who escaped. Ill make them talk. They need to have the truth beaten out of them.

Its not their fault theyre alive, another woman told her gently. She had buried her son, the driver from the lorry, soon after he had died. She had recognised the body right away, by his hands.

Back in Svetlanas flat that afternoon, Artyoms clothes and few belongings were packed away in drawers in his room. His army photograph stood on the ironing board alongside a ritual undrunk glass of vodka, an uneaten slice of bread. The night before, Svetlana had raged about the criminal irresponsibility of the Ukrainian state that had taken her son from her. Now that the funeral was over, she told funny stories about Artyom. The nicknames he had given everyone. How he would steal her home-made cakes from the oven to eat while he played war games on the computer. Then when the war ended hed look round and say, Mmmm, thanks Mum.

When Artyom came home on leave in early August 2014, he had given his old phone to his mother. It was loaded with photographs and videos he had shot from his army service.

Together with relatives, I had watched many ugly videos of captives after Ilovaisk, searching for Andrey, Artyom, Maxim. Artyoms videos were different. The weather is sunny; the trees are green. Artyom and his fellow servicemen are cooking potatoes over a fire, chopping wood, laughing; all young, tall, handsome.

Kindergarten, Yadviga said. Children.

Artyoms hand, said Svetlana. His hand opens a box and sifted through the bullets inside, accompanied by his cheerful commentary. The camera pans along a departing convoy. There is Maxim Anikin with his shark tattoo. Andrey seated on a tank passes by, flashes a smile, and is gone.

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