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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ukraine strives to investigate war crimes amid ongoing conflict

The Ukrainian authorities are looking into some 128,000 possible crimes connected to the Russian invasion. 

BUCHA, Ukraine (CN) — After Bucha was liberated in April 2022, Vadym Subotin went door to door in the leafy suburb on the outskirts of Kyiv looking for survivors and the dead. 

“The investigator’s job is the investigator’s job,” the police officer said, speaking to journalists in the auditorium of a recently reconstructed community center that two years ago was under Russian occupation. 

Even as Ukraine is fighting Russian advances on the front lines to the east, liberated cities closer to the capital have been rebuilding aggressively. Reconstruction efforts go beyond repairing fences riddled with bullet holes and repaving roads pockmarked by Russian bombs.

A network of researchers including international lawyers and a city archivist are documenting Russian crimes with the hope that someday the perpetrators will be brought to justice. 

“Everyone was just trying to make sense of what they were seeing,” Dmytro Koval, legal director of Truth Hounds, told Courthouse News in an interview. Set up in 2014, the Ukrainian non-governmental organization documents human rights abuses in Ukraine. 

In the previous decade, the group has documented 17,629 incidents. Among those, they believe, are 55 war crimes. 

The Bucha city archivist has also taken on the responsibility for evidence collection. Ihor Bartkiv estimates the archival department of the Bucha City Council has collected 15,000 photos and several thousand videos from the two-week occupation. They are working with national prosecutors to collect CCTV footage.

Bartkiv has had no formal training in how to collect materials related to war crimes. He told Courthouse News he relied on his undergraduate law degree to help in the process. “We are learning by doing, and we are guided by common sense,” Bartkiv said. 

Annals of history

Virtually every conflict in history has been documented in some way.

Death tolls and acts of barbarism were recorded for propaganda or for history. Jewish doctors in Warsaw secretly recorded data about their emaciated patients during the Second World War, hoping the information could be used to seek justice for the dead.

During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, local authorities and non-governmental organizations interviewed survivors with the idea that their testimony may end up at the newly created International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said Carolyn Edgerton, a former prosecutor at the court. 

Much like Bartkiv, Bucha’s archivist-turned-investigator, those collecting the information in the Balkans in the 1990s had no formal preparation.

“There was no training for this at that moment in time, the field wasn’t developed,” Edgerton told Courthouse News. 

In Ukraine, that is starting to change. Truth Hounds, which has collected statements from more than 5,000 witnesses, has worked with the International Criminal Court, which is helping to train their investigators in best practices. 

The group also works closely with the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine to collect evidence to fill in the gaps authorities may have in ongoing investigations. It has built a case building database which can track what information might be missing from a particular inquiry. 

From the front lines

Even those fighting on the front lines are working to document crimes.

Oleksandr Borodin, a soldier with the Third Separate Assault Brigade, told Courthouse News he joined the military after Russia’s full-scale invasion and didn’t have time to receive any formal training.

But more experienced soldiers taught newer recruits about the laws of war, including identifying possible war crimes. 

Borodin recounted an incident in which his unit had carried out drone surveillance of Russian soldiers moving a group of women into a wood. Later, he heard accounts of sexual assaults, and thought the women in the video might have been victims. The drone footage was turned over to the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office, which is now investigating. 

Others have shared their experiences directly with the International Criminal Court, an institution that has existed only since 2002.

Mykola Savchuk was captured by Russian soldiers from a village near Kyiv in March 2022. The then 53-year-old truck driver was taken across the border into Belarus and held in captivity for five months, during which time he says he was beaten, subjected to mock executions and forced to give blood. 

He no longer has full function of his hands, and after returning home in a prisoner exchange, Savchuk discovered his car and home had been destroyed. Through his lawyer, he has submitted his story to the ICC.

“My lawyer says that it will go to The Hague, or whatever it's called,” the thick-set but prematurely aged witness told Courthouse News. 

Despite the difficulty of gathering reliable evidence in an active warzone, Ukraine has already begun prosecuting some war crimes cases. According to the prosecutor general’s office, domestic courts have convicted 115 perpetrators though most of those trials were held in absentia. 

Even as Russia is making advances in some parts of the country, many Ukrainians continue to push for justice.

“This is what makes us different from the Russians,” Borodin said. “We believe in these rules and we follow them.” 

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