Town by town, Ukrainian prosecutors build Russian war crimes cases


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Olga Gazhurova, a 34-year-old prosecutor from the bombarded city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, typed their account into her laptop, pausing for clarification.

“From which street, exactly, did the tanks enter?” she asked.

Before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, Gazhurova was a criminal prosecutor in Kharkiv, more than 500 miles from Kosiv, a village of about 8,400 people that has seen little of the war’s violence but a significant chunk of its consequences. Hundreds of displaced people have bunked in Kosiv’s schools or with its residents. Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to leave their homes, and more than 4.2 million Ukrainians have left the country as of April 3, according to the United Nations.

The prosecutor general’s office estimates the country is using about 50,000 investigators from five different law enforcement agencies to investigate war crimes. They are conducting interviews across the country and meticulously documenting evidence that they hope to use in war crimes prosecutions against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the military force he sent to invade Ukraine.

So they have fanned out across Ukraine, addressing small groups of mostly female and elderly displaced people in churches, classrooms and auditoriums like this one in Kosiv. They explain that one day, there may be compensation for their lost loved ones, personal injuries and property losses, and that Russia can only be held accountable if its victims tell their stories in painstaking detail.

Gazhurova and her colleague from Kharkiv, Olga Petrova, 47, last week stood in front of a stage featuring a painted backdrop of sweeping, lush Ukrainian fields and explained the process of collecting testimony and digital evidence from the nine displaced people scattered about auditorium seats, as a toddler bounded across the room in a diaper.

Petrova explained that under international law, military forces are required to target only military infrastructure and armed combatants, not civilians. “As a result, what the Russian Federation, the aggressor country, is currently doing in Ukraine is considered a crime … and we are trying to prove that,” she said.

The prosecutors, dressed in sneakers and boots, jeans and deep pink and dark green turtlenecks, were not dressing down for any strategic purpose; these are the clothes they grabbed before fleeing Kharkiv. In panicked minutes stuffing belongings into bags, snappy professional attire did not make the cut.

“In that moment,” Petrova said, “you cannot act in a proper way.”

Converting skeptics

Petrova and Gazhurova began their stay in Kosiv interviewing displaced people at School No. 1, where Halyna Hrymaliuk is director. With in-person classes suspended, the 48-year-old has taken on the responsibility of housing and feeding up to 88 displaced people at a time since March 1.

“The conditions here are bad for these people, but we are doing as well as we can,” Hrymaliuk said.

At first, she said, the government circulated fliers asking displaced people to call a phone number if they were willing to speak to a prosecutor or to upload photos and videos of potential Russian war crimes to a state website. But the displaced were often either exhausted, confused, scared, skeptical or some combination of those. In late March, prosecutors began going to displaced people rather than waiting for them to reach out.

“I thought the judicial system was lagging before this invasion,” Hrymaliuk told The Washington Post in English. “I work at a state-owned school, so when I heard prosecutors were coming here, to be frank, I didn’t believe this.”

She decided to quietly sit in on interviews, hoping to understand the prosecutors’ goals. They worked from early morning until late at night, Hrymaliuk said. They asked specific questions as they created a timeline of events, and then, after some time passed, returned to those same questions to judge if interviewees had the same answers. They carried maps of Ukrainian cities and oblasts, or provinces, asking displaced people to assign precise locations to their memories.

They were far more efficient than Hrymaliuk had expected. “I was impressed,” she said.

Before moving to Kharkiv last year, Gazhurova lived and worked for eight years in Donetsk, a region mired in conflict with Russian and separatist forces since 2014. She transferred to Kharkiv for a safer existence, yet one year after beginning her new role there, Gazhurova was forced to leave because of the Russian invasion. She might have held out longer, she said, but for her fears for her young daughter.

“As a child, that is something you cannot delete from your brain for the rest of your life,” Gazhurova said.

At School No. 1 last week, children from Irpin and Bucha, towns north of Kyiv that were the sites of heavy fighting, played soccer on the artificial turf field behind the schoolhouse. Inside, Vira Kovtun, a 71-year-old from Bucha, described through tears and panicked breaths how Russian forces arrived on Feb. 25 and sprayed machine gun fire at homes, concentrating on windows through which residents could be seen filming on their phones.

“We were witnessing people killed,” Kovtun said. “The corpses were just scattered around the street.”

Tanks passed by her single-story home close enough for Kovtun to hear the soldiers’ voices, she said. Then Ukrainian forces arrived and engaged the Russian column. Hunkering down beneath the crossfire, Kovtun heard a Russian fuel truck explode, hurling another vehicle into her front yard. She said she suffered cuts on her face and an eye injury from the blast. Kovtun said she escaped through her front door frame after the door was blown off its hinges, hiding behind brick walls on her way to safety.

Kovtun shared her experience with prosecutors for more than three hours on March 29. At first, she said, she was surprised anyone wanted to hear her account: “It seemed like what happened was obvious, but then we realized that we need to prove this crime against peaceful people.”

Evidence mounts

Days after Kovtun spoke to The Post, Ukrainian forces liberated Bucha and dozens of other Ukrainian cities in the north and center of the country, and investigators and journalists soon shared images of dozens of dead Ukrainians in civilian clothes.

Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s top prosecutor since March 2020, called Russia’s assertion that the atrocities are fabrications “ridiculous.”

During an interview with The Post, Venediktova showed a photo of a 14-year-old boy on an autopsy table, his chest apparently sawed open by investigators to reveal a cylindrical munition the size of a soda can resting in a pool of blood next to his heart. His left arm was mangled, amputated near the elbow. The dead boy, they said, was killed by Russian forces near Kyiv in the early days of invasion. Prosecutors last month shared a cropped version of the photo with media.

“This is a chest. Inside is a piece of projectile,” Venediktova said. “It’s without words, actually. All the evidence is inside the chest of the boy.”

“They bombed day after day, hospitals, schools, places of education — destroyed. And you look at the number of refugees. What is this? What is this?” Venediktova said, gesturing at more photos from recently liberated Ukrainian cities, showing mass graves and Ukrainians in civilian attire who died with their hands tied behind their backs. Venediktova also showed The Post photos of undetonated cluster bombs she said were collected in Kherson — munitions banned by more than 100 countries in 2010.

“Russians live in their own world. They are zombies,” she said. “If they can look at these pictures, I’m very interested in what they can say after this.”

There is a possibility that no Russian official will ever be forced to defend against the accusations in court, said David Bosco, an associate professor of international studies at the University of Indiana who studies war crimes prosecutions.

Any future investigation would likely be in one of two legal venues, Bosco said. The International Criminal Court based in The Hague and the Ukrainian judicial system may each issue indictments, but it is typical for the ICC to prosecute major players — presidents, generals and the like — and for individual countries to prosecute the people of lower rank.

“The big question in both cases is how do you actually get your hands on people,” Bosco said. “All they can do is issue arrest warrants and have those out there; then the case is just kind of frozen. It may be that these people who are indicted can simply remain in Russia beyond the reach of international justice.”

The ICC has the ability to issue sealed arrest warrants without disclosing the name of the target publicly, to be executed when the accused travels to one of the court’s member nations. But those are not a sure thing. In many cases, member countries have declined to cooperate with the court. In many war crimes cases, decades pass without trial. Chances are good, Bosco said, that Ukrainians who are judged to be war crimes victims would receive monetary compensation before any offenders are prosecuted.

“Victims in Ukraine probably have a better chance of getting remuneration than other conflicts around the world just because there’s so much international sympathy and attention,” Bosco said. “There’s a lot of support for an investigation. And in many other investigation situations, they have much less information. Here, it’s just going to be a deluge.”

Trust in victory

The prosecutor general’s office says it has “registered” 4,204 individual war crimes, including the deaths of 161 children.

Venediktova praised the bravery of the nation’s investigators, some of whom have requested to be as close to the front lines as possible to make first contact with victims. Many investigators, like Petrova and Gazhurova, were forced from their own homes.

“We cannot think of ourselves as refugees,” Venediktova said. “We do not have military rank but we act as military, and we are soldiers in our hearts. We serve people, so we don’t need to be motivated. We are doing our jobs. We have no choice: We should believe in victory. If they will be scared, they will not be good prosecutors.”

When speaking to audiences of people who have become accustomed to living in a conflict zone, Gazhurova and Petrova are calm and matter-of-fact. Gazhurova stressed that the definition of war crimes covers a broad range of violence.

Victims’ homes need not have been destroyed to make them war crime victims, Gazhurova told the group at School No. 2. She said that even if a Russian attack only broke their windows or damaged personal belongings, they could still be considered victims of a war crime.

In Kosiv, the prosecutors encountered what is becoming a routine obstacle: People displaced from regions where conflict with Russian and Russian-backed forces began in 2014 struggle to understand why the prosecutors are only interested in Russian war crimes committed in recent weeks.

One 65-year-old woman from Donetsk stood and asked the prosecutors for permission to speak.

“I have documents, photos. My house was destroyed eight years ago, and for the last eight years no one provided us any compensation,” she said.

“We are not authorized to deal with anything that happened before February 24,” Petrova responded. She noted that control of Donetsk has been unclear for the past eight years, and Russia currently claims it as part of its territory.

“In 2014 it was still Ukraine,” the woman countered.

“No one was helping us at that time,” Petrova told the woman. “Now, all countries support us.”

Kasia Strek contributed to this report.

The Washington Post: Breaking News, World, US, DC News and Analysis


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