Holding Russia to Account for War Crimes in Ukraine

By Janine di Giovanni, Alum of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, photography by Larry Towell

I am an academic and a writer. I am a human rights adviser. I am a mother. But at heart, I am a war reporter. I have covered some 18 wars over the past 35 years.

On a brittle February morning, preparing for a class I was teaching at Yale which dissected four murderous conflicts—in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone—I first heard the news of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I know Putin’s tactics of war very well, so I knew I had to find my way to Ukraine and begin documenting atrocities. But I wanted to go with a different mission than my usual beat as a reporter. I felt I needed to be working at the center of the war crimes investigations that would inevitably be mobilized.

But first, I need to tell you about Tata and the red tulips.

Red Tulips

It never gets easier. You sit in a broken house, in an overgrown field, or at a shattered kitchen table. You sit with someone’s wife, or parent, or sister, brother, friend. You listen to how the person they loved was dragged off, how they never came home.

The person recounting the story tells you about the day their whole life ended—when their loved one was taken away. You listen. You watch the speaker intensely. They are still alive, their bodies still move, they eat, drink, walk. But their grief has frozen them in an anguish so palpable, they seem more dead than alive.

Tata (whose name I have changed to protect her identity) is standing outside her destroyed house in Bucha, where, in February and March, battles took place between Ukrainian and Russian forces. She is 55 but looks a decade older. She wears a ripped green sweater, track pants, a yellow patterned headscarf. She alternately smokes, paces, cries, wipes her eyes, laughs, or shouts something in Russian—the language of many Bucha residents—to neighborhood boys who are helping her granddaughter rebuild the home that was destroyed by a missile. They work silently. They ignore me, the stranger with the notebook, from another country.

Tata, like me, is a mother. But my son is alive. Her son, Andrij, 36, disappeared shortly after Russian troops came to Bucha and was later found dead. I heard about Tata’s son from people who live on the other side of her garden. “A boy disappeared,” one neighbor told me. “The soldiers had done terrible things.”

The photo of Andrij after the soldiers took him showed more than terrible things. I have sorted through hundreds of photos of Syrians tortured during the ongoing war there. Still, I could not look at Andrij’s photo without gagging. His eyes were gouged out, his teeth were knocked clean from his jaw. A metal skewer inserted through his right eye had pushed through to the other side of his left ear.

“Why?” Tata asked. But of course, there is no answer, no words of consolation for this kind of cruelty. Later, I found a photo of a younger Andrij stuck in the corner of a mirror: He once was a handsome man with an open, clean face; blondish curls.

Tata told me about how the columns of soldiers swept into the town, shooting, and then forcing most of the people into their cellars. How her sister, who was 53 and epileptic, died while Tata and others cowered underground. How they lived with her corpse for days, begging soldiers to allow them to bury her. How the soldiers, even as the family dug up the frozen earth to bury Tata’s sister, told Tata she should be grateful they had come to save the townspeople from what they absurdly referred to as Ukrainian Nazis.

In Bucha, it was the beginning of spring. The cherry blossoms fell on the road like white stars. Tulips, red as blood, lined the gardens. Most homes, even those where Russian tanks had driven straight through the flower beds, were adorned with rows of tulips in vivid colors—red, yellow, white.

Flowers were bursting throughout Bucha. I heard birdsong. In another world, another time, it was peaceful here.

Echoes of Death, 
Signs of Life

Years ago, this small city was a summer place where people from Kyiv had dachas. Today the road to Bucha is a wartime road. You drive out of Kyiv, passing the closed-down Antonov plane factory, then rusty tank traps and sandbags. You come to Irpin, with the blown-up bridge where civilians struggled to cross under sniper and tank fire. You see destroyed railroad stations. Then you arrive.

Bucha became a commuter town, where those who couldn’t afford city prices built Soviet-style apartment blocks and small, pretty, pastel houses with neat square gardens and iron gates. Now this is a place that stinks of death. Evil things happened here. According to Amnesty International, those things included torture. Extrajudicial killings (murders without lawful authority). Indiscriminate shelling of homes.

For weeks bodies lay on the road, in basements, in fields, in mass graves. In the cemetery, I sat under a spreading linden tree talking to Vladyslav Mynchenko, a volunteer gravedigger who told me how, after the Russians left, they first put the “hundreds” of bodies in a common grave behind the main church, St. Andrew, with its giant gold dome. “Then we kept finding more bodies,” he said. “So we started bringing them here.” Many had yet to be identified. Someone in Bucha told me that when they went to collect the corpses—in apartments, next to wells, in the streets—there weren’t enough body bags, so they used black garbage-bin liners.

Still, life returns, even to the most haunted of places. And it is returning to Bucha in slow motion. After all, life must return after war: Bosnian schools opened in Srebrenica after the 1995 genocide. In Rwanda, where more than 800,000 civilians, primarily Tutsis, were slaughtered in the spring of 1994, farms were replenished and soon grew coffee and corn, even after so much blood was spilled on that same earth. A little more than a month after the Russians retreated, the cleaning of Bucha had begun.

People were returning to the shattered pastel houses, where flowers were bursting over the front gates. The supermarket was full of people carrying baskets of produce, milk, and cheese. I didn’t encounter many smiles or interactions: People hurried through the aisles and somberly glanced at one another or nodded with an air of “You made it too.” Cafés were opening. Internet service was about to be restored.

At St. Andrew, Father Andrew welcomed visiting European parliamentarians who had come to see images of the crimes. University of Michigan professor of sociology Geneviève Zubrzycki, who directs the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia, told me that “similar to how Auschwitz has become a shorthand for the horrors of the Holocaust, years from now Bucha will be evoked as a symbol for the Ukrainian war.”

Father Andrew pulled out a video on his phone from February 26. It showed smoke rising over his church in the early days of the war. “Before what we knew would happen,” he said. We talked about God and free will, about how the Russian Orthodox Church sanctioned Putin’s killing spree. “It’s hard to understand how Kirill”—the Patriarch of Moscow—“can authorize this. If he was a real patriarch, he would talk like a father with kids. He didn’t see the people [of Bucha] as people—he saw us as a territory to conquer.”

By Father Andrew’s count, 412 people died in Bucha, but that number is still being revised. “They killed randomly. People trying to buy food or drive their car.” He leads me behind the church to a lump of freshly dug dark-brown earth where he says around 30 people were recently buried. “It’s man’s choice to do evil or not,” he says. “We can easily switch from evil to good. It’s not God who is doing the killing.”

I thought of what Tata had said when I hugged her goodbye, her wet cheek against my sweater. She had asked me, in a whisper: “Can you imagine the unspeakable pain of losing your child? Now imagine him mutilated…. In every house in this town, someone was killed.”

I kept thinking of a line from a T.S. Eliot poem, “Gerontion”:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

The Reckoning Project

The phone call came on February 25, the day after Russian troops advanced into Ukraine. On the line was the British writer and academic Peter Pomerantsev. A senior fellow at the Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins, Pomerantsev is regarded as an authority on Russian propaganda. He was born in Kyiv, to Russian dissident parents, and since 2014 has been closely engaged with some of the country’s leading authors, journalists, intellectuals, and politicians.

Pomerantsev’s voice was anguished. He was not content, he said, with reading about Ukraine in press accounts—or even going to report the war. “What can we do?” he said, distraught.

I told him I had just finished a project and had a template for an initiative I had run for the U.N. Democracy Fund in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. For those initiatives, my team and I had trained local journalists to meticulously gather evidence of war crimes in very specific ways (more on this later) so that eyewitness testimony could eventually be used in international tribunals. Given the speed, variety, and level of atrocities that seemed to be in store for Ukraine, I suggested that documenting them in real time might be a way to harness international justice. I proposed joining forces and applying the template to this conflict.

In my years as a correspondent, I have covered three genocides—in Srebrenica, Rwanda, and the slaughter of the Yazidi in Iraq. But several years ago I discovered that all of my piles of reporting, my rows and rows of carefully labeled Moleskine notebooks, did not adhere to strict legal standards. When I was called by The Hague to give accounts of crimes I had witnessed in Bosnia, or Sierra Leone, or Kosovo, my memory was foggy, my notebooks disorganized. Frustrated by my inability to use my reporting as evidence, I realized I had a major gap in my education. For a lifetime, I had been studying human nature during wartime, but I did not know how the legal system could be used to stop wars or bring justice. So in 2015 I went to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy as a Pakis Fellow and studied international law and international relations, receiving another degree. In the years that followed, with help from the U.N. and the Soufan Center, I started working in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq with colleagues Nicole Tung, Leela Jacinto, and others, training journalists to become documentarians reporting war crimes, making sure that certain factors didn’t color their subjects’ accounts, such as witnesses’ trauma, the presence of local troops or militias at the time of an incident, and other potential “biases.”

My theory, from the start, had been that along with first responders (paramedics, firefighters, police, and aid workers), journalists have access to information that can subsequently prove crucial in courtrooms. Journalists speak to all parties: victims or eyewitnesses who observed the horrors, first responders, refugees who have fled war zones, and the combatants themselves. After investigators arrive from the U.N. or the International Criminal Court, it can take years for their cases to get to trial.

Take 1990s Bosnia, for example. Out of that conflict, 162 people would be indicted in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Yet only 91 were ever sentenced. In the time between the end of the war and reconstruction, survivors saw no justice, no closure, no post-conflict resolution. Meanwhile, war criminals had time to escape. Radovan Karadžić, dubbed the Butcher of Bosnia, was able to take on a new identity as a mad New Age healer before his arrest in 2008. And the real perpetrator of the terrors of that war, Serbia’s president Slobodan Milošević—though finally hauled to The Hague in 2001 in his bedroom slippers—died before he could be convicted. When you think that an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 women were raped in Bosnia and that 8,000 men and boys were killed or went missing in Srebrenica alone, 91 convictions is an appallingly low number.

Starting with the war in Syria, those of us working to document war crimes got more sophisticated. We began to use different methods, like the brilliant work of the former British blogger Eliot Higgins’s Bellingcat, an investigative collective that specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence. In Syria, many people had smartphones; it was easy to photograph the impact of Putin’s bombs or record the chevrons on the uniforms of Assad’s soldiers who had abducted people. In that war, verifiable corroborative evidence—GPS data, digital tags, satellite images—were recorded quickly, seamlessly, electronically.

For those like Susan Meiselas, the Magnum photojournalist who covered wars in Latin America and went on to win a MacArthur, in part for her work in Kurdistan, what is important is that we work on war crimes while the conflict is still raging. “This is a first,” she says, of Ukraine, where we are voluminously “recording war crimes while the war is still happening.”

The Reckoning Project was born the day Pomerantsev phoned me. It grew out of my deep frustration—and a deep-rooted shame and sorrow—that came from witnessing too many atrocities. I have never really gotten over the rows and rows of graves of men and boys in Srebrenica—or their mothers and wives telling me how they were pulled from their arms before they were murdered. Or the dead bodies melting in the sun in Rwanda on a hot summer day during the genocide. Or the agony of those in South Sudan, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen.

Within a short time, we were able to get a commitment from the U.S. government to back an effort which I spearheaded, along with Pomerantsev and Nataliya Gumenyuk (a Ukrainian conflict reporter who has been covering military upheaval internationally for two decades), supported by legal and archival experts. Gumenyuk located 15 researchers and documentarians from across Ukraine and brought them together in Kyiv for training with Raji Abdul Salam, a Syrian Palestinian who was a key player in our efforts to take testimony in Syria. Some of our researchers came from occupied territories—Luhansk, Donetsk—others from cities like Kherson, the first to be captured, or places where horrific crimes happened, such as Sumy, Chernihiv, Kharkiv. Several had been victimized. One told me he was taken captive by Russian soldiers for eight days, during which he was beaten, starved, and humiliated. His only crime: He had been a witness to Russian crimes.

Our team takes testimony of war crimes and crimes against humanity: the bombing of hospitals, the crushed theater in Mariupol, extrajudicial killings, executions. They are exceedingly brave: documenting war crimes in their own country during a war. When I asked a group of them, early on, if they had the stomach for this, they looked at me in a startled way. “These are my people,” one told me, almost indignantly. “These are my neighbors. There is no choice. This is what we have to do.”

The Genesis of “Genocide”

First, you encounter an individual case. Next, you see similar cases stretched across a town, then a region, then a country. In time, you begin to see patterns in the atrocities, and you start to understand that the intent had been to deliberately erase a population and destroy its identity.

This is the basis of war crimes tribunals for genocide. And genocide is a term that emerged in 1944 from a man who was educated in Lviv, of all places, which is now part of western Ukraine. The word was coined by a Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, a legal adviser to the U.S. chief prosecutor at Nuremberg. Lemkin combined the Greek word genos (race, people) with the Latin cide (killing) in an attempt to articulate and understand the Nazi mass killings.

The question of whether this war constitutes a genocide will be decided in the months and years to come. But history isn’t waiting this time. Iryna Venediktova, who until recently was the Ukrainian prosecutor general, decided to prosecute war crimes while the battlefields were still smoldering. So far, her team has a staggering list of 13,000 crimes it contends may have been committed by Russia. (There are an estimated 25,000 such cases being examined by myriad agencies from around the world.) Venediktova and her cohorts believe that justice is more likely to be served while the evidence is fresh, while the perpetrators are still on Ukrainian soil.

On a hot morning in Kyiv, in early May, I met with Venediktova—who, two months later, would be on the outs with President Zelenskyy, who called for her dismissal along with that of Ukraine’s intelligence chief. (Zelenskyy alleged that people on their staffs were “working against our state” through “collaboration” with Russia.) I was accompanied by Pomerantsev and Wayne Jordash, a British war crimes lawyer who advises the Reckoning Project (as he has the governments of Libya and Vietnam). Venediktova is a former constitutional law professor. Like her former boss, she dressed in quasi-combat gear: tailored camouflage trousers, a fitted forest-green T-shirt. She has straight dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and a firm handshake. In a room full of men, she projected gravitas.

“This is my purpose,” she has remarked. “To make Putin and his forces pay for what they have done.” Venediktova told me that, even as foreign investigators are working in Ukraine and international courts await the evidence of their probes, the largest number of prosecutions will be conducted in Ukraine itself. In May, in fact, her agency launched the first such trial—of a 21-year-old Russian soldier, Vadim Shishimarin, who, even though he contended he was following orders, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for shooting a 62-year-old civilian in the early days of the war.

We passed through sandbagged buildings to get to her office; we discussed the links between genocide and the Kremlin propaganda machine that effectively attempts to erase Ukrainian identity. Many people I saw in Ukraine told me the soldiers who confronted them had said they were there to “denazify” their country, to free them from bad Ukrainians in power, to restore their nation to its Russian roots. In Rwanda, a generation ago, a similar tactic was used by the Interahamwe militia, crucial perpetrators of that genocide. Their most effective method was a radio station, Mille Collines, which repeatedly broadcast that Tutsi people were cockroaches with no right to exist and encouraged their fellow Hutus to kill Tutsis. Russian propaganda started with “denazification,” then shifted to demonizing Ukrainians, calling for their destruction.

One of the propagandists is the pro-Kremlin journalist Timofey Sergeytsev, who has rallied for erasing Ukraine’s national identity and supports a campaign for the collective punishment of its people. In April, in an op-ed, he wrote that Ukraine must be “denazified” and Ukrainians made to “assimilate” the experience of the war “as a historical lesson and atonement for [their] guilt.” Jordash’s response: “I don’t think I’ve seen a representative of the state make a clearer call to attack civilians or a clearer call to genocide in any modern-day conflict.”

Putin’s Gruesome Playbook

This is my third Vladimir Putin war. The first was the so-called second Chechen War, in 2000. I was there when the capital, Grozny, fell to Russian forces. What I remember most was the frigid, wasted landscape. I also remember the type of fear that freezes your guts to ice.

I remember the excruciating sound of Putin’s bombs. I remember the smell of gunfire, the constant artillery, the helicopter gunships, and the amount of sticky blood on the floor of the makeshift hospital—a former school—where I was sheltering. I remember the screams of soldiers whose limbs were amputated without the benefit of anesthetic. I remember the weariness of people sleepwalking through the streets.

I remember cruelty inflicted on civilians, who hid in potato shelters, wondering if that night was their last. I remember how frightened I was and how I used the last battery of my satellite phone to report the fall of Grozny to my newspaper back in London before the device died and I was alone. I then sat up with some very young Chechen soldiers, trying to teach them rudimentary English. Through our terror and our gloom, we tried to recount bad jokes, to laugh a bit, to eat some hard bread.

Outside, it was deep night, lit only by campfires. The boy soldiers told me that by morning the Russians would enter our village and kill everyone. The tanks were already surrounding us, they said. A commander came in and ordered the boys to prepare to leave just before dawn; they would walk over the mountains to go into hiding. He advised me to come along. But because I did not have a Russian visa, having entered the country illegally through the mountains, I knew that once I was found I would be executed as a foreign spy.

“You look like my older sister,” one Chechen soldier remarked as he cleaned his Kalashnikov. “You should come with us. If the Russians find you, they will just kill you.” The soldier and I went for a walk as I made up my mind. We passed the school that had been converted into an ad hoc ward for those who had been injured by mines as they’d retreated from Grozny.

The Russians, it turned out, had laid a trap. They told them it was safe to cross the area—a no man’s land. It turned out to have been mined. As a result, the Chechens walked into the trap and many of them blew up. Some of the soldiers, to reach the end of the field, had to step on the dead bodies to absorb the bomb blasts, their winter white uniforms becoming splattered with their comrades’ blood.

I had been warned by a colleague I had known in Sarajevo, Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora (later killed while reporting the war in Sierra Leone), that the noise of Putin’s bombs would drive me to madness. He was right. At times I thought I was losing my grip on reality. At other times I thought I would never get out alive. I remember finding solace in prayer, thinking that at least I could die knowing I believed in something. I had witnessed the fall of this place; I had written about it; and I had gotten the word out before the battery of my phone died.

But I did not die.

I chose not to depart with the soldiers that dawn, taking my chances by staying behind. I escaped in a car driven by a man from Ingushetia; I was wearing Chechen clothes and holding a baby. I remember looking in the rearview mirror to see the Russian tanks, like awful black spiders, rolling into town. The troops would destroy that village, most likely killing the old women with whom I had sheltered in their cellars among the glass pickle jars.

My second Putin war was Syria. By the time Putin joined that conflict, in 2015, President Bashar al-Assad had already burned much of his country. But Putin added the finishing touches. He torched East Aleppo. He bombed medical facilities, killing doctors, nurses, and the wounded. He bombed schools and decimated residential areas. At the same time, Russia launched a propaganda war, recruiting troll farms and pro-Assad journalists to attack humanitarians such as the White Helmets, the team of self-appointed first responders who dug people out from the rubble of the bombs.

And now I was in my third Putin war. The Russian troops who arrived in Bucha, however, were of a different generation of soldier than those I met in Chechnya. In Grozny, some of them had been so young that when they’d cried out, they’d yearn for their mothers. These troops could well have been their very sons, maybe their grandsons. Ironically, some were Chechens, known as Kadyrovtsy, who tend to be loyal to Putin’s Chechen puppet, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Several Bucha survivors told me that depending on where the soldiers came from in Russia, they could be more cruel or more polite. “The ones from Lake Baikal,” one woman said, referring to combatants from Siberia, “were the most vicious.” Others contended that it was the commanders who were savage while the younger soldiers, as a rule, were civil to the Ukrainians they encountered.

Putin has developed a playbook when it comes to wars of aggression. First, long-range artillery. Followed by air strikes that level towns so as to shake the resolve of citizens. Followed by on-the-ground attacks on civilians. It’s no coincidence that Putin appointed as his Ukraine field commander none other than General Aleksandr Dvornikov, a.k.a. the Butcher of Syria, who led Russia’s operations in that country from 2015 to 2016. As in Syria, Putin’s bombardments, sometimes using weapons banned by international treaties, were aimed at soft targets: hospitals, schools, shelters, food supplies. While the Russians destroyed East Aleppo with unguided missiles, cluster munitions, and thermobaric weapons, Ukrainians have not only been hit with that same arsenal, but also with thermite, which is used to melt metal. It was on Dvornikov’s watch that the strategic port city of Mariupol was obliterated.

By going beyond military targets and training his sights on noncombatants, Putin’s calculation has been to slaughter the most vulnerable. These serial attacks on civilians, in city after city, suggests a blueprint, suggests Putin and Dvornikov could someday face justice as war criminals.

Back to the Garden

When I was reporting in Rwanda or Bosnia or the Yazidi/ISIS crisis in Iraq, I was not looking at the bigger picture of genocide. In Ukraine, I am. But I also look at the individual pictures that make up the greater whole. Because I cannot forget that each of the dead had a richly textured life: a history, foods they loved, sports they were good at.

I headed to Bucha on Victory Day, May 9, the date that marked the celebration of the Soviets “winning” World War II. In Kyiv, things were tense: Rumors had been circulating that there would be a chemical attack, so people were staying home. May 9, however, turned out to be rather quiet. When I met Iryna Abramova, she was sitting outside at a splintered table, staring off into the distance. She was wearing a blue fleece, a headscarf, her wedding ring.

We sat in her aunt’s garden because her own house—in which she had spent her entire life—had been blown up two months before by a Russian grenade. Nearby was a bed of red tulips, bluebells, daisies, and strawberry plants that rose from the earth. Someone had taken the time to write the names of the plants on little sticks that were inserted in the earth. There was an ashtray with a cigarette butt in it. I asked where it had come from. She shrugged, then said she thought it might have been Oleh’s, her husband of 17 years, who was assassinated a few yards away from her house.

Iryna told me her story. (She would also share aspects of her account, I later discovered, with Ukrainian prosecutors and other journalists.) She told me about how she, Oleh, and her elderly father, Volodymyr, had been confined to the cellar of her home, heating potatoes in an electric cooker; how they could hear fierce battles above them. “We weren’t very hungry,” she said. “Or tired. When you’re that frightened…those things don’t matter.” Tonelessly, Iryna gave me details, showing me the pin from the grenade a soldier threw into the door of her home. She described how her father, still in the cellar, made eggs and coffee before hearing the explosion nearby. “I guess we don’t have a house anymore,” her father had said, spooning eggs onto a dish.

She described how they had moved to another room on hands and knees, away from the windows, until another explosion burst the windows. She recalled how the soldiers came in and ordered them outside, saying, “We’re not going to hurt you. Don’t you see we’re Russians? We’re here to liberate you.” They emptied the men’s pockets and took their phones.

“Why are you doing this to us?” Iryna yelled at one young soldier. Another yelled back: “You [elected] a lazy government, you killed police in Maidan, you killed people in Donbas.”

Iryna then heard another explosion and saw her house burst into flames. Her father tried to put it out with a bucket of water. She remembered how he coughed and struggled, how the soldiers laughed as he tried to drink water, how they then grabbed Oleh, removed his shirt to look for telltale military tattoos or bruises from weapons, then led him outside. “They told me to stay because they didn’t want me to make trouble,” she said. “I realized, right then, they were going to kill him.”

Iryna thinks she heard the shot. She ran outside, only to find Oleh crumpled on the ground, blood spurting from his temple. “So it was an execution,” she said.

One soldier was near the body, calmly drinking water. Iryna tried to staunch the blood spurting from Oleh’s temple and sensed, she said, that “his heart was dying.” She fell to her knees. “I began to scream to the soldier, ‘Just kill me, just kill me too!’ ”

She said a young soldier approached her, gun cocked, and she knew from the look in his eyes he was thinking about it. She squeezed her eyes shut, awaiting the bullet, but instead the soldier told Iryna’s father, “Is this your daughter, old man? Take her away.”

Oleh died on March 5. His body stayed on the street corner until the soldiers and the tanks had gone and the dead were collected. On April 12, Iryna said goodbye to her husband and prayed as she buried him. The place where Oleh died now has a cloth covering the blood, and Iryna brings flowers most days to mark it.

Her husband, whom she met one summer day at work, was a gentle man; he built scaffolding for theaters and exhibitions. They never had children, but he loved his animals. She showed me a photo of him on her phone: a young man wearing a hard hat, gently cradling a kitten.

Did the soldier who fired the killing shot know when he squeezed the trigger that he was also severing ties to all the people connected to Oleh, his life, his work, his community? Did he know Oleh owned three cats and a dog and loved them all? Did he know that Oleh’s passion was motorcycling and that he had just bought an old Soviet bike as a gift to himself? “Spring is here, but it’s evil,” Iryna told me. “It will be haunted here for a very long time.”

This Happened

Our team, of course, while gathering evidence from people like Iryna Abramova, is not the only one documenting war crimes. There are forensic units on the ground examining bones and DNA. Other efforts include those of French gendarmerie, explosive technicians from Slovakia, war crimes experts from the U.K., as well as a 42-member team from the International Criminal Court. There are many recently trained Ukrainian teams too. They crouch at grave sites with jackets that say WAR CRIMES INVESTIGATORS, combing through bombed apartments, photographing shell casings, exhuming bodies.

Already I have filled several notebooks from my two recent trips to Ukraine; there will be several more. By the time the war ends, my team will have an archive of statements from survivors. We will have compiled some 150 testimonies, from which we hope to build national and international cases. It is small. It is a start. It is painful and it is slow.

But it is a memorial, a way of remembering all of the Olehs and Andrijes whose deaths would be otherwise unknown. I keep coming back to Eliot: After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

There cannot be healing without first establishing the truth—this much I know from all the wars I’ve seen, from all the wounds inflicted not only when the bombs are falling but during the reconstruction or so-called transitional justice that follows. South Africa, with its truth and reconciliation commissions, managed it slightly. Rwanda, with its gacaca courts, also tried to get to the core of what transpired during the genocide. But Bosnia—and so many other lands ravaged by war—are still racked by the ongoing lies as people try to rewrite the history of the evil that happened there.

Part of the lesson of our work is that we will not let history be rewritten. We were here, we listened, we wrote down testimonies. These people existed. This happened. Like the dead buried in Father Andrew’s graveyard, their memory—how they lived, how they died—will never be taken away.

This piece is republished from Vanity Fair.

Leave a Reply