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Quest for justice

Inside the massive international effort to hold Russia accountable for war crimes in Ukraine


Bodies are exhumed from a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 8. Photo by Daniel Berehulak / The New York Times / Redux

Quest for justice
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WARNING: This article contains graphic images


LUDMYLA SAVCHENKO AND HER HUSBAND MYKOLA lived a simple life together in the quaint village of Bilka—right up until the day 200 Russian tanks rolled in.

Rumors of an invasion had rippled through the countryside for weeks, but they didn’t think their village would become a target. Now troops were nearly at the Savchenkos’ doorstep.

The couple herded their six foster children into the cellar, but the electricity was out on their property. The next day, Mykola left the cellar to find somewhere to charge their cell phones so they could get updates on the situation. “He said it would take just five minutes,” Savchenko told me through tears.

I spoke via Zoom with Savchenko, who appeared on my phone screen, weepy but strong, over sketchy WiFi from Zhytomyr, Ukraine.

The couple met in 1996 when Ludmyla was a single mom. Mykola helped her raise her two kids on a farm in Bilka—about 20 miles from Ukraine’s northeastern border with Russia. Then the Savchenkos decided to start a “family orphanage.” They added three kids to their family in 2021 and three more earlier this year.

Now Mykola was missing.

For more than two weeks, Savchenko anxiously inquired about 45-year-old Mykola while tending to the needs of their children, ages 4 through 11. “Local sheriffs told me not to go anywhere because there were mines all around the village,” Savchenko explained through a translator. “They told me to wait to look for him until the troops were driven out.”

Local police found Mykola when Ukrainian forces freed the village, 17 days after he disappeared. He was ­buried in a pit about 200 yards from the family home. The weather in northern Ukraine must have been chilly the day he disappeared. The photo of his body showed a man dressed in a blue zipped fleece, a black coat, and a navy blue stocking cap, his face and hands bloodied and battered. The tip of his nose was missing.

The handwritten and stamped death report police gave Savchenko included devastating details: Mykola had been “brutally tortured and then killed with a bullet in the heart and one in the head.” Savchenko wept as she said this, but seemed determined to carry on. Determined that the world should know. Mykola also had broken bones in his fingers and arm, she said. His injuries add up to a war crime, according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Communal workers collect bodies of civilians murdered on the streets of Bucha by retreating Russian soldiers.

Communal workers collect bodies of civilians murdered on the streets of Bucha by retreating Russian soldiers. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Mykola’s story is just one of many showing similarly callous disregard for human life and liberty, according to Ukraine’s chief prosecutor. His office has already compiled a list of 25,000 likely victims of war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.

The ICC now considers Ukraine a “crime scene.” President Joe Biden went a step further, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and the atrocities “genocide.”

But efforts to catalog and prosecute these crimes are generally without precedent due to the vast number of suspected cases flooding the system even as Kyiv continues to resist the bloody Russian invasion. Ukraine does not have the resources to investigate the tsunami of claims. Four months after Mykola disappeared, Savchenko was still waiting for investigators to contact her.

Assistance has been pouring in. The ICC in May deployed its largest team ever—42 investigators and support staff members. It plans to open an office in Kyiv. More than a dozen ­countries, including the United States, are contributing their own teams of forensic experts and investigators to help Ukraine collect evidence.

The world has already witnessed the Kremlin’s brutality against its own people in the form of poisonings and torture. Now, fresh evidence seems to show Moscow’s willingness to murder Slavic kin next door. But the Kremlin has so far dismissed any claims of war crimes, and Moscow will likely refuse to cooperate with any investigation. In the face of mounting evidence, how will Ukraine and its international allies hold Russian soldiers and their pariah leader accountable?

A mass grave in Bucha.

A mass grave in Bucha. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Documenting atrocities

Oleksandra Matviichuk leads the Center for Civil Liberties, one of Ukraine’s most prominent human rights groups. These days, she has trouble sleeping and concentrating. She’s also struggling with memory loss—all signs of the exhaustion and emotional trauma that come with living and working in a war zone.

Matviichuk has been documenting war crimes since the first Russian ­invasion in 2014, but this round far exceeds the last in its brutality.

Many of the worst atrocities have already sparked international outrage.

“Even for me, a professional human rights lawyer who has documented these crimes for eight years, I wasn’t prepared,” she said. “I ask myself, Why such cruelty? Why such brutality?”

After a month of Russian occupation, Ukrainian forces freed the area around Kyiv in late March and ­uncovered a horror scene. In Bucha, authorities found 403 bodies, some left on roads, others buried in mass graves. Russian troops leveled buildings and destroyed homes, and survivors have reported rapes and summary executions.

In nearby Irpin, authorities found 290 civilian victims, many of them women. That’s where Serhiy Perebyinis’ wife Tetiana and two children died after a Russian shell hit their apartment on March 6. They were attempting to flee the city.

“I plan to appeal to the world’s courts, to file lawsuits against Russia,” Perebyinis told me. “This is a war crime, and someone has to be held accountable. I lost everyone and lost my reason for living.”

Later that week, Russian forces in the southern city of Mariupol bombed a maternity hospital and a theater ­sheltering civilians. The word children was written in giant letters on the ground next to the theater. More than 600 people likely died in those attacks.

And in June, a Russian missile hit a crowded shopping mall in the eastern city of Kremenchuk, killing 21 people and injuring nearly 100. Leaders of the G-7 nations were meeting in Germany at the time and said the attack further strengthened their resolve to stand behind Ukraine.

I ask myself, Why such cruelty? Why such brutality?

Terror tactics

War crimes are generally defined as any serious violation of international humanitarian law outlined in the Geneva and Hague Conventions. Included on the list are unlawful targeting and killing of civilians, targeting of civilian infrastructure, rape, sexual assault, torture, and destruction of cultural heritage.

Here’s one more that makes the list of “Top 10” war crimes in Ukraine: forced disappearances. Matviichuk’s team has a separate database for this kind of crime. It includes nearly 500 cases of civilian hostages and missing people. She claims this is only the tip of the iceberg: “We know that there are hundreds of names which are not in our database, and we have no information about them.”

Matviichuk said her organization has reasonable grounds to believe Russian troops or intelligence units organized these disappearances. The Nazis used this form of terror during World War II, and it has since become a common method authoritarians use to terrorize civilians while leaving little evidence behind.

Many Ukrainians have vanished with scarcely a trace. One case Matviichuk and her team are tracking involves a middle school math teacher who fled Kyiv for her ­parents’ village after the war began. Instead of safety, 25-year-old Viktoria Andrusha encountered trouble when Russian troops invaded their village and searched the family’s home. They flagged a photo on her phone as problematic.

“A lot of Ukrainians have photos on their private phones of military techniques or some horrible event that ­happened, but they arrested her and illegally transferred her to Russia,” Matviichuk said.

Andrusha has not been allowed to contact anyone in Ukraine. Matviichuk says they learned she was being held captive in Kursk, a Russian city 75 miles from Ukraine’s northeastern ­border, through civilian hostages released in a prisoner exchange.

Ukrainian soldiers attend to a group of civilians, including Tetiana Perebyinis and her two children, who were killed while attempting to evacuate from Irpin.

Ukrainian soldiers attend to a group of civilians, including Tetiana Perebyinis and her two children, who were killed while attempting to evacuate from Irpin. Lynsey Addario/Getty Images

Moved to action

If Putin hoped to use terror to force Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit, he is failing miserably. The atrocities have only hardened Ukrainians’ resolve not to cede one inch of territory to a ­country capable of such evil.

The scenes of despair have also united the international community against Russia and rallied world powers to pursue war crimes prosecution. Teams of forensic experts from France, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and 14 other countries have deployed to Ukraine to join the investigations.

For its part, the United States announced in June the formation of a new accountability team, led by the Justice Department’s Eli Rosenbaum, to aid the investigations. Beginning in 1980, the professional Nazi hunter spent four decades tracking and prosecuting former Nazis living in the United States.

“The United States is sending an unmistakable message: There is no place to hide,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a June trip to Ukraine to meet with local ­prosecutors. “We will … make sure that those who are responsible for these atrocities are held accountable.”

A top Kremlin official responded by flaunting Russia’s nuclear arsenal and threatening the United States with the “wrath of God” if it helps establish an international tribunal. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council and Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, quoted the Bible and referenced the apocalypse in a July social media post: “Do not judge and you will not be judged … so that the great day of His wrath doesn’t come to his home one day.”

Among the $6.9 billion the U.S. committed to Ukraine since the war began, the Biden administration has allocated close to $80 million for war crimes investigations.

A woman talks with Russian soldiers in downtown Mariupol.

A woman talks with Russian soldiers in downtown Mariupol. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Preparing prosecutions

Ukraine is not a signing member of the ICC, and neither are the United States and Russia. But Ukraine filed a note of jurisdiction with the ICC in 2014 over concerns about Russian war crimes during the first invasion. That gives the ICC jurisdiction over Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

But Matviichuk is not optimistic about the ICC’s ability to adequately pursue justice. Her organization joined nearly two dozen other human rights groups to form the Tribunal for Putin initiative. Their teams travel daily to areas recently occupied by Russian troops and have recorded more than 10,000 incidents. The General Prosecutor’s Office has opened 15,000 criminal proceedings already.

It will submit its findings to the ICC, but Matviichuk said the scope of the atrocities is far beyond the court’s capabilities: “The International Criminal Court will select several cases and will work only on those cases. So the question is, who will provide justice for the thousands of crimes which will not be selected?”

Ukraine has begun its own series of war crimes trials and in May sentenced three Russian soldiers to prison sentences of 11 to 15 years. Still, there are far too many cases for any one nation to process, let alone a country at war.

That’s why Matviichuk is advocating for a special international hybrid tribunal—a combination of national and international human rights experts and judges who would streamline cases into one central database for processing. Matviichuk said this hybrid tribunal should be based in Ukraine so that “justice is very visible to the population” and conducted in the language of the people.

It’s not a new idea. Hybrid tribunals have prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone. But the Kremlin will likely use its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to delay or block those efforts.

Bodies of civilians, one with hands tied behind his back, lie in a street in Bucha.

Bodies of civilians, one with hands tied behind his back, lie in a street in Bucha. Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Documenting difficulties

The daily reality of living in a war-torn country makes life difficult for investigators. Matviichuk moved (along with her husband and two cats) to a safer location in Kyiv during the early days of the war. Part of her team followed her while the rest moved to a safer area as a precaution: They want to guarantee their work continues should catastrophe strike the team in the capital.

Kyiv continues to be a target for Russian missiles, and Matviichuk has evacuated many times to bomb shelters. The war has taken a toll on her mental health, but she says there’s no time for rest: “This war is existential for us.”

Teams like Matviichuk’s face practical challenges as well as they scour the front lines for evidence that can hold perpetrators accountable. One hurdle involves documenting war crimes in territory currently held by Moscow.

Prior to the February invasion, Russia occupied 10 percent of Ukraine’s territory. Now that number has increased to 20 percent.

Matviichuk says the situation in those areas is volatile: “It’s dangerous for us, as human rights defenders, and impossible for Ukrainian officials because they will be immediately killed or arrested.”

We know from history that authoritarian regimes sooner or later can collapse, and leaders who thought that they were untouchable appeared in court.

War crimes experts say they won’t know the full extent of the atrocities committed against Ukrainians until Russian forces leave the territories they’ve occupied.

Another challenge involves the wide range of suspected war crimes cases. Matviichuk said there are 25 ­different types of war crimes, and each involves a different protocol for investigation and documentation. For ­example, bodies must sometimes be exhumed so investigators can verify the cause of death.

One of the greatest challenges the courts face is chasing down Russian soldiers and military commanders not already captured by Ukrainian forces.

Then there’s the matter of connecting the dots to Russia’s political leaders, including President Vladimir Putin. Getting Putin to stand before an international court seems improbable. But it’s not impossible, according to human rights activists. Matviichuk said an international hybrid tribunal would likely take just months to issue a verdict against Russian leaders. “And we know from history that authoritarian regimes sooner or later can collapse, and leaders who thought that they were untouchable appeared in court.”

Workers exhume bodies in Buzova village to investigate Russian war crimes.

Workers exhume bodies in Buzova village to investigate Russian war crimes. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Long road ahead

The pursuit of justice for what has happened in Ukraine will likely take years. In the meantime, many Christian ministries are focusing on trauma healing. (See “Sitting together with people in pain,” June 30.)

“Every day you hear stories, and people arrive in cars with bullet holes,” Mission Eurasia President Sergey Rakhuba told me after a summer trip to Ukraine and Poland. “Sometimes you think, ‘Wow, how were you even able to drive that car?’”

Mission Eurasia’s refugee assistance center in Krakow, Poland, has trained more than 800 day camp leaders in trauma counseling and designed classes on healing from trauma.

It’s personal for Rakhuba, who lives in the United States but grew up in eastern Ukraine. When I visited Mission Eurasia’s headquarters in 2014, we spent only a day at the ministry building in Irpin. Rakhuba was eager to show me the destruction in cities like Slovyansk, where Russian troops stormed a church and murdered four of its leaders.

This time, Russian troops pushed farther west and took over Mission Eurasia’s headquarters, destroying its building and burning its Christian ­literature. Rakhuba sent me a video of the destruction taken by one of his team members after Ukrainian forces reclaimed the city. I counted two ­bodies lying on the street.

“We’re still living a bad dream,” Rakhuba said. “You want to wake up, and you just can’t comprehend it. It will take a long time of focused counseling.”

Like the pursuit of justice, healing will take years. Ludmyla Savchenko and her six children moved back to their farm in the Sumy Oblast in early summer and gave her husband a proper burial. The children still struggle with Mykola’s death, but they stay busy learning how to care for the chickens, rabbits, sheep, and goats. The village is much quieter than before. Sometimes they hear the boom of artillery in the distance, but Savchenko holds out hope Ukraine will prevail and rebuild.

Oleksandra Matviichuk says the stakes are too high for Ukraine not to win this war and for Russia to get away with war crimes. “It’s not a war between two countries,” she said. “It’s a war between two systems: between authoritarianism and democracy. And if we are not able to stop Putin in Ukraine, he will go further.”


The ICC’s rocky past

In September 2015, warlord Bosco Ntaganda stood trial at the Inter­national Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of murder, rape, and ­persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eighty witnesses ­testified against him.

Bosco Ntaganda

Bosco Ntaganda Michael Kooren/Pool Photo via AP

After a three-year trial, the ICC convicted Ntaganda of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It sentenced him to 30 years in prison and ordered him to pay $30 million in victim reparations. But Ntaganda’s case is the exception, not the rule.

The court has handed down only 10 ­convictions in 20 years, and its work remains controversial.

The drive to bring international perpetrators to justice started after World War II when Allied victors created temporary war crimes tribunals for German and Japanese military leaders. Progress toward a ­permanent court stalled during the Cold War but picked up again in the 1990s as two more tribunals investigated war crimes and genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. That led to the Rome Statute and the formation of the ICC in 2002.

Today, the ICC’s panel of 18 judges represents 123 nations. Other countries, including the United States and Russia, signed the treaty but never ratified it. That means the ICC can’t prosecute crimes in those places without an invitation or a UN referral—as in Sudan, Libya, and Ukraine. Since the ICC has no military or police of its own, it relies on local governments to arrest and transport suspects to trial in the Hague.

Over the years, the ICC has drawn criticism for being slow and ineffective. Cases drag through investigations for years before they ever make it to pretrial, trial, and appeals stages. And that’s only if a suspect actually makes it to court. Fourteen ICC defendants still remain at large.

The ICC has also faced backlash for its focus on Africa. All its cases to date have come from eight African countries, prompting Burundi to leave in protest. In recent years, the ICC has increased its number of investigations and preliminary probes outside Africa, including in Bangladesh, Venezuela, and the Palestinian territories.

The United States helped broker the Rome Statute but was one of only seven countries to vote against its final version in 1998. The tension point is whether or not the ICC’s jurisdiction includes U.S. military and intelligence personnel overseas. After the ICC prosecutor requested a full investigation into allegations in Afghanistan, the Trump administration restricted travel and froze the assets of ICC investigators. President Joe Biden reversed those sanctions in April 2021 but shares the concern over prosecution of U.S. citizens.

Recent ICC investigations in Ukraine have further complicated its relationship with Washington. If the Biden administration supports those efforts, it risks undercutting its own position, since Russia has also rejected ICC membership. But U.S. officials have voiced general approval of ICC endeavors and announced plans to cooperate with Ukrainian national investigations through the intelligence-­sharing ­program Conflict Observatory. —Grace Snell


Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters.

@WorldNels

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