Ukrainians seek justice for war crimes
Family members of people killed in the invasion want Russia to face prosecution
When 26-year-old Anatoly Berezhnoy and his wife, Diana, moved to the outskirts of Kyiv a year ago, the young couple envisioned a peaceful life together and became active members of Irpin Bible Church. But their forested suburb soon became one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s targets, and Berezhnoy died earlier this month while trying to help a family evacuate the besieged city.
After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Berezhnoy helped his wife and church members flee to western Ukraine and then returned to Irpin. Berezhnoy’s aunt, Tatyana Kobzar, said he joined the territorial defense in Kyiv on the first day of the Russian invasion and monitored Russian media and telephone calls for information that might aid the Ukrainian military.
He also continued helping civilians fleeing the city. Berezhnoy was with 43-year-old Tetiana Perebyinis and her two children when they encountered Russian shelling March 6. A New York Times photographer was nearby and captured photos of the four of them dead on the street, luggage scattered around the bodies. They are among nearly 5,000 civilians known to have died in the invasion, although the United Nations claims the death toll is likely much higher.
Serhiy Perebyinis, Tetiana’s husband, told WORLD he intends to appeal to the world’s courts and file a lawsuit against Russia for the death of his wife and kids: “This is a war crime, and someone has to be held accountable.”
The Biden administration this week indicated its agreement with Perebyinis. During a Friday briefing, President Joe Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and said he thinks “it will meet the legal definition of that as well.” The president was in Poland meeting with U.S. service members and refugees, signaling to Russia a strong NATO alliance against the country’s deadly invasion of Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement two days earlier declaring that Russian troops have committed war crimes.
“We’ve seen numerous credible reports of indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians, as well as other atrocities,” Blinken wrote in the statement. “Russia’s forces have destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers, and ambulances, leaving thousands of innocent civilians killed or wounded.”
Russian forces in 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. The Biden administration has warned that Russian attacks against Ukraine could increase in severity in the coming weeks, and Moscow may deploy chemical weapons.
Prosecuting war crimes presents a number of challenges and could take years. Prosecutors will need to prove the attacks on civilians were intentional or careless, and the way civilians have mobilized to protect their cities could blur the lines.
Neither Russia nor the United States recognizes the authority of the International Criminal Court at the Hague. Still, war crime experts say the U.S. could assist efforts to pursue justice by sharing detailed information gathered through satellite imagery and eyewitness reports.
Ukrainians like Serhiy Perebyinis can submit their tragic stories to international courts.
Perebyinis was in the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk helping his mother recover from COVID-19 when he last talked to his family. They had moved to the basement after a shell hit their apartment building in Irpin and decided to evacuate the next morning.
The following day, Perebyinis was not able to reach his family by phone, but he could see they had stopped on a road between Irpin and Kyiv. The family used a mobile app to track each other’s locations.
“Then, my wife’s phone moved to hospital number seven in Kyiv,” Perebyinis said. “I called my friends in Kyiv and asked them to come to the hospital to look for my family.”
Fifteen minutes later, he saw a photo on social media of the deadly scene and recognized the clothing and suitcases of his children, 9-year-old Alisa and 18-year-old Mykyta.
“My wife, two children, and two dogs died. I was left alone. We lived happily for 23 years,” Perebyinis said, adding that one dog died instantly and the other he traced to a nearby animal hospital. That dog died the next day. “I lost everyone and lost my reason for living,” Perebyinis said.
Anatoly Berezhnoy’s wife Diana has also considered bringing war crime charges to the International Criminal Court, according to Kobzar, who lives in Washington state. She described her nephew as a kind man with a big heart.
“I remember him as a shy kid with a big smile. His smile was so contagious. It made people around him smile, too,” Kobzar said. “As a Christian, I am confident that Anatoly joined his mom Nina and other family members in a kingdom of God where he sang the glory to his Savior and God.”