After the breakout of the full-scale invasion, many public and media initiatives embarked on documenting war crimes committed by Russians in Ukraine. Anyone entering this effort realizes that the topic is broad enough to include everyone willing to engage. Thus, as of end of November, 2023, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine instituted over 114,000 criminal proceedings. However, how could media and civil society members work more efficiently in this area? It was discussed by the participants of the theme-based meeting in Warsaw on November, 28, as part of the Donbas Media Forum: Global.

Olha Kotsiuruba, senior legal advisor at the Civil Network OPORA, shared that the Center for Assistance in War Crimes Documentation established in Warsaw by OPORA is working to make sure that witness testimonies become evidence in courts.

“Before February, 24, 2022, our organization had been engaged with elections, democratization, and various monitoring processes. However, in 2022, we started the foundation “OPORA in Poland” in Warsaw, and created a Center for Assistance in War Crimes Documentation. As of now, we have collected ab. 1,400 testimonies. According to surveys run in Ukraine, 16% citizens eye-witnessed war crimes. However, those are only people who know that eye-witnessed war crimes because they saw horrible things happening such as murders, torture, and death of their close ones. However, a war crime also includes other actions such as obstructing evacuation, creating inhuman living conditions. Cutting off heat supply, power, or food supplies – all of these are war crimes, too. Those aspects could be very different, and the objectives of documenting, the same as documenting background, are different with different actors. For instance, as an organization, we collect preliminary interviews, translate them into Polish, and forward to the Polish Prosecutor’s Office, to the department identical to the Security Service of Ukraine. upon commission of the Polish Prosecutor’s Office, they conduct interviews. It is followed by the exchange of protocols within a Joint investigation team. Which is to say that we work within this legal track to make sure the testimonies are the element of a court case. However, documenting is also important for advocacy, to engage support from Western partners, to make sure they understand the challenges we face. In addition, documenting is essential for memorialization,” said she.

However, according to her, there are many nuances within the documenting process itself. For example, the International Criminal Court does not accept witnesses who offered video testimonies. Otherwise, in order to forward the evidence to court, it shall be documented by law-enforcement bodies. Nevertheless, over the last year, all those discussions have been settled, and the cooperation with law-enforcement has been established. On the other hand, there is a problem when people are either not willing or not ready to testify long-term.

“When we started our activities at the Center for Assistance in War Crimes Documentation in Warsaw, we ran the awareness raising campaign. We posted the form on the website, but it actually did not work well. In fact, almost all the 1,400 testimonies, except for few, have been recorded because we came to see those people. We contacted each of them, we explained who we were, and why we were doing it, that we intend to collect the evidence and bring it to the court. Whenever people see another living person in front of them, they open up, and understand the need. Over the last year, we worked in Warsaw, but now we started also working in other cities. While in Warsaw the interest is there, and many humanitarian organizations come to see us. When we ask a question about whether anyone of them talked to a person about war crimes, in Warsaw people answer yes, to some extent. However, when we come to Torun, for example, or to Bydgoszcz, or Bialystok, and people are waiting for us. They just want to talk because we are the first organization that came to see them and asked them anything. And people are willing to share their stories, and they want to see the outcome,” she said.

Hanna Mamonova, a special correspondent at Babel, and a war crimes documenter in The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies, believes that journalists are the people who could combine documenting work in several areas, such as media coverage, advocacy, human rights protection, and psychological help to people.

“I have been documenting war crimes for the past two years only, although I myself come from Luhansk, and for me, the war has been raging for 10 years now. I know about all war crimes taking place in Luhansk and in Donetsk for all those years. I have been writing about them for various outlets. Last March and April, when Kyiv region was de-occupied, I realized that the law-enforcement bodies fail to manage all the volume of war crimes out there, and they need help. A that time, I worked with the Center for Civic Liberties, and we documented war crimes in Kyiv region, which has gradually become my profession. I can’t imagine other activities for me now, except for documenting. I think that journalism is the profession that helps everyone. We work together with the law-enforcement bodies, and human rights organizations. Testimonies of all witnesses I document are surely forwarded to the law-enforcement bodies. As a journalist, I write down those stories and post them. In addition, we help survivors to adjust after their experience,” she emphasized.

Andriy Kosylo, director at the Center for Investigating International Crime at Warsaw University, member of the board at the Sunflowers Foundation, and a PhD in Law, associate professor at Warsaw University, told about combining theoretical and practical aspects of documenting: “While the Center for the Investigation of International Crime at Warsaw University is an academic institution to produce research essays and papers, the objective of the Sunflowers project is to document international crimes as such. The focus is on international crime, since the concept is broader and covers three more categories of crimes, in addition to war crimes: crimes against humanity, crime of aggression, and the crime of genocide. In other words, the project’s objective is rather practical. It is the initiative of lawyers specializing in international law, mostly from Poland, but also from the UK, Netherlands, Canada, and other countries. Within the project, a platform was designed to collect information that could be used as future evidence in proceedings. We are in contact with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, with law-enforcement bodies from other countries that initiated criminal cases against international crime committed in Ukraine based on universal jurisdiction. Thus, the goal is to document the information but also to transfer it to international law-enforcement.”

Anastasiia Abramets, editor-in-chief at the Memorial memory platform, shared how their team of journalists used the collected survivor stories to build different formats rather than to upload them on the website only.
“Memorial memory platform is the project at the junction of media and documentary reporting. With the help of partners, we could have a follow-up in human rights protection. Our team does not have human rights lawyers but we have international partners. We forward to them the collected information that they can further bring to courts, which we find extremely important. For example, during our work, we found out the circumstances of death of all people staying in the basements in Yahidne. In addition, we recently had stories about the executed civilian men in Chernihiv region. Previously, those stories have not been highlighted in the media, and thus, not explored,” she told.

According to her, the Memorial idea is to add a human dimension to the statistical data about affected Ukrainian people. “We are certain that if we send such messages in Ukraine and in the world, and not only about our conflict, it might have an impact on the reduction of military conflicts. I do not believe they are going to disappear in the nearest 100 years and that we could achieve some complete peace, but such personal stories may help others understand (for example, in New Zealand) why “those people are like me, and we need to do something about it, and I do care.” With the help of Ukrainian diaspora from all over the world, who are helping us tremendously, we organize exhibitions. For example, the exhibition “Lost Childhood” includes stories about 23 children written by their family members as if from the first person, and retold by the children themselves. It is highly painful to read. We designed it for Poland to commemorate the first year of the full-scale invasion but we still keep receiving 2 or 3 requests a month to display the exhibition in different countries. Even when foreigners who are distant from Ukraine read the stories, they say they get to understand things. That is why advocacy all over the world is critical, it is essential to have new partners and enter the supporting countries,” she said.

Valeria Yehoshyna, a journalist in the “Schemes” project at the Liberty Radio, told how the editorial office of investigative journalists re-oriented to the format of documenting war crimes based on investigative tools.
“After February, 24, we shifted the focus. We still investigate corruption cases, but on February, 24, when staying in the basement, our team started considering how we could make ourselves useful for our country. After a brief brainstorming session, we realized that our investigative skills could come in handy to help us document,” she underscored.

She shared that in the beginning those were materials based on the Russian documents collected in Kyiv region to identify their military units, or called Russian military members after their intercepted audio recordings of telephone conversations with their family, but later they started using non-standard methods. “For me, as a journalist, I had a breakdown after the de-occupation of Kharkiv region, where we followed the Ukrainian counter-offensive because we realized that journalists shall be on the ground. We arrived to the Izyum forest. First, we were walking around and observing overwhelmed and shocked, and then we started discussion an option of doing investigations because we are investigators. Yes, we could do documentation but our objective was also to investigate. Eventually, we decided that in the context of Izyum forest, it would be extremely interesting to learn who was lying there, who those 400 people were. In fact, it is a hard but professionally creative experience as in the beginning, we were using some tools we knew, but here we had to be creative. In order to identify the people killed there, we first contact the law-enforcement bodies, and they turned out to not know that. And then we found the “diggers” – those were local volunteers who were burying those people. They were in the state of affect so it took me several days to put one of them in a car and take him around Izuym, and I asked him whether he had been in this or that house, whether he had been taking away anyone from that house. For example, he would say “yes, I was in this house, and I took a man.” And then, I used my investigative skills and got a reference from house owners register, and searched for the owner’s photos on the Internet, and then showed them to the “digger,” and he was saying whether it was the man he took to burry or not. Of course, we were also interested to know whether we could determine who shall be accused in what happened. Then, we also travelled around Izuym, and searched for any IDs among some fragments of bodies. Those collected IDs from Russian databases, we could compile the full list of all units of the Russian army that stayed in Izyum. Later, we moved on to next investigations where we were identifying the executors and the murderers. In fact, I think our team of reporters and myself have undergone huge transformation, from documenting to full-scale investigation,” she said.

Oksana Kuyavtseva, a member of the board from the East SOS Charity, and a humanitarian programs manager, told that their team had been engaged in documenting since the start of this war in 2014. However, after the full-scale invasion, the process has crucially changed.

“We have been documenting since 2014, from the moment our organization was launched. I am in charge of communications in the Foundation, and I realize how we adapt the format of some documented stories to be forwarded to journalists. How we modify and transform that information. Before the full-scale invasion, it had been the mapping in Luhansk region. In particular, in March, 2023, we published a large study about the change in demographics in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where we documented 137 cases of persecuting activists in those territories. For the most parts, it was the work with people who could later move out to the government-controlled territories. Therefore, we could continue working with them and record their stories. Documenting track has crucially changed after the start of the big war. In fact, the geography of our activities and the number of topics we work with as the Foundation. Thousands of human stories pass through – we can see them during the monitoring trips to the frontline areas. We can see civilians (75,000 of them have been evacuated by us from the frontlines). We can hear them during the hotline calls. In this regard, one of our focus areas is to work with cases when we try to document stories about the artificial absence of any humanitarian aid; we track all stages of the destruction of infrastructure (gas supply, heat supply, how the stores disappear, how basic things are not accessible any longer) through the life stories of all those people who had stayed for some time in the frontline territories. All those stories matter for us,” she underlined.

On November, 27-28, in Warsaw, the first out-of-country Donbas Media Forum: Global took place. It was attended by ab. 70 participants, including journalists from local media from the frontline territories and war reporters from Ukraine, media people and issue-related experts who have been working abroad after the full-scale invasion, and also reporters from international media. Also, on November, 10-11, Kyiv hosted a traditional annual Donbas Media Forum attended by 700 participants. The 33 discussions also included a talk on “What is the key source for citizens to get news updates on the developments, politics, and security” organized in partnership with the Donbas Media Forum and Civil Network OPORA, and supported by NDI.