Massacre, Justice, Punishment: Who Counts the Dead of Bucha?

Massacre, Justice, Punishment
Who counts the dead of Bucha?

By David Needy

Documenting the Bucha massacre so that further war crimes can be stopped and Putin and his government held accountable is a task as important as it is complicated. Hundreds of volunteers are helping, even experts are shocked – and are demanding help from the West.

The cost of armed conflict is reflected not only in the large number of lives lost, but also in the serious atrocities that are committed. According to Ukrainian sources, around 340 civilians were killed by Russian troops in the Kiev suburb of Bucha. According to the newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, some bodies were buried in backyards, so the number could be higher. There are currently no international experts in the war zone who could document the alleged war crimes in detail.

But documenting the atrocities is a critical step in efforts to hold perpetrators to account, bring justice to victims and survivors, and provide posterity with an accurate account of what happened.

Already during the attack on Mariupol, Russia had been accused of using war crimes as a method of warfare. Kyiv also blames Russian troops, who occupied the areas until recently, for the massacres in Bucha and other suburbs of the capital. Moscow denies this and claims that it is a “staging of the Kiev regime for Western media”. Both sides announce investigations.

“Knew about Russian terror against civilians”

It is all the more important that official, independent bodies document what really happened. In the war zone, however, this is usually not possible, or if it is, then too late – as is currently the case in Ukraine. Over time, memories fade, information disappears. It often takes years – sometimes even decades – for perpetrators to be held accountable for the crimes they committed during a conflict. Others are never prosecuted. But the collection and processing of evidence for the alleged war crimes committed by Bucha is imperative so that it can eventually be made available to the judiciary. Therefore, in order to contribute to justice, truth and accountability, it is now up to not only local NGOs but also civil society to promote documentation and evidence gathering.

The ongoing efforts in Ukraine are shared and organized by volunteers and professionals. Oleksandra Matviichuka Kyiv-based human rights lawyer and head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, was one of the first to organize documentation of war crimes in Crimea and eastern Ukraine after 2014. “For weeks we have received information from local people who have been trained by the Center for Civil Liberties for the task of documentation and who have made it to regions like Bucha,” says Matviichuk in a Skype conversation with “So we knew about Russian terror against civilians, but I was still shocked by the first videos and pictures.”

In their opinion, Bucha committed a war crime and crimes against under international humanitarian law the humanity before. “We have a great deal of evidence for the systematic way as well as for the scale of these crimes,” says the human rights lawyer.

The Center for Civil Liberties trained several hundred volunteers, including documenting war crimes. “We brought together people without a legal background and therefore had to simplify the methodology,” says Matviichuk. “We are now concentrating on testimonies from victims and eyewitnesses. Our aim is to collect as many of these reports as possible.” Later, the experts would analyze what is permissible and what is not, with whom to conduct more detailed interviews, what is appropriate for the International and what is appropriate for the European Court of Human Rights.

Documenting the atrocities on the ground is not only important and dangerous for the volunteers, but also complicated. Because the collection and storage methods must stand up in court, the United Nations recommends documentation after the University of Berkeley Protocol, which sets out clear rules for investigations. The protocol covers everything from ethical principles to legal frameworks to the individual phases of the investigation cycle.

“Don’t want to hear any more excuses”

The war in Ukraine is also taking place online, which can definitely be beneficial in dealing with war crimes. digital open source information, Images and videos shared publicly on social media, for example, which can be verified with special software tools, are now important sources for the documentation of war crimes, precisely because they can be used to circumvent (dis)information from governments. The Berkeley Protocol states: “Today, investigators can obtain data on potential human rights violations and other serious violations of international law […] from a variety of publicly available satellite imagery, videos and photos, including material uploaded to the web from smartphones and from posts on social media platforms.”

“At the moment, however, the issue of documentation is not the most urgent,” says Oleksandra Matviichuk. “I’m a human first, then a human rights lawyer.” It is important for them to document all evidence for future trials. “But what I can do as a human being, as a human rights lawyer, to prevent new war crimes from leading to new victims is the most important question.”

Matviichuk is therefore calling for international help and an international presence on the ground, because war throws everything upside down in a country and even Ukrainian authorities that functioned well before the war could no longer work as they used to. At the moment all international organizations have moved their employees from the war zone to safer areas in Ukraine or have withdrawn them from the country altogether.

“But we don’t need the work of the UN and these organizations from afar from Vienna, Geneva, Berlin or Warsaw,” criticizes Matviichuk. “We need them here in the hotspots, in the occupied territories, because the people there are left completely unprotected with the Russian troops.” She wanted to “hear no more excuses”. The organizations should fulfill their mandates on the ground, “not just to document, but so that we have a chance to stop more Russian war crimes.”

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