Tribunal for Putin: How Ukrainians Document Russia’s War Crimes

Talking to survivors and gathering evidence is crucial for future justice

Photo credit: Serhiy Movchan

By Anna Romandash

“This work takes a toll on you,” Serhiy Movchan says, “I remember all the testimonies I collected, and that is why I initially left this job as I needed a break from them. But now, there are more of these stories, and they are even more terrible. So, I returned in February of 2022 to collect them once again.”

Serhiy is the head of the documentation department of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union (UHHRU), Ukraine’s biggest human rights organization. With his colleagues, he has been documenting war crimes and human rights violations in occupied Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Together with Nobel Prize winner Center for Civil Liberties and The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, the UHHRU launched an initiative called Tribunal for Putin, or T4P. The project, launched in March of 2022, now includes 24 human rights organizations from Ukraine working together on documenting atrocities of the Russian war. Lawyers, human rights defenders, and analysts gather data on events that evidence genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity with the aim of holding Putin and other criminals accountable.

Keeping the international momentum

Photo credit: Serhiy Movchan

“You can see how the interest toward Ukraine grew dramatically after the February invasion,” Serhiy says, “When we were documenting war crimes before 2022, we had to convince the International Criminal Court to investigate the war in Donbas. Now, we don’t need to convince them anymore, and they are paying attention.”

Serhiy started documenting war crimes in 2016 when he joined UHHRU. Back then, the world showed much less interest in Ukraine, and it took time to get any recognition from major international organizations and courts – even though Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and was behind the war in Donbas.

“Ukraine never ratified Roma statute and does not fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court although Ukraine did request ICC to look into the crimes that were committed in Donbas and Crimea,” Serhiy explains, “When the ICC started working on these, they labeled the events as “non-international armed conflict.” It was only after civil society organizations and law enforcement agencies sent documents confirming Russia’s involvement as a party of war controlling separatist territories, that the ICC said the conflict was international.”

When the full-scale invasion started, however, the reality was different. On March 2, a week into invasion, the ICC already opened a case and sent its team to Ukraine to investigate Russian violations.

“They understood that they could not ignore the events in Ukraine,” the expert says.

Serhiy’s team, too, is gathering data across Ukraine as they have colleagues staying in the occupied zones and contacts travelling to the recently liberated areas. The effort is further helped by the media who share what they discover as well as team members in the rear working with internally displaced people.

“In Eastern Ukraine, we had local journalists embedded with the army who entered deoccupied territories together with Ukraine’s Armed Forces,” Serhiy proceeds, “They sent us stories and connected us with people who wanted to talk to us as well as needed legal support.”

“When we give people our contacts, we stimulate them to ask for legal help,” he continues, “So if they do it, they will talk about what they experienced. This is a remote way of getting information, and the person does not feel like they were used as our lawyers help them for free.”

Whenever interviewing people, it is crucial to get people’s written permission to publish their information and stories. The team always explains to the victims that court cases in Ukraine and internationally can take a long time to investigate and prosecute – as long as a few years.

“Do no harm”

Photo credit: Serhiy Movchan

In many cases, Serhiy’s team starts documenting crimes simply by going into a new town and striking up conversations with local people.

“Whenever we walk the streets and see destruction, we would just approach people nearby and talk to them,” the expert says, “We’d ask them what happened, when, and if they saw Russian soldiers and equipment. This could be done to random individuals going about their days in freed areas, but we could also approach concrete people we know or specific locations. For instance, we have a colleague in Kramatorsk, close to the heavy fighting, who learned that there was a shelling nearby, so he drove there right away to document what happened.”

Serhiy and his team talk to people in deoccupied territories to understand the reality of occupation better. Many do not want to talk on camera or prefer to stay anonymous, but their testimonies can still be used to corroborate other accounts and to paint a general picture. People’s stories are later used for appeals to the European Court of Human Rights and other courts as well as for future analysis and tribunals.

“We understand that one person’s testimony may not carry out the whole truth as people’s memories often get rid of negative emotions and moments,” the Serhiy observes, “What we do is that we use open-source data and other people’s testimonies to match what has been said to collect the most reliable evidence.”

Serhiy is based in Kyiv region, an area in Northern Ukraine. Part of it has been occupied by Russian forces and was freed in April, after which the world community learned of atrocities committed by the Russian forces in Bucha, Borodyanka, and other places.

“We had cases of people tortured with electrical current when a device was linked to their nipples,” Serhiy recalls, “Some people were placed on metal tables and had heavy bags on their bodies, and then, they were electrocuted. Another case was when a man was hit with a wooden cross on the head by a Russian Orthodox priest because the man said he belonged to a Ukrainian church.”

“I don’t want to talk about torture,” Serhiy sighs, “I do not want to talk about cases when people were threatened to be shot or other terrible crimes. There is so much of it now. We have documented lots of crimes before, but now, it is much more of them.”

“We will never have enough professionals in some localities because of the number of crimes committed there,” he adds, “When we go somewhere, it is difficult to evaluate how many people we will need for documentation. For example, I hope to be able to go to Kherson soon when Ukraine frees it. I know that there is a town in that region which has around 300 houses destroyed, and we need a lot of people to photograph that and so on. Yet, there are very few people left there, so we will get few witnesses to interview.”

Serhiy recognizes the risks of his job, which are both physical and psychological. He and his teammates are talking to lots of individuals who lived through cycles of trauma, fear, and repression.

“The hardest part of the job is not to harm the person you interview. Your work needs to bring good,” the man says, “It is hard to distance yourself from your interviewee’s emotions, and you also don’t want the person to feel like their words don’t matter to you. So, it’s all about balancing interests and doing no harm, and this is very difficult.”

“I admire all these people who, after what they lived through, can still talk about it,” Serhiy continues, “I also respect those who cannot and do not want to talk. We cannot pressure them. If they want to talk, they will do so when they are ready. We had a case of a man who was in Russian captivity before the full-scale invasion. Once he was released, we reached out to him, and he rejected talking to us right away. Four months later, he called us back, apologized, and shared his story with us. I really admire this in people who, after having survived torture and other terrible things, still seek positive and bright moments in life. Even when they are talking about being captured or tortured, they still recall some happy moments. Their take changed me, too, because I try to see happiness in simple things.”

“Whenever we are close to the frontline, we ask people why they are staying there,” the man adds, “I remember a man whose house and farming equipment were badly damaged. The guy cleaned everything around and inside the house, and even ironed his curtains.  When I asked why he never left this dangerous area, the man simply said: “Well, my cat is here, and I have chickens, so I cannot leave them. That’s just how we live now.” To him, the biggest loss was when Russians shot at his house and destroyed all the bottles of the homemade wine he just prepared. It made me think how people grieve differently when they live inside the war.”

Making Russia comply

All the testimonies and other evidence Serhiy and his team gathered is later added to a database. The latter is shared with other NGOs that are a part of Tribunal for Putin initiative, and which keep adding their information on war crimes. Later, the data is passed to the European Court of Human Rights and different UN committees through individual appeals of the victims. The data is also sent to international investigators such as the UN Monitoring Mission which recently released a report on Northern Ukraine. In addition, the coalition passes some information to the ICC whenever they request specific data.

Serhiy hopes that the data and investigations will lead to justice for victims.

“Europe has not had a war of this scale for a very long time, so it is difficult to determine the best legal protection,” Serhiy says, “It gets even harder since the enemy is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and it still has a lot of international leverages and limitless resources.”

Ukrainian courts tried to obtain reparations from Russia for its crimes, but Russia does not respect their rulings. Other victims tried to take Russia to courts inside Russia, but these failed, too.

“There is no universal way to protect yourself from Russia,” Serhiy says, “Still, every mistake or failure is a good foundation for further actions and for people who want to defend their rights. It would be great to have a clear path for just compensation, but it is only possible when your opponent is adequate. However, when your opponent is Russia, it is difficult to talk about anything like that.”

Serhiy points out that it will take a long time and lots of efforts to receive compensation from Russia for its crimes in Ukraine, and a lot will depend on Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, law enforcement, and civil society. Plus, a court ruling does not mean that Russia will comply.

“I hope that we can use frozen Russian assets to rebuild Ukraine and get some compliance,” Serhiy says, “But it will be much more difficult to get compensations out of Russia itself. We can talk about the regime change in Russia as a possible path, but I have little faith in “good” or liberal Russians. Often, their rhetoric matches the rhetoric of the current leadership. A good example is Russia’s last presidential elections where they imitated democracy. Whenever the candidates were asked about what they would do with Crimea, their answers showed it all. Not a single candidate said that they would return Crimea to Ukraine. Since Moscow was found, Russians always have been attacking us. This shows that making Russia comply will be the most difficult task for us all.”

Serhiy sees an uncanny resemblance between Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine and the Second World War. He hopes that better and more timely information on Russian atrocities can change the war and the amount of aid Ukraine gets.

“Every Russian atrocity gets international attention and brings more international investigators,” Serhiy says, “Every new fact keeps Europe alert. However, Russia has been investing lots of resources into many countries across the globe. We have examples of Hungary, which is blocking many sanctions against Russia, or some statements from Bulgarian politicians against Ukraine ever joining NATO. There are also all these influential Europeans on the boards of Russian energy companies and so on, which raises a lot of questions on direct and indirect links Russia built with the EU. Therefore, any photo of torture chamber or Russian atrocities in Balakliya, Izium, or Lyman where a mass grave with 50 people was discovered – all these documented and published facts have to make Russia supporters think and reflect. Supporting Russia makes you complicit and liable.”

“I hope that after Ukraine’s victory and the end of the war, Russian supporters will also have to pay a political responsibility,” the expert continues, “Any country that supported Nazi Germany had a responsibility afterwards, and the same needs to happen to Russia’s enablers nowadays.”

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

Russia is a Terrorist State

Russian military attacks create explosions across Lviv, Ukraine, October 10, 2022. Photo credit: Anna Romandash.

By Anna Romandash

It’s Monday morning, and Ukraine is on fire. Russia launched 84+ missiles and drones against Ukraine.

I don’t know how you start your work week, but here’s how mine went: I woke up to running for my life into the basement. My cat outran me. My father followed. We felt it. A very strong shake. It felt like an earthquake. Then, loud noises. Explosions. More shaking. More noises. More explosions.

We are okay now. it’s been a few hours, and the initial fear has passed. My hands no longer tremble, and I am just angry.

“I understand now how these people on the front line feel,” my father says. He was my basement companion.

For a few hours, we didn’t have electricity, heating, or Internet. Russians targeted our tiny village in Western Ukraine simply because they could. It’s less than 1,000 residents, no military infrastructure, just cute little houses in a suburb to a town in Western Ukraine. We’re less than two hour drive to the NATO border, and we get bombed like this.

Russians hit in a place that’s thirty minute walk from my house.

Luckily, no victims. Just a major infrastructure damage to electricity grid.

“We’re lucky they used those better missiles on us,” my father says, “If they used their cheaper ones, those could destroy anything. They cannot be controlled.”

I wonder if many Europeans still remember how to wake up to bombs falling on them?

“I am full of anger”

“I was running when I heard the missiles,” says Viktoriya Bilyavska, a resident of Kyiv. She is a woman in her early thirties, and she works as a communication manager.

“I like to run very early, but I felt like being lazy today, so I postponed my run,” she continues, “I heard a whistle when I was almost done with my run, and I realized that something really bad happened. It took me a few good seconds to understand that it was actually a missile attack on Kyiv.”

Viktoriya was in the center of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, in the morning of October 10, Monday, when Russia launched a massive missile attack on the entire country. The woman was close to Shevhecnko park, one of the most popular city destinations, when she realized that the city was being bombed.

“I passed the park maybe five minutes before the strike,” she says, “If I were there earlier or later, I’d be dead.”

She remembers noise and vibrations in the air, but she has a hard time putting the rest of the things together.

“As soon as I understood what’s going on, I ran into the closest subway station,” the woman explains, “It was right next to me, so I managed to save myself. More missiles were launched into the place where I was.”

Russian rockets destroyed important parts of Kyiv’s historical center. They targeted Taras Shevchenko University, one of the most important educational institutions, destroyed the park nearby, damaged a touristic bridge, and hit residential buildings. At least ten people were killed. Sixty are wounded, but the numbers are likely to rise.

“It reminded me of the first days of the war,” Viktoriya says, “But even then, when we were all anxious, there were not so many attacks. This time, Russians launched more missiles than ever before.”

Lviv in darkness after Russian missile strikes knock out power, October 10, 2022. Photo credit: Roman Baluk.

“I have no mercy for them. I want them to live what we live.”

Ruslan is a resident of Zaporizhya. He and his family did not want to move out when the full-scale invasion happened. Zaporizhya is thirty minutes away from the invading Russian army; it is in a close proximity to Zaporizhya nuclear plant, the largest one in Europe, and which has been under Russian occupation since March.

Zaporizhya is also being under constant shelling. There are regular missile attacks on residential buildings. On Sunday, Russian rockets killed 17 people who were sleeping peacefully in their apartments. 89 were wounded. Zaporizhya was also targeted on Monday as well as during all previous weeks. The missiles targeting residential areas became a regular thing.

“In my store, the windows were broken because a missile hit pretty close from where I work,” Ruslan says. His connection is unstable because a lot of mobile networks are overloaded in Ukraine at the moment as people are trying to reach their relatives across the country.

“I tried to convince my wife and son to leave the city a few months ago because it was too dangerous, but they decided to stay,” the man tells me, “My son is about to graduate high school, and my wife works in the library. They did not want to go anywhere.”

Ruslan, too, did not want to leave his home city when the war started; and he decided to stay even when Russia started terrorizing Zaporizhya daily.

“It is quite ironic that only a week ago Putin announced that he annexed Zaporizhya and that it is part of Russia,” Ruslan says, “And yet, they keep on bombing us every day. if they consider us Russia, why do they bomb us? A bunch of terrorists!”

“Russia is a terrorist state, and anyone who sees what we’ve seen here in Zaporizhya will tell you what I tell you,” the man proceeds, “They are trying to scare us, terrify the people, and that’s why they kill us and destroy what they can. They know they cannot win, so they want to kill as many Ukrainians as they can in the meantime.”

“I have no mercy for them,” he adds, “Russians enjoy killing Ukrainians. I used to have friends in Russia, and they have all been celebrating genocide of Ukrainians. They like what their government is doing, and they celebrate the war.”

Ruslan has been running a small dairy store, but he is unsure whether he can keep it open anymore. However, people like his place a lot, and he still has customers, so he wants to keep on working for them.

“There are missiles and blasts every day now,” the man concludes, “I shake every time, and I get scared, but I also know that I have to keep on working for my people. I cannot just abandon my home like that. Nobody wants to be a refugee.”

“The last time, I remember the blast when the windows in my office broke,” he says, “I fell to the ground and prayed to live. If I didn’t leave my city then, I don’t think I ever will.”

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

A Journey Beyond the Carpathians: Inside Ukraine’s Safest Region

Southwestern part of the country offers some sort of normalcy despite the war

Ukrainian military jet. Photo credit: Artur Voznenko

By Anna Romandash

“What are we, not Ukrainians? We’ve got the same problems as you guys!”

That’s Vita, a shopkeeper from Uzhorod. The city is the capital of Zakarpattya, Ukraine’s most Western region. Vita is a bit annoyed as she walks me through the local street life.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re far from the border,” she says, “We suffer, too!”

A moment ago, I asked her if she felt more secure in her home than, let’s say, Ukrainians living in the capital, Kyiv. For Vita, the question was silly.

“Of course, we worry! Russian missiles are Russian missiles, they target us just fine, you know!” the woman grunts.

But then, a small smile appears on her face.

“I mean, we are much better now than during the first days of the invasion. Nobody runs to the shelter anymore,” Vita talks slowly, “We figured that nobody is safe, but we can try to live through it.”

A borderland

Vita is nearing fifty. She was born and raised in Zakarpattya. This southwestern region is conveniently located right next to the NATO borders: it takes you less than an hour to get to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, or Poland from here.

Zakarpattya has suffered from Russian attacks, but less than the rest of Ukraine. There were missile strikes that hit local infrastructure and train facilities, so some people are afraid of traveling by train. But besides that, the region has been spared so far.

When I arrive here, I am surprised how nearly normal everything looks. There are checkpoints on the main streets, and there are more military men, but the rest of the local reality is very similar to how it was before Russia’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine.

Zakarpattya is the only region in the country that does not have a curfew. You can drive here freely after 10 in the evening. There are people on the streets at night, and some social events; the nearby town of Uzhorod is hosting a charity marathon to raise funds for the army. This reminds me of pre-war days.

Vita notes that business is doing okay, too, given the situation. People don’t buy as many clothes now because of the war – many try to save some money for their unclear future. But she still manages to make ends meet.

Before the war, Vita and her husband routinely traveled to Hungary to buy clothing, which they would later sell in Ukraine. She travels less now, and only by herself because her husband cannot leave Ukraine – this rule applies to most Ukrainian men under 60 as they may potentially be needed for the army.

Vita is of Hungarian origin, but even though she grew up speaking Hungarian, she never taught her husband or her two daughters the language.

“What are we, not Ukrainians?” she repeats herself.

Zakarpattya is Ukraine’s most ethnically diverse region; while the majority are Ukrainians, there is a large percentage of people with Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Jewish, and Romani roots. People speak a mix of different languages, but Ukrainian remains the lingua franca.

As for Vita, she says that she feels Ukrainian, and so does her family. They never considered moving to the EU, even when the invasion started.

“We are from Zakarpattya, and we are not going anywhere, war or no war,” she reasons.

“You cannot forget the war even if you don’t see it right away”

I am at a gas station in Mukachevo, the second largest city in Zakarpattya. It is almost midnight, but there are lots of people here. Without a curfew, people drive freely during late hours, and the café at a gas station is full of customers.

The city center, however, reminds me that there is a war in the country. It is dark and pretty quiet for a summer night; the streetlights are turned off for security reasons. People can go out, but they are encouraged to do so in small groups and remain calm and civil. Parties are frowned upon even here.

“There is no curfew, but it’s not like people go dancing all night,” says Andriy, a Mukachevo local. He is a former journalist who now works as a translator.

“People want to go out and relax, but it’s tricky. You see, there are folks who want to pretend that there is no war, but everyone has someone who is currently fighting, so you cannot really forget about it however peaceful it may feel in here,” the man says.

Andriy points out to me that the city has changed more than I noticed: for example, there are no concerts and festivals taking place now, and even on holidays, there are no celebrations. There is a large volunteer mobilization because Zakarpattya is an important hub for humanitarian aid coming in from the West. In addition, people became more attentive and observe their neighbors and new arrivals.

“Everyone is looking out for spies and potential saboteurs from Russia,” the man says.

With Andriy, we visit AwareZone, Mukachevo’s first collaborative workspace It is the city pride as it was opened by internally displaced people. The space, launched in the end of June, aims to bring together locals and new arrivals so people can exchange and get to know each other better.

“When I came to Mukachevo, local youth told me that they had no place to meet. We knew right away that there was a space for work,” says Yuriy Davydenko. He is a project manager behind the hub who came to Mukachevo after the start of the full-scale invasion.

Yuriy is originally from Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine, which is now nearly destroyed by Russian forces. Back in Mariupol, the man has launched a successful coworking space, so he decided to do the same in his new home.

“In a month, we created a new hub for developing startups and meeting the activists. My experience from Mariupol really helped me here,” Yuriy says, “Now, we’ve got the hardest task to complete which is to fill this space with life and to create an ecosystem so people would come and be active here.”

Zakarpattya welcomed around 300,000 internally displaced people (IDP), which is a quarter of the entire population of the region. Many IDPs are here to stay as their homes were destroyed, and they have nowhere else to go – so they are looking for housing to buy in the region as well as seek long-term employment. The newcomers are slowly adapting to the life here and praise the relative security and calmness in their new region.

The location of Zakarpattya, its proximity to the NATO and EU borders, and its mountainous landscape make it a safer haven than the rest of Ukraine. Now the question arises on how to integrate the internally displaced in the country’s most ethnically diverse region.

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

Every Evil Has A Face

A story behind documenting Russian crimes in Ukraine

Bucha, Ukraine. Photo credit: Nick Tsybenko.

By Anna Romandash

“Talking to the victims is the hardest part of the job,” says Yanina Korniyenko, an investigative journalist from Kyiv. She works for, one of the most important investigative media in the country with whom she has uncovered corruption and mafia schemes.

Now, Yanina focuses on documenting war crimes committed by the Russian army. Alongside her team, she is collecting testimonials and other evidence and collaborates with prosecutors who are doing similar work.

“The amount of war crimes that are being committed is overwhelming,” the journalist says, “We hope that sooner than later our work will be used in the courts to help punish the guilty.”

“We have a concrete crime, and a concrete perpetrator”

“Before the war, our job was completely focused on investigating corruption, law enforcement violations, and some criminal cases,” Yanina explains, “But when the invasion happened, we had to change the work completely because we got completely different conditions and realities.”

Her face is serious, solemn even. Her usually positive demeanor is different now, too: she is more restrained, more distant. I met Yanina six years ago when we were both trying out big media collaborations. Back then, Yanina struck me as someone who had the most friendly, the most optimistic attitude I have ever encountered. That is not necessarily how you would imagine an investigative journalist dealing with crime on a daily basis.

But Yanina defies stereotypes. In her mid-twenties, with long blond hair and big blue eyes, she has a natural capacity to make people like her and trust her. She listens well, and she makes people talk: two crucial things for an investigative journalist. Born and raised in Kyiv, she gathered a large pool of contacts across Ukraine, tapping into them for timely investigations.

Before the full-scale invasion, Yanina and her team underwent some in-depth training in OSINT, or open source investigations. The newsroom was expecting some military action from Russia although did not predict how big it would be. The team was trained on how to provide first aid, protect themselves, and understand how different arms were. This helped a bit during the chaos of the first days of the invasion.

“On February 24, we all woke up with explosions in Kyiv,” Yanina proceeds, “We had a morning call with the team and decided to do what we could as fast as possible. We were the first newsroom that started looking for identities of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.”

Their decision was intuitive. The team simply decided to use their OSINT skills and collect data on the troops invading Ukraine. The newsroom split; some remained in Kyiv, and others left for safer areas in Ukraine and abroad. Those in Kyiv managed to travel to northern Ukraine, which was liberated in April; they collected evidence and testimonies of victims. The rest worked remotely, verifying data and connecting with victims online.

Yanina was one of the journalists who left Kyiv. It was a personal decision, driven by her desire to protect her family, especially her elderly grandparents. She returned to Kyiv in May, and does not plan to leave again.

“Through testimonies from Mariupol, I showed that it was a forced deportation”

A filtration camp in Mariupol, Ukraine.

“We work on documenting all possible military crimes taking place in Ukraine and the consequences of Russian attacks, we talk to victims, and we identify the enemy,” Yanina explains, “We believe that every evil has a face, and in this case, it is a face of concrete Russian soldiers who came to kill Ukrainian citizens. That is why if we have an opportunity to identify them, we do it.”

The team focuses on a locality which suffered under Russian occupation and tries to discover what Russian unit was stationed there, sometimes thanks to the lists from the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies. Then, using OSINT and social media, the newsroom looks for each soldier. With their photos in hand, journalists travel back to localities and ask victims to recognize the soldiers.

“This is how we develop a story,” Yanina explains, “We have a concrete crime, and we have a concrete perpetrator of this crime.”

“Another side of the work is to study what is happening in the occupied territories such as forced deportations and kidnappings of civil activists and journalists,” Yanina says, “We talk to people who managed to flee or who are in contact with someone still there. This way, we try to identify conditions, specific locations, and potential legal documents which accompany forced deportation such as migration cards. We try to collect as much evidence that a crime was committed, and that deportations were taking place against people’s will.”

Yanina started this work as an evacuee in Western Ukraine where there were many displaced people from Mariupol. She met and talked to some families, who shared their experience of fleeing the now nearly wiped out city. 90% of the buildings have been damaged or completely destroyed. According the mayor of Mariupol, at least 20,000 residents were killed during the early months of war.

“People barely had a chance to escape as Russians were constantly shooting at the humanitarian corridor.  Only few cars managed to survive out of a large column,” Yanina recalls the story.

Locals told her that some Mariupol residents tried to flee the warzone through Russia. So she started looking for them.

The quest turned out to be difficult. The problem was once people were in Russia, it was nearly impossible to reach them, and they had problems leaving the country. Yet Yanina found enough people who fled Mariupol, then Russia, and managed to escape to different European countries. Through her contacts in the EU, she reached out to Ukrainians who agreed to talk on record.

Then, she connected all the testimonies to get the bigger picture.

“People were repeating the same things such as that Russians interrogated children, separated them from families, and made people sign different documents,” Yanina says, “Russians also imprisoned people who did not pass this filtration. Locals could not leave the buildings in which they were based during filtration, and they could not leave the train by which they were deported to Russia. Based on that, we could confirm that it was not a salvation, but a deportation.”

“We have indirect evidence of war crimes. We have photos of immigration cards and booklets given to people who arrived in Russia,” Yanina continues, “For example, Russians want to bring more people to their Far East and Siberia, so they are giving leaflets promising free land to Ukrainians who go there. There are videos and photos of filtration camps where people are located.”

“The amount of testimonies is overwhelming,” she adds, “You can keep on collecting them for years before you get through even half. It is naive to state that all these testimonies are false. But if we are talking about factual evidence, until the city is occupied, we have no access to surveillance cameras. This is the only piece that’s missing because camera footage can show Russian soldiers dragging people out of basements. This final evidence would fill the chain of events.”

“We hope our work will be used in courts to help punish the guilty”

Once people are deported, they are placed under surveillance. Yanina investigates that, too. She discovered that the Russian Orthodox Church was responsible for many of the forcefully deported Ukrainians in Russia.

“When it comes to the Russian Orthodox Church, it does not hide its involvement in the deportations,” journalist says, “They advertise their services online and brag that they found shelter for many people. Shortly, the story is such: the Russian Ministry of the Interior is sending weekly announcements to the Russian Orthodox Church with a number of adults and children who were deported to Russia. The Ministry also provides information on where Ukrainians should be directed.  We got evidence that the Russian Orthodox Church is the one relocating the deportees across different monasteries. This shows that Church is collaborating with the occupiers.”

“There is also evidence that the Russian Orthodox Church installed surveillance cameras to monitor Ukrainians: we have letters between church leaders that prove it,” Yanina continues, “I wrote to the church myself to verify it, and they confirmed! They responded that it was true, and that the Russian Orthodox Church finds nothing wrong with this activity.”

Yanina hopes that this and many other discoveries will be used later in the international and domestic courts to bring the responsible to justice.

“We are already cooperating with Ukrainian prosecutors investigating war crimes in Kyiv region,” she says, “Journalists are invited to describe how they obtain certain information and share evidence that is used for criminal investigation. Our newsroom also trained prosecutors on how to identify Russian soldiers. We understand that law enforcement agencies are not always our close friends; very often, they are our opponents, but when we have a common enemy, we find ways to cooperate.”

Yanina, however, has many concerns over how international law works, and whether it can punish the guilty.

Western colleagues such as journalists and NGOs could help facilitate that process by shedding more light on the atrocities, but sometimes, their work is shallow and lacks background information.

“It is good that Western media report on Ukraine to the world, but given that the reporters do not have a lot of experience here and lack contextual knowledge, they cannot analyze the situation in a very profound way,” Yanina explains, “They make overview pieces, but when it comes to documenting war crimes, only few, exceptional investigations touch upon these issues.”

She provides an example of a recent story in The New York Times, which quoted Igor Girkin, a Russian veteran who played a crucial part in illegally annexing Crimea and managing the war in Donbas. When the Times quoted him, his title was “Critic of the Ukrainian government”.

“The NYT did not mention that Girkin is accused of shooting down the Malaysian plane MH17 which killed 298 people in summer of 2014,” Yanina exclaims, “Local journalists do better, more profound research.”

“Access to information will not change Russia”

Yanina is skeptical whether verified news will impact the domestic situation in Russia.

“Our platform has a big percentage of views from Russia, which is weird because our content is only in Ukrainian,” she says, “We only translated a few stories in the beginning where we identified Russian soldiers. Most likely, the views are from their relatives who want to know the fate of their children. However, they do not care much about the rest of what is happening. Even when Russian Internet was free,  it did not help them understand that they were living in an authoritarian state with a mad dictator. I do not think it will work now either.”

Yanina herself struggles with the amount of personal stories and pain she collects as a journalist.

“It is difficult to talk to victims because of all the trauma that people went through,” she says, “They experience all of this again when they talk to you, and the memories of deportations and other horrors come back to haunt them. These people expect the interviewer to answer some rhetorical questions, and it is very hard to distance oneself and not to feel for them.”

“Many journalists do become activists, which is an organic process for an invaded country,” she concludes, “Lots of my colleagues have relatives who were deported or killed, and media makers cannot distance themselves from it. It is part of the job.”

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

Welcoming Anna Romandash to CMC

The Mgrublian Center for Human Rights, Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies, and the Department of Religious Studies are pleased to announce that Ukrainian journalist Anna Romandash will be coming to campus this fall and reporting from the war in Ukraine in a special series of programs. Students, faculty, staff and the greater community will have access to the most current developments in Ukraine and along its borders as Ms. Romandash collects evidence and testimonies from victims of the Russian attack, occupation and war crimes. We will have the opportunity to learn directly about events on the ground in Ukraine as well as support the effort to pursue justice and end Putin’s invasion. 

Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine with extensive experience in Europe, the Middle East, and USA. She has contributed her research to Freedom House, Deutsche Welle, US Embassies, the ICJ and the Council of Europe, and held fellowships at CNN and other international news organizations.

Ms. Romandash works closely with youth on freedom movements, journalism and media training for an EU-wide consortium of universities reaching more than 55,000 students. She has completed two masters degrees, one in global affairs and international peace studies at University of Notre Dame, and a second in media communications at Ukrainian Catholic University and received honors for her bachelor of arts degree at Lviv National University.  Besides fluency in Russian and Ukrainian, Anna speaks English, Spanish, French and Polish.

Ms. Romandash was named Media Freedom Ambassador of Ukraine for her human rights and media coverage and was one of the winners of the European Institute of Mediterranean literary contest for her reporting. She has been recognized for her creative approaches and crowd-funded initiatives, for example developing comic book formats to explain the threats to media freedom, collaborating with artists and media professionals from 20 countries.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Anna began writing about the situation in her home country. She has written stories about survivors of Russian-made massacres in Northern Ukraine, the drama of internally displaced people and refugees forced to flee their homes, and volunteers helping others in times of need. She is a part of an investigative team collecting data on human rights violations and crimes against humanity during the Russo-Ukrainian war. 

Anna is interested in audio storytelling and long-reads; she enjoys working on feature stories that embed and localize the readers in the reality told through the eyes of the protagonists. Anna is the laureate of the Literary Reportages Award “Samovydets” from the Tempora Publishing House as her stories were named among the best reportages in Ukrainian in 2020 and 2021. Ms. Romandash will be a featured speaker at the Athens Democracy Forum sponsored by the New York Times,

We are delighted that Anna will join us this semester in a hybrid program of on-campus presentations and Zoom-ins from Ukraine.  She will be visiting three courses, giving an Ath presentation, Zooming in for lunchtime reports bimonthly on Tuesdays, mentoring students, participating in a Saturday salon meeting sponsored by the Open Academy, and publishing articles on our Center’s websites and newsletters.

Her first visit to campus will be the week of September 12th, with subsequent visits planned for the week of October 24th, and for late November/early December. Please check our website for a line-up of Anna’s events this fall.

Besieged Voices from Ukraine

Sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Holocaust/Genocide/Crimes Against Humanity

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has brought, and continues to bring, devastation to the lives of millions and has triggered Europe’s greatest refugee crisis since World War II.  Please join us for a series of virtual events to hear the besieged voices of a public historian, a novelist, and a journalist on the ground in Ukraine. The third of the series:

Wednesday 31 August 2022.  12:00-1:00 PM (Eastern Daylight Time)


Russia’s attack on Ukraine has brought death and injury to thousands, the forced flight of millions, and the physical destruction of cities and towns. Please join journalist Maria Avdeeva, public historian Sasha Nazar, and author Serhiy Zhadan who will address the complexities of lives disrupted and the experience of unfolding war from the perspectives of their three professions. An international security expert, Maria Avdeeva has reported tirelessly from cities under siege since the Russian invasion.   Public historian and grassroots activist Sasha Nazar has led successful initiatives to protect Jewish heritage sites.  And Serhiy Zhadan, poet, novelist, and essayist, has won more than a dozen literary awards including, most recently, the 2022 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade “for documenting the struggles of his compatriots caught up in a brutal war.”

Co-Chairs: Elissa Bemporad and Natalya Lazar.   31 AUGUST | BESIEGED VOICES  

Elizabeth Wydra ’98 and Zack Smith on Supreme Court’s Decision to Overturn Roe v. Wade

Published by Washington Journal, on C-SPAN (June 25, 2022)

Elizabeth Wydra (CMC ’98), Mgrublian Center Advisory Board Member and President of the Constitutional Accountability Center discusses the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade with Heritage Foundation’s Zack Smith in a conversation moderated by C-SPAN’s Mimi Geerges.

Following her graduation from CMC in 1998, Wydra received her JD from Yale Law School where she also served as the editor of the Yale Journal of International Law and the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. Named a legal star (top 40 under 40) by the National Law Journal, Ms. Wydra has excelled as a scholar and activist. She started as a law clerk for federal Judge James R. Browning in San Francisco and has since been admitted to practice in the Supreme Court and several US Courts of Appeals across the US. She is a member of the National Constitution Center’s Coalition of Freedom Advisory Board, and was elected member of the DC Bar Section on Criminal Law and Individual Rights. She was Chief Counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center for eight years before being named President in 2016. The Center has become a leading voice and influential force in pushing for more progressive interpretations of the constitution, arguing in defense of the Affordable Care Act and drawing attention to the history of the 13th Amendment. She is also a prominent spokesperson, appearing frequently on CNN and other media outlets and also quoted in the NY Times, USA Today, Politico, Reuters, Slate, Washington Post, etc. 

Follow this link to view her recent conversation with Zack Smith (Heritage Foundation) regarding the Supreme Court’s June 24th decision to overturn Roe v. Wade:

Russia’s Genocide Handbook

The evidence of atrocity and of intent mounts

By Tim Snyder (published on April 8)

Russia has just issued a genocide handbook for its war on Ukraine.  The Russian official press agency “RIA Novosti” published last Sunday an explicit program for the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such.  It is still available for viewing, and has now been translated several times into English.

As I have been saying since the war began, “denazification” in official Russian usage just means the destruction of the Ukrainian state and nation.  A “Nazi,” as the genocide manual explains, is simply a human being who self-identifies as Ukrainian.  According to the handbook, the establishment of a Ukrainian state thirty years ago was the “nazification of Ukraine.”  Indeed “any attempt to build such a state” has to be a “Nazi” act.  Ukrainians are “Nazis” because they fail to accept “the necessity that the people support Russia.”  Ukrainians should suffer for believing that they exist as a separate people; only this can lead to the “redemption of guilt.”

For anyone still out there who believes that Putin’s Russia opposes the extreme right in Ukraine or anywhere else, the genocide program is a chance to reconsider.  Putin’s Russian regime talks of “Nazis” not because it opposes the extreme right, which it most certainly does not, but as a rhetorical device to justify unprovoked war and genocidal policies. Putin’s regime is the extreme right.  It is the world center of fascism. It supports fascists and extreme-right authoritarians around the world.  In traducing the meaning of words like “Nazi,” Putin and his propagandists are creating more rhetorical and political space for fascists in Russia and elsewhere.  

The genocide handbook explains that the Russian policy of “denazification” is not directed against Nazis in the sense that the word is normally used.  The handbook grants, with no hesitation, that there is no evidence that Nazism, as generally understood, is important in Ukraine.  It operates within the special Russian definition of “Nazi”: a Nazi is a Ukrainian who refuses to admit being a Russian.  The “Nazism” in question is “amorphous and ambivalent”; one must, for example, be able to see beneath the world of appearance and decode the affinity for Ukrainian culture or for the European Union as “Nazism.”

The actual history of actual Nazis and their actual crimes in the 1930s and 1940s is thus totally irrelevant and completely cast aside.  This is perfectly consistent with Russian warfighting in Ukraine.  No tears are shed in the Kremlin over Russian killing of Holocaust survivors or Russian destruction of Holocaust memorials, because Jews and the Holocaust have nothing to do with the Russian definition of “Nazi.”  This explains why Volodymyr Zelens’kyi, although a democratically-elected president, and a Jew with family members who fought in the Red Army and died in the Holocaust, can be called a Nazi.  Zelens’kyi is a Ukrainian, and that is all that “Nazi” means. 

On this absurd definition, where Nazis have to be Ukrainians and Ukrainians have to be Nazis, Russia cannot be fascist, no matter what Russians do.  This is very convenient.  If “Nazi” has been assigned the meaning “Ukrainian who refuses to be Russian” then it follows that no Russian can be a Nazi.  Since for the Kremlin being a Nazi has nothing to do with fascist ideology, swastika-like symbols, big lies, rallies, rhetoric of cleansings, aggressive wars, abductions of elites, mass deportations, and the mass killing of civilians, Russians can do all of these things without ever having to ask if they themselves on the wrong side of the historical ledger.  And so we find Russians implementing fascist policies in the name of “denazification.” 

The Russian handbook is one of the most openly genocidal documents I have ever seen.  It calls for the liquidation of the Ukrainian state, and for abolition of any organization that has any association with Ukraine.  It postulates that the “majority of the population” of Ukraine are “Nazis,” which is to say Ukrainians. (This is clearly a reaction to Ukrainian resistance; at war’s beginning the assumption was that there were only a few Ukrainians and that they would be easily eliminated.  This was clear in another text published in RIA Novosti, the victory declaration of 26 February.)  Such people, “the majority of the population,” so more than twenty million people, are to be killed or sent to work in “labor camps” to expurgate their guilt for not loving Russia.  Survivors are to be subject to “re-education.”  Children will be raised to be Russian.  The name “Ukraine” will disappear. 

A girl looks back as she is being evacuated from Irpin. Many civilians who remained in that Kyiv suburb were murdered by Russian servicemen. According to local officials, their bodies were then crushed with tanks.

Had this genocide handbook appeared at some other time and in a more obscure outlet, it might have escaped notice.  But it was published right in the middle of the Russian media landscape during a Russian war of destruction explicitly legitimated by the Russian head of state’s claim that a neighboring nation did not exist.  It was published on a day when the world was learning of a mass murder of Ukrainians committed by Russians. 

Russia’s genocide handbook was published on April 3, two days after the first revelation that Russian servicemen in Ukraine had murdered hundreds of people in Bucha, and just as the story was reaching major newspapers.  The Bucha massacre was one of several cases of mass killing that emerged as Russian troops withdrew from the Kyiv region.  This means that the genocide program was knowingly published even as the physical evidence of genocide was emerging.  The writer and the editors chose this particular moment to make public a program for the elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such. 

As a historian of mass killing, I am hard pressed to think of many examples where states explicitly advertise the genocidal character of their own actions right at at the moment those actions become public knowledge.  From a legal perspective, the existence of such a text (in the larger context of similar statements and Vladimir Putin’s repeated denial that Ukraine exists) makes the charge of genocide far easier to make.  Legally, genocide means both actions that destroy a group in whole or in part, combined with some intention to do so.  Russia has done the deed and confessed to the intention.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Statement on Damage to Babyn Yar

WASHINGTON, DC – The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum strongly condemns the continued Russian attacks on the Ukrainian people and loss of innocent lives, the exploitation of the Holocaust as a pretext for these attacks, the blatant disregard for historical truth, and the attack today at one of the most important memorial sites of the Holocaust. At Babyn Yar, outside of Kyiv, in just two days in September 1941, over 33,000 Jewish men, women, and children were shot by Nazi Germany’s forces with assistance from their local collaborators. 

President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is so bravely leading the Ukrainian people at this time, visited the Museum last fall to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre and emphasize his country’s commitment to preserving Holocaust sites, remembering the victims, and securing historical truth. We stand with him and the Ukrainian people during these critical times. 

Ambassador (ret) Stuart E. Eizenstat, Chairman, US Holocaust Memorial Council

Allan M. Holt, Vice Chairman, US Holocaust Memorial Council

Sara J. Bloomfield, Director, US Holocaust Memorial Museum

(The above statement was posted on the USHMM website on March 1, 2022)