Losing Your Home to Russia, Twice

A story of Ukrainians who passed Russian filtration to flee occupation

Iryna Bilousova’s home in Donetsk, Ukraine, destroyed by Russian artillery. Photo credit: Iryna Bilousova.

By Anna Romandash

“Our story began in 2014,” Iryna says, “We’re from Donetsk. We lived practically on the separation line.”

Iryna Bilousova is a Ukrainian. Since mid-2022, she is also a refugee after she and her family had to flee Eastern Ukraine from Russian occupation.

For Iryna, this is her second escape. Nine years ago, when Russians first occupied Donets and Luhansk, she had to run from her home to the territory controlled by Ukraine. The separation line was the divide between the Ukrainian forces and Russian proxies established in 2014 as Russians attempted to seize more Ukrainian land.

“For three months, we lived in constant fear,” Iryna recalled her 2014 experience, “We feared for our lives, and for the life of my mom, who is in a wheelchair. When we rushed into the basement, she stayed inside the house. It was very hard.”

Iryna is a mother of four children, three young boys and a teenage daughter. Together with her husband, she took care of them and her elderly mother. When the war in Donbas started, Iryna and her husband could not work anymore because their house was between constant shelling.

“We had no jobs, no money, and no food,” the woman recalled, “Thanks to the neighbors, who brought children some food, we could survive. But in September [of 2014], we realized that we could no longer go on like that.”

The family decided to flee to the territory controlled by Ukraine. They moved into a village in Donetsk region, not too far from their previous home in the city of Donetsk. Volunteers helped the family find a house.

“We got a lot of help from the people, especially from Ukrainian soldiers who were stationed nearby,” Iryna said, “Things started to improve, and we had a good life for these past eight years.”

Everything changed on February 24, 2022.

“At five in the morning, the invaders entered our village,” the woman continued, “It was a complete horror. They would shoot from their tanks near our house, and then move away from that place. Then, our guys [Ukrainian soldiers] would shoot back to the place where tanks were stationed before.”

The family was in the basement when a projectile landed six feet from their house.

“We were almost buried under the rubble,” Iryna remembered, “And then, I had to make the hardest decision in my life: to choose between my mom and my children. My mom told me that children needed me, and that she’d manage somehow.”

Life in occupation

Iryna and her husband. Photo credit: Iryna Bilousova.

Iryna’s mother could not stay in the basement, and it was difficult to transport her up and down. The older woman stayed in her house while Iryna and her husband would come there between the shelling, feed her, and turn on the stove to make the place a bit warmer.

“Life in occupation is scary,” Iryna said, “After Russians entered our village, there were hands, heads, and bodies everywhere. Corpses on the streets. Russians didn’t pick them up.”

The dead bodies were of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian locals killed by the invading army. The villagers collected the corpses in one spot and covered them with blankets. Iryna recalled seeing how hungry dogs would run around with human parts.

“These monsters [Russian soldiers] went from house to house and took people’s cars,” the woman proceeded, “Then, when they got drunk, they’d drive the cars around. They also moved into the houses they liked the most and roamed around looking for food. The scariest part when these drunk beasts – that’s the only way to describe them – started coming to our bomb shelter.”

Russians were looking for local women in the basements, Iryna explained.

“They’d say things like “You’ve got so many pretty girls, and we have none,” the woman continued, “So we had to hide our daughter. She was seventeen. Our neighbor’s daughter was almost raped, but her parents rescued her.”

After the talk about “pretty girls”, the family decided to flee. They could not enter Ukraine-controlled territory because Russian troops didn’t allow people to evacuate there.

“We decided to drive to Russia because my husband had sisters there,” Iryna said, “The drive took four days, and my mom barely survived it.”

Donetsk region borders Russia; during a normal pre-war drive, it would take only a few hours to cross the border. However, the family had to make many stops at various check-points and avoid getting shot at.

Filtration camps

The family also had to pass filtration to leave the occupied areas.

“We were in Bezimenne,” Iryna said, “We were very lucky and passed filtration in two hours. There were people who stayed in the camp for weeks.”

Bezimenne is a village in Donetsk region, on the Azov Sea coast. It is only 20 miles away from Mariupol, and less than an hour drive to the Russian border. Since 2014, the village has been under Russian occupation and hosts a notorious filtration camp. Ukrainians who want to flee the occupied areas have to pass a set of tests carried out by Russians; the filtration is used to torture and kill people who don’t agree to declare their hatred for Ukraine.

“When we arrived in Bezimenne, we told a Russian soldier that we were with children and a disabled person,” Iryna recalled, “The soldier was really rude. He was like: “Who allowed you to talk to me?” I told the guy that we have a disabled person in the car, and that she could not move and was in a very bad shape.”

The woman asked the soldier if she could go through filtration immediately. By that time, there was a line of Ukrainians waiting to pass, and it took days or weeks even to get to the questioning. In the meantime, people had to wait outside.

A higher-ranking soldier showed up and allowed Iryna and her family to go for filtration without waiting in the queue.

“We entered one tent,” Iryna said, “It was me, and then, it was my fourteen-years-old son. They asked us questions and we had to answer saying that Ukraine was very bad, that Ukrainian army was very bad, and so on. It was very tough for my husband. A Russian soldier saw that we were from Donetsk originally, and he started yelling at my husband. He called him a “f***er” and yelled at him for not joining the Russian army. The guy was screaming things like “You went to Ukropia! [derogatory for Ukraine]. And I have to protect you? We will send your family away, and we will take you with us!”

The questioning lasted for around an hour, with Russian soldiers threatening her husband and telling him they’d beat him up.

“When my husband was done, he was white as a ghost,” Iryna recalled, “His hands still shake as he remembers that. But, thank God, they let us pass. They checked our phones and allowed us to go.”

The family’s experience with filtration is better than most people who went through it; many are stripped naked and tortured if they have any Ukraine-themed tattoos or don’t answer the questions the way they are expected.

“You have to tell them what they want to hear,” Iryna explained, “About Russia, about Ukraine, about the war. That’s the only way to pass.”

Escaping Russia

A destroyed village school in Donetsk, Ukraine. Photo credit: Iryna Bilousova.

“We spent two months in Russia,” Iryna continued, “We needed money to move farther, and my mom needed time to come back to her senses. She almost lost her mind during the occupation because she lived alone without any electricity.”

Iryna and her husband managed to find some temporary jobs and raised a bit of money to leave Russia. They started looking for buses and private drivers. The prices were too high.

“That’s when I found the volunteers,” Iryna said, “And they helped! Thanks to them, we are no longer shaking whenever we hear some noise, and we’re starting to get used to the sound of planes and helicopters.”

The woman is referring to mushrooming civil society groups which help deported Ukrainians escape Russia and enter neighboring EU countries. Volunteers – mostly Ukrainians based in Ukraine and Baltic countries – connect with Ukrainians in Telegram and help them with transportation, money, and advice.

“A volunteer-coordinator reached out to us, and helped us drive from Rostov-on-Don to Estonia,” Iryna said, “She was with us on the line throughout the entire journey. The coordinator sent us the safest route because we were driving with a disabled person.”

When the family was crossing the Russian-Estonian border, they were also questioned for a few hours by the Russian officers. The questions were similar to the ones they heard during the filtration process.

“Russians asked us why we wanted to leave Russia instead of staying there,” Iryna added, “But this questioning was less scary and without yelling.”

From Estonia, the family drove to Germany where they applied for refugee status. In early January, they were informed that their refugee camp is going to shut down in mid-March.

“They told us that the land was sold, so we have to look for another housing,” Iryna said, “Those who can’t find anything can go to another refugee camp, which is in the suburbs. But it’s not as good, and they wouldn’t accept my mom there. They wanted to send her into a nursing home for disabled people instead. That’s why we’re running around now and looking for housing because I don’t want to separate from my mom.”

“So, this is what it’s like to live in Germany as a refugee,” she added, “It’s not all that great, but at least, it is peaceful here. So, we can manage.”

Besides Iryna’s family, the camp hosted many other Ukrainians. Iryna made many friends who are in a similar situation to hers.

“The main thing is that we’re all alive and together,” she concluded, “So all is going to be okay.”

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

Preventing a Second Armenian Genocide

New York, NY – The Peacebuilding & Human Rights Institute at Columbia University will host a virtual discussion titled, “Preventing a Second Armenian Genocide: Azerbaijan Closes the Lachin Corridor and Makes Artsakh Unlivable in a Bid to Depopulate the Territory,” on Wednesday, February 1, 2023, at 10:30 am EST.   Panelists include Ruben Vardanyan, State Minister of Artsakh, and Van Z. Krikorian, Co-Chair of the Armenian Assembly of America. The discussion will be moderated by David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University, who leads Columbia’s Artsakh Atrocities Project.   The virtual event will take place via Zoom. Please register hereEstablished in 1972, the Armenian Assembly of America is the largest Washington-based nationwide organization promoting public understanding and awareness of Armenian issues. The Assembly is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt membership organization.

How Russia Stole Ukraine’s Christmas

With constant bombing and little electricity, upcoming holidays are not so cheery for Ukraine

The Tree of Unbreakables. Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Mykola Tymchenko.

By Anna Romandash

Ukrainians like to go big on Christmas; in fact, they like it so much that they celebrate it twice. The first official Christmas holiday is on December 25. The second one is January 7. Both celebrations are followed by the twelve traditional meals, caroling, and impressive Christmas markets.

This year, the celebrations will be very different. Due to the ongoing Russian invasion and constant bombings of civilian infrastructure, millions of Ukrainians are left without heating, water, and electricity. In addition, many are struggling financially as they lost their jobs and housing due to the Russian war.

Across Ukraine, people are slowly starting to prepare for the upcoming holidays. In Mykolaiv, a regional center in the South only thirty minutes away from Russia-occupied territories, the city authorities installed a Christmas tree decorated with camouflage nets and military-inspired ornaments. The tree is a reminder of the hardships soldiers and civilians all have to endure.

“It’s tough times, so the holidays will reflect that,” says Eugenia Hlushchenko, a Kharkiv resident. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is only one hour away from the current frontline in the East. The city is constantly under shelling from the Russian army; bombings and destruction of civilian buildings have become an ordinary occurrence.

“I remember that every year, there would be huge debates on Christmas decorations and how much we’re going to spend on that from the city budget,” Eugenia laughs, “It now feels like it was a different era; it’s so surreal to think that we had such a good life and bothered ourselves with such things.”

In Kharkiv, there won’t be a big Christmas tree in the city main square as in normal times. Instead, the city authorities installed smaller Christmas trees in some bigger bomb shelters and metro stations where people go during air alerts.

“I thought it was a very smart effort, and it was nice to see those Christmas decorations at least somewhere,” Eugenia reflects, “The city is mostly dark as we’re saving electricity, so having Christmas lights is a luxury in this environment.”

For Eugenia, she plans to stay at home for the holidays and spend more time with her family while decorating a little plastic tree and cooking kutya, a traditional Christmas dessert. She has a son of pre-school age who does not go to the kindergarten now because of the war; and her husband works in the bank in the city.

“We spend many nights in the corridor or go to the subway when there is an air alarm,” Eugenia says, “When there is no heating or electricity, I go to subway or train stations to charge my phone and warm myself up. It is very difficult with a little kid.”

For Christmas, Eugenia plans to cook traditional Ukrainian meals; this year, she will also celebrate on December 25 instead of January 7, when most Orthodox Christians observe Christmas.

“For Christmas, I wish for victory and for a peaceful future for my child and for all the children of Ukraine,” she says.

“This holiday season, we’re celebrating our army”

Unlike Kharkiv, Kyiv will have a Christmas tree on the city’s main square although it’s going to be very different from last year. This year the tree will be smaller and with energy-saving lights. There won’t be any Christmas markets or usual festivities on the main square.

“The weather is dreadful; everything is dull and cold,” Yana Lyashuk says. A resident of Kyiv, she wants to travel to Western Ukraine for the holidays to spend time with her partner’s family.

“My boyfriend is originally from Donetsk region; his family home was destroyed,” she says, “Now, his parents are sheltering near the Hungarian border. We stayed with them when the invasion started, but then, returned to Kyiv in summer. Now, we want to go back to see them.”

Yana and her partner live in a very fortunate place in Kyiv; their apartment building is right next to the hospital, so they almost never get electricity cuts as they share the same electricity grid with the medical institution. They also have stable heating and water supply.

“Unless there is a major bombing, we have connection and other utilities,” Yana explains, “So sometimes, I work from home instead of going to the office because there we may not have any electricity.”

Yana rarely goes to the city center now because of the bombing scare; the downtown area is more likely to be targeted, she believes. Yet, she wants to see the Christmas tree once it’s installed.

“We will have a very modest celebration this year, and I think that’s true for most Ukrainians,” she says, “We’re very grateful to be alive, and we will celebrate our army this season because we get to have the holidays only because of them. I won’t be spending money on gifts; I’d rather donate to the Armed Forces.”

“I also want to take a photo in front of the Christmas tree because with or without lights, Kyiv is so beautiful,” Yana adds, “I know that this year’s tree is called The Tree of Unbreakables, and I think it is a very fitting name.”

Christmas 2022. Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Mykola Tymchenko.

Holidays are not as cheerful this year

“I kind of forgot that the holidays were coming,” Maryana Oleksiv says. She is from Lviv, the biggest city in Western Ukraine, well-known for its Christmas market and festivities. Normally, Lviv has a big tree, hundreds of thousands of tourists, many carolers on the streets, and various shows and performances across the city.

This year, Lviv will have none of that. The city administration decided that there is no money or energy to spare on any celebrations. Lviv residents sometimes get electricity for only four hours a day, so the residents have to be very resourceful in order not to freeze this winter.

“I bought myself thermal underwear, and that’s the gift I will get my relatives,” Maryana says. Despite the need to work in nearby cafes which have generators, she is hopeful.

“I donated money and bought some thermal underwear for the soldiers, too,” she adds, “And I am excited about the holidays although to be honest, the days are very blurry, so it’s not like I am preparing for any special day or something.”

“I spend part of my time at my boyfriend’s, and the other part at my mom’s, so I commute between places whenever there is electricity,” Maryana continues, “Given that I cannot work as much as before as my job requires steady Internet, that commute fills up the free hours I have.”

Maryana’s family is all in Lviv; they have prepped for the winter by getting many blankets and layering up. Maryana has not yet bought a generator, but she is considering it.

“My boyfriend suggested that if we keep on getting so many blackouts, we’d need to get some generator before the New Year,” she says, “So maybe, that’s going to be an investment we’re going to make in 2023.”

“I’ve never experienced anything like this winter,” Maryana reflects, “And I never thought that my thirtieth Christmas will be during the war in my country.”

“But it made me appreciate what I have more,” she adds, “Many of my friends are in the trenches or have been wounded in battle, so I know it could be much worse.”

Maryana traveled to Paris for work at the end of the fall, and she could not believe her eyes when she saw the abundance and the many lights in the French capital.

“Seeing how dark Lviv is and how we value electricity and simple things made me forget that very close from us, people lead a very different life,” the woman reflects, “I didn’t realize how quickly I adapted to the war reality, and how this survival mode became the new normal for me.”

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

Ukraine’s Zaporizhya: A city under constant attacks

This Southern center is only 30 miles away from the Russian army

Destruction in Zaporizhya. Photo credit: Nataliya Colovyova.

By Anna Romandash

“The situation changes all the time,” Anna sighs, “Sometimes, we get relatively calm days and even weeks, and sometimes, we get bombed non-stop.”

Anna prefers that I don’t use her last name. A young woman in her early thirties, she works as a project manager in Zaporizhya. Anna has a pleasant, friendly face and a melodic voice which has a calming effect: even when she talks about the horrors of the Russian invasion, I still feel like listening to her more.

Anna is from Zaporizhya, a city in Southern Ukraine that is less than one hour drive from the territory temporarily occupied by Russia. Russians are constantly shelling the region and terrorizing civilians. Throughout October, they have been launching regular attacks on Zaporizhya, killing at least 70 residents. The bombing and shelling have diminished somewhat in the last weeks although Russians have restarted their attacks after they retreated from nearby Kherson.

“We had two weeks of very intensive attacks,” Anna recalls, “Back then, we were shelled morning, day, and night. With so many victims and wounded, it was a very difficult period. It was very hard for me.”

Zaporizhya is home to nearly 800 thousand residents. However, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion against Ukraine, a quarter of the population left the city for other parts of Ukraine or went abroad. Another quarter moved to nearby villages and suburbs hoping that shellings would be less frequent there.

At the same time, Zaporizhya received an influx of internally displaced people, too; the city is hosting Ukrainians who managed to flee Russian-controlled territories and are seeking refuge close to home.

“I cannot mentally leave”

“We have heating, at least for now,” Anna tells me, “So if Russians don’t damage the critical infrastructure, we will have it in winter, too.”

A lack of heating and electricity is not uncommon after Russia destroyed nearly 40% of Ukraine’s infrastructure.

“The situation is a bit better now than before, but we can never predict how long this will last,” Anna proceeds, “When there were fewer attacks, I managed to sleep at night during the entire week. This is a big deal for me.”

When Russia was targeting Zaporizhya day and night in October, Anna could not sleep or work. She had to put her life on hold.

“At that time, it was very difficult to remain in the city,” the woman says, “During that intensive shooting period, lots of people left. Many of my friends went away. Some left for a short time because it was impossible to sleep. However, many people stayed as lots of locals have jobs here and are linked to the city. I have many friends who work here and stayed throughout everything.”

For Anna, constant October attacks were the worst.

“For me, it did not feel like weeks. It felt longer,” she recalls.

During that time, there were lots of attacks on the right bank of the city. Zaporizhya stands on the Dnipro river, which separates the city into the left and right banks.

“The right bank used to be somewhat calmer before,” Anna explains, “But in October, Russians attacked it more, so my perspective on the city and security changed.  It was extremely difficult both physically and mentally for me. I could not work and I could not sleep as many attacks took place at night.”

“I think I became traumatized during that period which kept me tense all the time,” she continues, “I left the city for a few days and went to Dnipro [a nearby city in South-East – Anna Romandash]. I needed a change. While in Dnipro, I could compare and reflect, and I saw that the situation in my home city was very tense.”

Despite that, Anna returned a few days later.

“I was thinking about leaving Zaporizhya when we had those very intense shootings,” she says, “Especially because there were so many attacks on residential buildings. However, I decided to stay because my husband is at the front line. This prevents me from traveling anywhere further than Kyiv. At first, I considered going to the capital, but it was not that safe at that time anyways. For now, I am staying home, and I will see what happens later.”

“Local government lives in its own reality”

Even under these conditions, the city keeps on living.

Zaporizhya, Ukraine. Photo credit: Nataliya Colovyova.

“I see lots of people in the parks, and it feels like there are enough residents anywhere you go,” Anna proceeds, “Many people remain, especially volunteers who never left and keep on working and helping. Because the city is so close to the front line, volunteers have to be very dynamic to carry on despite everything. Some institutions are open, and some are closed. The city lives its life.”

Residents are more cautious about their safety now.

“The streets make you feel more tense when there is an air alert,” Anna explains, “In my case, I am more likely to seek shelter than a month ago, especially when I am outside.”

She is unhappy with the local authorities and how they manage the war situation. For example, in Zaporizhya, basements are open only during the air alerts which warn the residents about an upcoming Russian bombing. However, there were many occasions when the city was targeted and shelled even before the sirens turned on.

“Zaporizhya does not have a lot of well-equipped shelters, and it is difficult for a lot of people working nights to be safe under these conditions,” Anna says, “The local government did not provide a solution or show any empathy when dealing with this issue. It feels like the officials are either very incompetent or are ignoring the problems which matter for the city.”

In addition, the local government received a lot of criticism from the civil society because of the poor handling of the humanitarian aid for the residents.

“There were investigations looking into the transparency of the process, but the results have not yet been shared with the public,” Anna explains, “However, from what I see, most investigated people are still holding their official posts. This upsets me a lot, and it looks bad.”

“I feel like the government is living in its own parallel reality,” she adds, “For example, there is another case with Yalansky park in the city. A former politician from a pro-Russian party has been suing to get a permit to construct a mall there. The case was frozen for a long time, and recently, the guy won and got a permit from the city administration for the construction. This is a huge slap for the local authorities who allowed this. Locals are very disappointed and feel like the city government lives a life that is outside the real world.”

However, the state government is opening some investigations related to the city and its key figures. In late October, Ukraine’s intelligence services arrested former lawmaker Vyacheslav Bohuslayev. The man is an honorary president of “Motor Sich”, a Ukrainian aircraft engine manufacturer based in Zaporizhia. The company produces airplanes and helicopter engines; it is a strategic military enterprise.

Bohuslayev is accused of collaborating and assisting Russia and potentially providing the aggressor state with parts for its helicopters. In addition, he has Russian citizenship, which he hid as well as property in Moscow.

“This makes me happy to see that people like Bohuslayev are finally being investigated,” Anna concludes.

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

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