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‘I saw a rocket hit an orphanage’: the Ukrainians recording possible war crimes

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Show caption A woman using her phone to record a school hit by a shell in Zhytomyr in western Ukraine. Photograph: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters Ukraine ‘I saw a rocket hit an orphanage’: the Ukrainians recording possible war crimes Residents in the Kyiv suburbs and around the country are gathering evidence at great personal risk Isobel Koshiw in Kyiv Thu 17 Mar 2022 13.53 GMT Share on Facebook

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In Vorzel, a forested district north-west of Kyiv once known for its spas and health clubs and now under Russian occupation, lawyer Ihor Chudovsky spent the first weeks of the invasion documenting the toll of the war on his community – including a rocket strike on an orphanage and civilians shot dead in the street.

The US president, Joe Biden, on Wednesday called Vladimir Putin a war criminal, drawing the wrath of the Kremlin, for acts such as these. War crimes are grave breaches of the international treaties, conventions and protocols governing armed conflict, such as the disproportionate use of force not justified by military necessity or the deliberate targeting of civilians, and war criminals are those who directly carry out the acts or are judged to have a command responsibility.

To prosecute war crimes, whether in a national court or in an international court or tribunal, is far easier when people like Chudovsky record what it is happening, even at risk to themselves.

Russian forces started attacking Vorzel on day one of the invasion, in an attempt to control the nearby cargo airport and highways into Kyiv. On March 2, Russian troops entered the town and for eight days no one was allowed to leave.

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Vorzel’s trapped residents had no heating, intermittent or no electricity, and no access to food and medicine supplies. Russian forces attacked people who tried to leave their houses and tanks rolled down the streets and fired at houses at random.

“The [Russians] set up checkpoints around the town, people who went out would be shot at,” said Chudovsky. “There were lots of bodies lying around. There was one old man who went out to smoke, a tank column came past and they shot their guns and, well, that grandad isn’t around anymore.

“I received around 20 messages from people asking me, as a lawyer, how they should bury people in these circumstances.”

What happened in Vorzel fits a pattern of Russian tactics in the areas they occupy. Tactics which human rights lawyers say amount to war crimes under the Geneva conventions, as well as breaches of international humanitarian law. Russian forces now occupy most of the north-west and central Kyiv region.

Evacuees from Vorzel, Irpin and Gostomel on a bus out of the region last week. Photograph: Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA

Speaking over the phone on 28 February, Chudvosky explained how he was documenting war crimes. “I have photos and videos,” he said. Of the orphanage attack, which came on day two of the invasion, he said: “I saw a Russian plane let off a rocket. It hit an orphanage where 50 children were living.” Ukrainian authorities said no children died in the attack but it is unclear if any were injured.

Chudvosky said he intended to submit detailed notes and recordings of what he witnessed as evidence for the international criminal court in The Hague, via Ukrainian state prosecutors, who are preparing submissions.

Chudvosky said that his evidence will meet the legal standard needed to prosecute, thanks to the 10 years he spent in the police force, followed by 20 years as a practising lawyer, as well as his involvement in the investigation into the 2014 shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

There is increasing evidence that Russia may be trying to ensure its crimes remain unrecorded by cutting off communications in civilian areas.

Residents of villages just south of Chudovsky’s town said that Russian forces confiscated phones after they entered. In one village, Russian soldiers checked people’s phones to ensure tthey were not filming or photographing the soldiers’ actions.

It was a pattern repeated in Vorzel, Chudovsky said. “They moved into people’s houses. They took their phones away and said any calls would result in executions.” Chudovsky used his car as a generator to charge his phone and would climb up to his attic to find a mobile signal.

Irina from Mykolaiv shows a friend’s burning building on her phone while waiting for a train to Krakow. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Despite his car’s generator, the Guardian lost contact with Chudovsky for four days. On 9 March, he managed to leave through a humanitarian corridor established by the International Red Cross.

Ukraine’s State Agency for Communication said on 15 March that they believe Russia has deliberately targeted telecommunications masts and is using jamming devices to prevent civilians in the affected areas from communicating.

In the southern city of Mariupol, which has been under siege for almost two weeks, they have also had no phone signal. Hundreds of thousands of people have been trapped without access to food, medicine, water or electricity and hospitals have been targeted with airstrikes. Not being able to communicate has meant that people do not even know about the humanitarian corridors that have been established to evacuate the population.

“People are sitting in their basements and simply don’t know what’s going on,” said Dmytro, who declined to give his last name and managed to leave Mariupol after he found out about the corridor through word of mouth.

So far, only a few thousand have managed to leave the city of 450,000 people.

Mazen Darwish, a Syrian human rights lawyer who helped to lead recent prosecutions against the Syrian regime in Germany, said that the most important step Ukrainians can take towards accountability is to document the crimes.

“My advice is not to wait until the UN sends a mission or the ICC starts their investigation,” said Darwish, who has been working on justice for Syrians for the past 11 years. “Ukrainians should know that they are the most important player in the documentation and collecting of evidence.”

Nick Waters, the lead for Ukraine at the open-source investigative organisation Bellingcat, said it was actively collecting evidence of attacks on civilians coming out of Ukraine. Like Darwish, he stressed the importance of filming the crime scene but warned Ukrainians not to put themselves in danger by trying to pick up pieces of weapons or publishing it from an identifiable location if they are still under occupation.

Waters cited a guide published by the NGO Witness to using video to document human rights abuses.

“The big issue with these kinds of images and videos is you never really know who actually originally took them, which is obviously a bit of an issue if you’ve planned to use it in court.”

While Chudovsky recorded the airstrikes and attacks, he too became a victim of breaches of international humanitarian law in the form of siege tactics. Russia and the Syrian regime previously used these tactics against Syrian resistance and opposition forces.

Those who left before the Russians occupied the town left their keys so that other residents could eat their food. Chudvosky described how in the days before he left he let himself into their empty houses and took food out of the fridges.

Some residents have decided to stay in Vorzel because they felt they had nowhere to go, Chudovsky said. Like those who left before him, he and the 25 other residents who went on the same day handed over their keys.