Seeking justice for Russia’s war crimes, Ukraine casts a digital net




Ukrainian police officer Karina Kostiukevych is the brains behind a channel on messaging service Telegram that is holding up a magnifying glass to Russian brutality in Bucha.

Once popular with tech workers and young families, the Kyiv suburb became a killing field as Russia sought to seize the capital. The failed effort left more than 1,750 people in the Kyiv vicinity dead, among them victims of apparent war crimes that Ukraine is determined to prosecute.

Why We Wrote This

Russia’s atrocities take time, stamina, and personnel to course of action. Digitally savvy Ukrainians have been assiduous in their fight to bring Russians to justice for war crimes.

“When the Russians left Bucha and the first bodies started arriving, I saw how enormous the extent [of atrocities] was, so I produced the Telegram channel and started posting pictures,” she says. “Absolutely every case that is posted on this Telegram channel is being sent to the prosecutor’s office.”

Ms. Kostiukevych runs the channel by tapping on specialized contacts spread across the vicinity’s police stations and morgues. It now has over 6,000 followers, chiefly locals or relatives of locals trying to find loved ones.

“It is very important to have this digital evidence because most people need to be buried,” says Ms. Kostiukevych. “This evidence will also be important for the International Criminal Court and the [Ukrainian] justice system.”

Bucha, Ukraine

Ukrainian police officer Karina Kostiukevych says she considers herself, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes, married to her work.

As she seeks to bring to justice the perpetrators of the atrocities in Bucha, though, she doesn’t have a Dr. Watson to help her connect the dots. Instead, using a mix of crowdsourcing and technology, she is part of an online army.

Ms. Kostiukevych is the brains behind a channel on messaging service Telegram that is holding up a magnifying glass to Russian brutality in the now infamous forest-framed suburb of Kyiv. Once popular with tech workers and young families, Bucha became a killing field as Russia sought to seize the capital. The failed effort left more than 1,750 people in the Kyiv vicinity dead, among them victims of apparent war crimes that Ukraine is determined to prosecute.

Why We Wrote This

Russia’s atrocities take time, stamina, and personnel to course of action. Digitally savvy Ukrainians have been assiduous in their fight to bring Russians to justice for war crimes.

“When the Russians left Bucha and the first bodies started arriving, I saw how enormous the extent [of atrocities] was so I produced the Telegram channel and started posting pictures,” she says sitting on a wooden bench in a lush park by the multistory brick police stop of Boyarka, another Kyiv vicinity settlement. “Absolutely every case that is posted on this Telegram channel is being sent to the prosecutor’s office.”

Ms. Kostiukevych is one small link in a long chain of people setting the stage for justice in Ukraine. Digitally savvy Ukrainians have been assiduous in their fight to keep up Russia accountable for atrocities committed since Moscow launched complete-extent war. A chatbot called e-Enemy allows Ukrainians to report Russian troop movements, and the government has a dedicated website for citizens to report war crimes.

Karina Kostiukevych, shown here at a park in Boyarka, a residential district near Bucha, Ukraine, launched a Telegram channel to document Russian atrocities and help people find their deceased family members. The Boyarka police stop where she works provided shelter to police officers from Bucha while it was under Russian occupation.

With the task of investigating and documenting war crimes too large for local Ukrainian law enforcement, nongovernmental organizations and foreign investigators have joined the effort. The Russian occupation claimed at the minimum 419 lives in Bucha. The United Nations human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine says it has received reports of the unlawful killing of over 300 men, women, and children in Bucha and other settlements to the north of Kyiv, except soldiers killed in combat. As of June 8, the mission had recorded 4,266 civilian fatalities across the country.

Documenting the crimes

Russian forces left Bucha on March 31, but the community is nevertheless struggling to course of action the experience – both pragmatically and emotionally. The photo collection on Ms. Kostiukevych’s smartphone includes images too awful to post online, such as the naked corpse of a small girl, adult men showing signs of torture and sexual abuse, and older people who appear to have been choked to death. Some remains are so charred they offer no clues on the identity of the victim.

Russia’s atrocities take time, emotional stamina, and meaningful personnel to course of action.

“In the beginning, there were hundreds of people who were brought from the streets, from the flats,” says Ms. Kostiukevych. That dwindled down to a daily average of five to 10 by mid-May as more bodies were discovered in the forest and far away districts, one or two every associate of days thereafter.

The Telegram channel was her own personal initiative. She runs it by tapping specialized contacts spread across the vicinity’s police stations and morgues. It now has over 6,000 followers – a sizable number considering the vicinity of Bucha had about 30,000 inhabitants prewar and the harrowing character of the content. Followers are chiefly locals or relatives of locals trying to find loved ones. The channel has posted nearly 3,000 images.

Ms. Kostiukevych says she processed about 300 of those before expanding the effort to other areas and involving about a dozen administrators. Her first priority was the identification of the victims. The work to establish the exact perpetrators behind each of these killings could take years – if it happens at all – but she is confident such digital evidence will be instrumental for justice in the long run.

The long run is the reason Telegram is so important for her project. The platform, unlike Facebook, does not ban or systematically take down graphic content, she says. Human rights activists are concerned that content posted and removed from other platforms due to its violent character will disappear – as was the case when YouTube took down a enormous number of images related to the Syrian conflict overnight in 2017 because they were deemed too gruesome.

“It is very important to have this digital evidence because most people need to be buried,” says Ms. Kostiukevych. “Bodies cannot be kept in morgues for over two months. If the person is identified, we can cremate them. If the person is not identified, we bury them in line with the morgue numbering system [so relatives can identify them later]. This evidence will also be important for the International Criminal Court and the [Ukrainian] justice system.”

Vadym Yevdokymento stands outside his apartment building in Bucha. He has been trying to find his father, who may have been killed by Russian soldiers, but so far he has not had any success.

Ukraine has so far identified more than 13,000 possible war crimes and 600 suspects since the start of the invasion. It has started proceedings against 80 people, and has already finished its first war crimes trial. On May 21, a Ukrainian court found a 21-year-old Russian soldier guilty of killing a 62-year-old civilian in the northeastern vicinity of Sumy. The Hague-based International Criminal Court has sent a team of 42 investigators and forensic experts to sustain the quest for justice.

“We were thrown back to the Middle Ages”

Vadym Yevdokymento has scanned Ms. Kostiukevych’s Telegram channel and videos taken while Bucha was under the Russian occupation for traces of his father without success. The only possible rule the young man was shown in connection to his father’s apparent death was a photo of a leg. “Just a leg, with pants and sneakers he never had,” he says, just days after doing a DNA test with a visiting French team to see if it corresponded with any of the however-to-be-identified corpses. No match.

“It’s very important to have these pictures,” he says in reference to both the Telegram channel and a photo characterize at Bucha’s gold-domed church, viewed by visiting dignitaries ranging from first lady Dr. Jill Biden to U2 singer Bono. “What happened here are war crimes. The Russians said they would not kill civilians and they killed civilians. … It is hard but the world and the country needs to see what happened here.”

“My hands are nevertheless shaking. … My soul is screaming,” says his grandmother, Ludmila Ostrenko, a retired kindergarten teacher. The death of neighbors – one shot on the street by Russian soldiers, another burnt by a Molotov cocktail thrown into the apartment building – and the scent of those horrors nevertheless haunt her.

She stayed put under the Russian occupation, praying and clutching her puppy, Luna, for comfort. “I cannot grasp what happened here in 2022. It was civilization. We were thrown back to the Middle Ages.”

Ludmila Ostrenko stands outside her apartment building in Bucha. She says she is nevertheless haunted by the murder of several of her neighbors by Russian soldiers.

“There was a group of six people who would go up and down the street just shooting people,” she adds, sitting outside an apartment complicate with shattered windows and a burnt section. “From 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., they would shoot. They killed anything that moved. It was a manhunt.”

Tracking the killers, digitally

“From what I have seen, most of the people we found in Bucha were murdered,” says Police Maj. Vitaly Lobas, head of the Bucha police department. “About 75% of the situations. They killed men, women, children, and elderly. What else would you call it if not war crimes?”

The great majority of images on his phone are similar to the ones by Ms. Kostiukevych – digital testimony to tragic endings. They sit on his phone because the police stop’s computers were burnt during the Russian occupation. After Bucha was liberated, he and his team worked out of the local school responding to tips and sending out patrols to document crime scenes and collect bodies. The atrocities proved so many that they produced a grid system and combed by Bucha, street by street, forest patch by forest patch.

But among those photos are also ones that offer hope. Images taken from local CCTV cameras that kept running in the early days of the invasion, in addition as photos taken from Russian social media accounts and the phones of dead or detained soldiers, are offering leads on suspects.

“Without technology, we would be unable to unprotected to anything,” he says. “It would be much more complicated and time consuming. It is not only the information on the photos itself. The metadata of each image in each phone is also extremely valuable.”

So far, using facial recognition to compare the CCTV footage against social media photos has allowed investigators to clarify 10 of those involved in committing atrocities in Bucha.

“They have to answer for what they did according to international law,” says Mr. Lobas.

Reporting for this story was supported by Oleksandr Naselenko.

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