In the death and rubble, Ukrainian teams hunt for war crimes
Markhalivka | Ihor Mozhayev walked unsteadily atop the rubble of his destroyed house, a dazed look on his bruised face. In his path were the remnants of what was left of his life.
A red Christmas decoration, a dust-covered, leopard-print pillow, notebooks with neat handwriting, a school bookbag and pieces of toys were among dozens of shattered memories. Scattered in the debris were family photos of loved ones now forever lost.
Mozhayev, 54, his right cheek purplish and swollen, picked up a small plastic chair stained with blood. “That’s her chair,” he said in a low voice that faded into the hum of a bulldozer nearby. “During the day she was always sitting up in this chair.”
The chair belonged to his 12-year-old disabled daughter, Masha. She was killed with her mother, grandmother, and three other civilians in a suspected Russian air strike in this speck of a village roughly 10 kilometres south-west of the capital, Kyiv.
Two of Mozhayev’s grandchildren, aged 7 and 8, were pulled from the rubble, miraculously alive.
On Saturday, as Mozhayev surveyed the wreckage, a slim man dressed in camouflage green with a Ukrainian military identification card around his neck, filmed his every move. He was gathering evidence for a potential case against Moscow before an international tribunal.
As Russian forces encircle Ukrainian cities and widen assaults to once calm areas, the six villagers killed entered the grim – and growing – registry of civilian deaths compiled by the United Nations since the invasion began.
As of midnight on Saturday, the UN had recorded 364 civilian deaths, including 25 children, and 707 wounded. Among the wounded were 36 children.
Heavy artillery, multiple rocket launchers, missiles and air strikes caused most of the deaths, the UN said at the weekend, adding that the toll is probably higher.
The rising number of civilian casualties has prompted accusations that Moscow has committed war crimes in its relentless bombardment of non-military targets in cities, as well as its alleged use of weapons that heighten the risk of death and injury for non-combatants.
In pursuit of evidence, Ukraine’s government has opened a new front in the conflict, dispatching visual teams to bombed sites to make a case against Russia at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
“The Ukrainians are mobilised as never before,” said Serhiy Lysenko, the military videographer who was filming in the rubble. “This is more about making a record of Russia’s crimes. We do believe in The Hague.”
“We’ve seen very credible reports of delivered attacks on civilians which would constitute a war crime,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday.
Human Rights Watch has accused Russia of using internationally banned cluster munitions to bomb residential areas and kill civilians in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Such weapons – which open in the air, dispersing hundreds of small sub-munitions over a large area, killing and maiming indiscriminately – “might constitute a war crime”, the group said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a phone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, said Russia’s forces were doing all they can “to preserve the lives of civilians” in Ukraine, the Kremlin said.
Last week, the International Criminal Court announced that it would “immediately proceed” to investigate possible war crimes unfolding in Ukraine.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the decision, saying, “we have seen the use of cluster bombs”, as well as reports of other types of weapons used that are “in violation of international law”.
The air strike, and the family tragedy it bore, is one piece of possible evidence that many in this devastated village hope will help hold Russia accountable.
On Saturday morning, Mykola Medynsky arrived at the site of the attack. The tall and burly Ukrainian military chaplain clutched a wooden cross and wore a long, camouflage-green cleric’s robe and a gold embroidered vestment. He was accompanied by Lysenko, the military videographer.
Since the invasion began, the pair have comforted hundreds of civilians trapped by war in the capital.
“We go down to the basements where people are hiding,” said Medynsky. “If we feel that people have anxiety, we start to work with them gently, with prayers, psychological work, moral support.”
They have visited five sites where Russian rockets or missiles have hit residential buildings, or areas such as Markhalivka, where there are no government buildings, army bases or other military targets.
They said this was the deadliest attack yet in and around the capital. “In Kyiv, no one was killed, but here six people died, and the destruction was huge,” Medynsky said.
There was another reason he was here with a cameraman. “I came here to help people, but at the same time, I want our press service to show this footage to the world as yet another proof of Russia’s crimes, crimes against peaceful civilians.”
War crimes, under international law, include the targeting of civilians, as well as assaults that cause disproportionate civilian casualties given the military objective. This includes attacks on hospitals, clinics, schools, and other key civilian sites, as well as attacking or bombarding towns, villages or dwellings that are undefended and which are not military objectives.
Still, many horrific acts of violence that result in the deaths of noncombatants would not meet the criteria. And in most cases, proving that civilian killings constitutes a war crime is extremely difficult, requiring lawyers to show the attacker intentionally sought to harm civilians or strike forbidden targets.
No one here understands why the village was targeted. Ukrainian forces manning a checkpoint into the village said there was a small military unit nearby, Lysenko said.
But there was also speculation, he added, that the Russian jet was hit by Ukraine’s air defences and jettisoned its bombs to reach safety. But Lysenko rejects this argument.
“He fired at the residential area just out of spite,” he said, referring to the Russian pilot. “If he simply wanted to get rid of the munitions, he would have fired them into the woods or fields nearby.”
Minutes later, Medynsky stood atop a pile of debris and gathered Mozhayev, his family and neighbours together. Then, he delivered a melodic sermon that lasted three minutes.
“A true Ukrainian people is being born, a true Ukrainian nation, a people that no one will ever be able to divide,” he said. “And your family perished, having made a sacrifice, so that you and future generations would live ... Let us, all together, pray for those who perished for Ukraine.”
Afterwards, the family returned to the rubble. With their hands, they dug. They were looking for deeds of apartments they owned in Kyiv, their children’s birth certificates, their passports, even a large bag of money they had placed in a bedroom, said Dasha, who is in her 20s.
Her father’s house was once the safest place to store their valuables. Now, these are the items they needed most to leave the village, perhaps even the country. Their neighbours have offered rooms in their homes, but the family understands they can’t stay there forever.
As he sifted through the debris, Mozhayev found a black and white tattered photo of his wife Anna as a girl in ponytails. “She was younger than me by eight years,” he said, eyes on the photo.
“She went to buy flour to bake bread. She was in line for an hour-and-a-half,” came home, and pulled up in the car just as the bomb fell.