KOROBI, Ukraine – Four men pull long strips of cloth to lift a coffin from the large hatch in the backyard of a small house. They opened the lid to reveal the rotting body of Oleksiy Kettler, who was instantly killed by shrapnel when a mortar hit the road in Koropi, a village outside Khakiv in northeastern Ukraine, in March.
Mr. Kettler, a father of two young children, would have celebrated his 33rd birthday on June 25, if he had not been out of his house at the wrong time. Now, his body is yet another exhibit in Ukraine’s widespread effort to gather evidence to prosecute Russia and its military for war crimes in the brutal killing of Ukrainian civilians.
Experts say the process is proceeding at extraordinary speed and may become the largest effort in history to hold war criminals accountable. But it faces a host of formidable challenges.
First, investigations are underway even as the war rages in the east. As investigators examined Mr. Ketler’s body, incoming and outgoing shelling rang out nearby. Ukrainian helicopters, most likely to bring new troops to the front line, flew at a low altitude.
Also, although all investigators from inside and outside Ukraine collect evidence, there is little coordination. Andriyi Kravchenko, the deputy district prosecutor, who was sitting in his office in the center of Kharkiv, despite the influx of experts, said “there are not enough people” to investigate, charge and sentence cases. approaching.
One of the buildings that prosecutors were using as an office was hit by missiles in what Mr. Kravchenko believed was a deliberate attack, and now his team changes headquarters frequently.
The demand for accountability is strong.
Yuri Belousov, Ukraine’s chief war crimes prosecutor, said Ukraine’s judicial system is now almost entirely dedicated to investigating war crimes, with most of the 8,300 prosecutors spread across the country to collect evidence.
Ukrainian courts have already handed down six guilty verdicts against Russian soldiers. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said last week that nearly 20,000 other cases were being investigated – including accusations of torture, rape, execution-style murder and the deportation of what Mr Belousov said could be tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia.
A better understanding of the Russo-Ukrainian war
At the same time, hundreds of international experts, investigators and prosecutors have landed in Ukraine from a host of international agencies.
At the beginning of the war, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, arrived in Ukraine with dozens of investigators. But the court, based in the Netherlands, hears a limited number of cases, and usually seeks to try the upper echelons of political and military leaders.
And it’s also slow: investigators working in the 2008 Russo-Georgia war did not apply for arrest warrants until this year.
There are a number of other initiatives as well. Amal Clooney, an international human rights lawyer, is part of a team advising the Ukrainian government on filing an international case against Russia. The United Nations began a A committee To investigate human rights violations in Ukraine – with three human rights experts – but a formal court cannot be established because Russia exercises its veto in the UN Security Council.
Investigators in Poland are collecting testimonies from refugees who have fled there to present to Ukrainian prosecutors. France sent mobile DNA analysis teams for inclusion with Ukrainian authorities to collect evidence. NGOs based in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, are heading to lands recently occupied by Russian soldiers to collect witness statements.
Wayne Gordish, a British criminal lawyer who lives in Ukraine, said that the involvement of multiple countries and organizations does not necessarily lead to a more productive investigation. Mr. Gordesch, who is part of an international task force supporting Ukrainian prosecutors, criticized some efforts to judicially assist Ukraine, describing them as “smoke and mirrors”, without clear results and priorities.
He noted that ICC investigators were just on their way, and experts from other countries had been cycling for periods lasting several weeks.
“You can’t parachute into a two-week investigation and expect it to be meaningful,” Mr. Gordish said.
“Resources are being pumped in, but maybe we will see later that they are not being spent in the right way,” said Eva Vukocic, a researcher in post-conflict justice at Utrecht University, ie duplicating investigative efforts rather than providing psychosocial support to victims.
Ms. Vukocic noted the sheer scale of the endeavor. Across the country, she said, “there are thousands of potential suspects, and thousands of potential trials.” She said all the material needed to be properly organized and analyzed.
“If you have 100,000 items – videos, data, documents – if you don’t know what you’re sitting on, that limits material use,” Ms Vukocic said.
She also warned that the ICC leadership could face criticism by cooperating closely with the Ukrainian authorities because, in her words, Ukraine was also “an actor in this war.”
She feared that Ukrainian officials were setting their expectations of justice too high, and might be wasting scarce resources on trials in absentia.
“No great condition It will be over in two or five years because of the scale of the violence and the fact that it has been going on for a long time,” she said.
This was acknowledged by Mr. Belousov, Ukraine’s war crimes prosecutor. “We’re playing a long game,” he said. Even if the perpetrator was tried and convicted in absentia, Mr Belousov said, “we understand that in a year, two, three or five, these men will not be able to get away with it.”
Mr. Belousov said he appreciated international assistance but that coordinating it was the “biggest challenge” law enforcement authorities have faced.
For example, Kharkiv prosecutors used a shiny new forensic investigative kit donated by the European Union to exhume bodies in the village of Koropi in northeastern Ukraine. But a police officer from a unit in Dmitrievka, a 45-minute drive west of Kyiv, said they had neither seen nor met any international investigators nor received any equipment from them.
Mr. Belousov said Ukraine wanted to take the lead in prosecuting cases – a difference from previous post-conflict situations in which national authorities initially left the process to international courts.
But most Ukrainian investigators have little experience with this type of inquiry.
For example, Andriy Andriychuk, who joined the police force in the region west of Kyiv two years ago, said his work previously included investigating local disputes or cattle rustling. He said it now includes “more bodies”.
One recent sunny afternoon, he was called to a forested area near the city of Dmitrievka. Several days ago, police officers received a call from foresters who had arrived at a man’s grave. The dead, Mykola Medved, 56, was buried with his passport. His hat was hung over a cross made of sticks.
His daughter and cousin identified his body. The local morgue has officially determined the cause of death: a fatal bullet to the chest.
Since then, his daughter, Maria Tremalo, has not heard from investigators. No witnesses came forward, and it was not clear who killed her father, or why. Still hungry for justice.
“My father will never come back,” she said. “But I would like to punish the perpetrators.”
At the moment this seems almost impossible.
In Koropi, the village near Kharkiv, Mr. Ketler’s mother, Nadezhda Ketler, was inconsolable as gravediggers and inspectors worked. She wandered down the road to another part of her property. Six officials stood over her son’s corpse, photographing and documenting his best friend, Mikhailo Mikhailenko, who looked horrified and smelled of stale alcohol, recognized him.
The next day, Mr. Ketler’s body was taken to the city mortuary, where the final cause of death was determined.
In the end, Ms. Ketler gathered her strength to show investigators the crater made by the bomb that killed him, leading the police to the exact location where he died. Mrs. Kettler stood looking at the trees as they flew in the wind. You didn’t talk to anyone. She said she did not know if a guilty verdict in the war crimes trial, if ever issued, would ease the pain of losing her child.
“I had to bury my son twice,” Mrs. Ketler later said. “You understand, this is hard enough to do once, and you have to do it again. A mother’s pain is not going anywhere.”
Evelina RyabenkoDiana Poladova and Oleksandr Chubko Contribute to the preparation of reports.