Echoes of Bosnian war in Ukraine: Fear of the future and a longing for justice

The place where the projectile fell on the residential area during the visit of the Detektor team to Kyiv. Photo: BIRN BiH

Echoes of Bosnian war in Ukraine: Fear of the future and a longing for justice

12. January 2024.14:24
12. January 2024.14:24
On the eve of the second anniversary of the full scale Russian invasion, Ukrainians are experiencing feelings that citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina have long been familiar with: the fear of new escalations and destabilisation, the search for justice and the complicating fact that many perpetrators are out of reach, and the feeling that the world has turned its attention elsewhere.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

Girls grandmother’s grave is far away, about a kilometre.

“Grandma died during the occupation. She was old. She had a heart attack. She was a lovely woman,” she said as she passed candies from hand to hand.

She speaks in halting English and, like most teenagers, periodically glances at her phone. Without raising her head, she pointed towards the other end of the cemetery, opposite the entrance.

“Dad’s over there. He was killed,” she said.

There are already several candies and a bottle of cola buried in the snow on the grave of Ihor Simchenko. His daughter smile fades. She looks straight ahead. The teenage girl’s face looks crushed with sadness or anger. She says she simply doesn’t have the strength to talk about her father without tears.

“This is our custom. You will see candies on a lot of graves here. We bring sweets. The idea is to eat them and remember the person… In a sweet way,” she says, fiddling with the candies in her hands. Her mother stands in front of the camera and describes to Detektor journalists how she lived happily with her husband and two children until March 2022, when Russian soldiers occupied Bucha and committed a massacre, images of which shocked global audiences.

Olha spoke calmly and every few seconds looked at the picture of her husband on the grave. She said that her husband was carrying food and medicine to her mother and sister at the beginning of March when he was stopped by Russian soldiers. After that, as Olha found out, Ihor was shot. A few days later, when they were running away from Bucha, she saw the body. His daughter also saw the body.

“We saw more than 50 dead people from the building. We couldn’t get to him even though we really wanted to, because we understood that the Russians wouldn’t like certain movements, so we just kept going straight. My daughter saw my husband and we put a hat over my son’s eyes so that he wouldn’t see it all,” said Olha.

Bucha – The symbol of greatest suffering

Olha Simchenko and her daughter next to Ihor’s grave. Photo: BIRN BiH

According to Ukrainian authorities, almost 500 people were killed in Bucha. Most of them were buried in the cemetery with Ihor.

Local gravedigger Sergii Matiuk is one of those who survived the Russian occupation, though he was detained and mistreated. He waved his hands around and lit one cigarette after another as he led Detektor journalists through the cemetery.

He explained that shortly after the occupation ended, he and several friends took it upon themselves to collect bodies from the street.

“We managed to get our hands on some fuel… I didn’t count, but let’s say we gathered up to 300 people. They picked up a lot of people and took them away from here who were not from Bucha, and if we count people from Bucha, I don’t know exactly,” said Matiuk.

Walking through the cemetery, he pointed left and right, explaining how people were buried in different places depending on family considerations. At the cemetery there is no monument or plaque commemorating the murdered people of Bucha. When asked if he would like there to be one and how he would like future generations to remember Bucha, Matiuk stopped short.

“There should be something,” he said.

Though the country is still at war, Bucha’s main street looks nothing like the photos with which this town is now most associated. The houses are largely renovated, fences too. Scenes of dead bodies, burning cars and destroyed fences have been replaced with houses under renovation and kilometres of recently donated black fencing.

One of the renovated houses belongs to Vjeceslav Laskin. He and his uncle Volodimir Ivanovic Sepitko returned to Bucha a month after the invasion and found the body of a murdered woman in the yard. They say they were shocked when they entered the destroyed house.

“These are not people, I don’t know, they behaved like pigs. They entered everywhere, broke things, poked around looking for things. They took everything they could steal. They stole from my uncle, everything they could – the valuables, they took everything. It was just a piece of shit, you can see that it’s not people, it’s just rust,” Laskin said indignantly.

A mass grave was dug in front of Bucha’s Orthodox church. In the grave more than 100 people were found, including 30 women and two children. Andriy Golovin, a priest from Bucha, told Detektor journalists what the first days of the occupation looked like.

“People hid in basements, wherever they could. At the beginning, we thought of building a shelter in the church, but later we thought that if the dome collapsed, it would bury us all and it wouldn’t be safe there,” said Golovin.

Next to the church there is a monument to the murdered with hundreds of names. It’s a monument, Golovin says, to the fact that Russian soldiers deliberately killed civilians and did not allow them to be buried.

Russian threats of destabilisation

Almost two full years since the beginning of the full scale Russian invasion, there are relatively few visible war scars in Bucha and Kyiv. Life in the capital city appears to go on as normal with traffic jams and no food shortages. One city square has New Year’s and Christmas decorations where children play with a big white bear.

The normality is a facade. Alarms blare most nights and curfew lasts from midnight to five in the morning. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been mobilised and dozens die on the front every day. Almost no information arrives from occupied territories, such as Mariupol.

On the eve of the second anniversary of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke about Russia’s role in the conflict in Gaza and warned world leaders to look to the Balkans, which, Zelensky said, Russia is planning to destabilise.

Maria Avdeeva, an expert on security and the fight against disinformation, explains that the Ukrainian government constantly mentions the Balkans as the next place Russia will go to create a situation that could explode at any moment.

“The Balkans is important in that sense, because it is very accessible, not too far away and there is a pretext, because it is always easier to stir things up in a place where there are already tensions. That is why in Ukraine the Balkans are seen as the next region where Russia will go and where it is probably already active,” she said.

She says it is important to monitor Russian disinformation campaigns because they indicate when Russia will launch initiatives in a country.

“They prepare their positions and activate them when they see that the moment has come. President Zelensky wants to warn everyone in the West to watch more carefully and to be vigilant, because [anything] could happen after what is happening in Ukraine. After what is happening in the East, the Balkans could be next,” said Avdeeva.

During their visit to the capital of Ukraine, Detektor journalists investigated the possible consequences of Zelensky’s announcement and how Ukrainians are fighting for justice for war crimes committed against them, crimes that continue daily.

During Detektor journalists’ five-day stay, air raid sirens went off three times. Attacks happen mostly at night. During check-in at the hotel, the receptionist showed us the location in the restaurant in the basement where we should go in the event of an air raid siren. We were told this most often happens between three and four in the morning.

“It’s a form of abuse,” the receptionist said.

Serious attacks did not follow two of the alarms. The third alarm went off one night at 3 a.m. Several ballistic missiles had landed between residential buildings and a kindergarten.

Just a few hours later, the Detektor team saw a scene on the ground reminiscent of war scenes in Sarajevo: burnt cars, a hole in the ground in the kindergarten’s yard and a building without windows.

Ana from Kyiv was woken up by the shelling and said that everything was like a dream. She took her child and started running across broken glass. When she started towards the shelter, she saw that everything was burning and there was a big hole where the explosive had hit.

“We saw that the fire had already started on a terrace and there was smoke, we started to put out the fire, but we thought that if we put out the fire, something else would fall on us and we wouldn’t be able to get out,” Ana said, describing the aftermath of the missile strike.

Until early in the morning, Ludmila didn’t know where her mother – ill with heart troubles – was, nor where her sister and sister’s two kids were. In a panic, she searched the neighbourhood for any sort of information.

“I don’t know where to look for them. They say they took them away. Where did they take them? Tell me, where? I will go, I will bring them, tell me please,” she said.

Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, said in a conversation with a Detektor journalist that what had taken place that night was the result of ballistic missiles that fly at 8,000 kilometres per hour, too fast for air raid sirens to go off in time to warn the public.

“Our armed forces are responsible for that. Thank God no one was killed tonight, but over 50 people were injured. Twenty people have just been taken to the hospital, and two children are among them,” Klitschko said.

Justice is slow, for many it is unattainable

Bucha Memorial with the names of people killed. Photo: BIRN BiH

Ukraine’s quest for justice for war crimes committed by Russian forces is complex.

Numerous domestic and international organisations, and even some individuals, are mapping war crimes in Ukraine, of which there are now tens of thousands. At the same time, Ukraine has initiated more than 1,500 trials against Russian soldiers, many of whom are being tried in absentia. Criminal charges are also being filed in Western European countries and the International Criminal Court is conducting investigations. A large number of crimes are not even known yet because domestic and international organisations have no access to parts of Ukraine under Russian military occupation.

The Center for Civil Liberties, an organisation that won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for its work documenting the acts of war criminals, has partnered with dozens of regional organisations over the past two years to build a network that aims to document every war crime in Ukraine.

“On our joint initiative database ‘Tribunal for Putin,’ more than 59,000 instances of war crimes were recorded,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, director of the Center.

“What we will need is a comprehensive strategy for justice,” she said.

Alina Pavliuk, a former prosecutor who has been following war crimes since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in 2014, knows how difficult the task will be. Today, she works for the Council of Europe and trains colleagues on how to prosecute crimes. She says that in the last two years, 100,000 cases of war crimes have been recorded.

Pavliuk speaks calmly about the numbers and challenges in processing the cases, but when it comes to cases of wartime sexual violence and rape, she pauses.

“Now we have one case where a survivor was raped by 15 people over two weeks, and at the moment it’s a really terrible situation for me, but I think we may find even worse cases after the liberation of the territories,” said Pavliuk.

Ukraine is facing numerous challenges, many of which will sound familiar to people in Bosnia and Herzegovina who are engaged in war crimes documentation or prosecution. For example, the laws in force at the time the crimes were committed are restrictive and do not allow for prosecution along lines of command responsibility. In addition, says Pavliuk, the state has placed too much focus on prosecution, meaning that of the 1,500 cases currently being tried, as many as 75% of them are in absentia trials.

While waiting for the results of the International Criminal Court’s investigation – which will deal only with high political and military leaders, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin – international organisations, such as the George Clooney Foundation, are trying to support other efforts to bring some perpetrators to justice.

Using the principle of universal jurisdiction, according to which war crimes can be tried anywhere in the world, the George Clooney Foundation files criminal charges in Germany against Russian soldiers and commanders. So far, they have filed 21; they hope to reach 100 in 2024.

This type of prosecution has proven successful in prosecuting crimes in Syria and Iraq. The head of the Foundation’s office in Kyiv, Ana Neistat, hopes that the German courts will soon issue secret warrants for all Russian perpetrators.

“We have more cases in the pipeline in the coming months, and we hope to file cases in other European countries, but also outside of Europe, so that we can widen this net, so to speak, of arrest warrants and potential prosecutions, and I hope that we will reach potentially a hundred perpetrators,” she said.

She notes that through the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, it took decades to capture criminals and fugitives throughout Eastern Europe.

“I sincerely hope that in this case, since we have established some systems earlier, it won’t take us another 20 years to catch them,” she said.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) is also using lessons learned during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and applying them in Ukraine. The current director of the program in Ukraine, Matthew Holliday, led the organisation’s work in BiH for years. He says that Ukraine currently has over 30,000 missing persons, which is more than went missing during the entire conflict in BiH.

The lack of DNA samples, as in BiH, is a big problem in the search and identification of the missing.

“A large part of the population fled Ukraine, and many of them are now refugees in Europe and elsewhere. Many have missing relatives in Ukraine, or have been deported or are in captivity in Russia if they are alive. But if they are dead, the only way to identify missing relatives in through DNA,” said Holliday.

At the Bucha cemetery, gravedigger Sergii Matiuk shows reporters a parcel with 86 unmarked graves. He says that they are unidentified persons. He explains that there was an initiative to transfer the bodies to the church, but that he refused since the official exhumation is still pending.

Olha Simchenko still awaits justice.

“I still don’t know anything, we wrote a statement to the police and the prosecutor’s office and they called us for questioning several times, but they still don’t say anything about the progress of the case. We also wrote a request to the international court. Now we are waiting,” she said.

As Olha says, her husband Ihor always wanted to fight for justice.

“He loved life. We built a house, we wanted to move. He dreamed of living in a house in Yablunska Street, but he didn’t get there… He loved us,” said Olha, crying and looking down in front of her daughter.

When asked what justice would be for her, she says: “Let them get what they deserve.”

Denis Džidić

This post is also available in: Bosnian