On the hunt for war crimes in Ukraine with Agent Yuskevich’s patrol | International
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A hooded collaborator so as not to be recognized pointed to neighbors while accompanying Russian soldiers in Irpin, on the outskirts of kyiv. It is told by Dr. Andrii Levkivski, head of the polyclinic in this town and one of the few who, aboard the ambulances, lived through the occupation at street level. He came across citizens shot in the head with their hands tied and nurseries turned into gallows. He himself participated in the burial in the hospital garden of a man who arrived already dead. He was fleeing by car with his pregnant woman and they were shot. She was saved, but lost the baby after several operations. Levkivski treasures the pictures on his phone. He knows that, despite the crudeness, they are important to purge responsibilities. Testimonies like that of this doctor or those gathered from rape victims and witnesses by police officer Katerina Yuskevich, who leads a mobile police unit, are essential to draw the map of war crimes in Ukraine.
The kyiv government, which has registered 16,271 cases so far, is preparing the so-called “Book of Executioners”, as announced by President Volodímir Zelenski. Its objective is to put a face to those responsible for the murders, rapes and looting committed by the Russian Army. Police chief Ihor Klimenko reported on Monday that the deaths of more than 12,000 civilians are under investigation. 75% are men, 2% children and the rest women. Meanwhile, pits continue to be opened. The last one, this week with seven civilians killed in the outskirts of kyiv. Some had their hands tied, according to official sources, who are working on the identification and circumstances of death.
Police, coroners, doctors, victims, witnesses… the objective is that talk both the living and the dead to find out everything that happened. A few dozen kilometers north of Irpin, in the village of Demydiv, Yuri Saluta, 28, was one of the volunteers who, equipped with a Red Cross vest, distributed aid among the inhabitants. He did it on a daily basis with the consent of the Kremlin troops who invaded the town, located on the road that leads from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to kyiv.
A group of Russian soldiers forced him, along with a companion, to lie face down on the ground on March 22. “We are going to teach you what life is,” says Saluta that he heard before receiving two shots. One pierced his right instep and another hit his left leg. Two and a half months later he was still recovering in Vishgorod hospital, north of kyiv. “They thought we were members of the Ukrainian intelligence. They didn’t believe us. (…) They put me in a basement and interrogated me. I think they were under some substances. They took my watch, my wallet, my phone…”. The Russians themselves wanted to evacuate him through Belarus, but he refused and reached Vishgorod thanks to a humanitarian corridor opened on the ruins of the bridge blown up to stop the invasion advance. In the same bed in which he receives EL PAÍS, he was interviewed by police officers who document war crimes.
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“These testimonies are very important,” insists Natalia Shilan, 54, the director of the hospital, while emphasizing that they try to have the medical report in each case, how the events occurred, the place, the day… Remember how, although Vishgorod was never in the hands of the Russians, in the hospital they lived from the first days “in a sea of blood” because it was very close to the front. What gave him the most pain were the young people who arrived amputees. Others, as soon as they recovered, went back to the front. At the back of the hospital, a refrigerator truck bolstered the overflowing morgue.
“I have never seen so many corpses,” says Vyacheslav Valentynovych, 49, the only coroner. Of the more than 300 that came to them, more than 95% were civilians. For several weeks he worked alongside a forensic team sent by the French government. Those who were not identified had a DNA sample taken from a piece of bone. They tried to find out how each one had died. Another French team, this weapons specialist, is now investigating in the Chernihiv region to provide new data on war crimes, as announced by the attorney general, Iryna Venediktova.
But, beyond opening graves and forensic and weapons investigations, there is still hard field work ahead. The kyiv authorities are tramping the country town by town, house by house and inhabitant by inhabitant. They delve into the traumatized memory of the population with patience, empathy and tact. They visit town halls, shops, churches, hospitals or private homes. The clue that leads to the identification and documentation of a new case can appear anywhere, acknowledges agent Katerina Yuskevich, 35. She leads one of the new mobile Police units that, since mid-April and made up mostly of women, comb the areas of the country that have been liberated from Russian occupation in the company of a psychologist.
Their main objective is to uncover sexual violence, but they end up being the cloth of tears for a population that has suffered all kinds of abuses in towns that will take a long time to recover from the trauma. Liubov, a 60-year-old cook, breaks down in tears in front of her wrecked house. She had just been refurbished by her children a few months before the war now that she and her husband had retired. Agent Yuskevich takes her by the shoulder and tries in vain to comfort her as she admits that in the midst of the investigation of war crimes, material compensation is not easy to come soon.
The family still has the credit requested for the work ahead of them. Liubov, who prefers not to give his last name, says that they spent almost the whole month without leaving the basement and that, after the withdrawal of the Russians, they found remains of soldiers from both sides in the surroundings. “I can’t sleep, I hear explosions in my dreams, I get up scared at five, at six…”, he points out between sobs next to the charred walls of what was his home. “You are still on February 24 [día que comenzó la invasión], has to come up today, overcome fear. Memory still has to do its job”, retorts psychologist Olena Shtyria in a reassuring tone.
Sometimes, Yuskevich says, they choose to carry out their mission without the uniform, because that avoids neighborhood gossip, accusation and re-victimization, as well as facilitating confidentiality. “We settle in the comfort zone of the victim and, at the same time, we better gain their trust to access their home, their business… Sometimes we need several visits to achieve it,” explains the agent in the town of Lukianivka, 80 kilometers east of the center of kyiv. She has several brochures in her hand offering tips, information, contacts and highlighting the importance of reporting. The food and hygienic products that they distribute are a tool that the patrol also uses to break down barriers with the inhabitants.
The psychologist cannot offer details due to professional secrecy, but notes that she has been struck by how hard it is for men to have been under occupation. “According to stereotypes, they are the defenders, but they are the ones the Russians killed the most. That is why women went out more for food or water. If something happened to the woman, they felt that they did not fulfill the role of her protector. I had never thought about this before the war”, reflects Olena Shtyria. “I am surprised that there are women who tell us that they were raped in front of their husbands while they were pointed at guns. This is my job, but for them it is their life, ”she lets out with a sigh, Yuskevich, a police officer since 2015.
In the van in which the mobile team travels, recycled for this new function, it still reads Juvenile Police. But instead of patrolling kyiv on a Saturday night, he’s on back roads. Destroyed houses, bullets and bombs and some rusty skeletons of battle tanks line the road. Some neighbors look out on the shoulder surprised by the visit. Ana, 92 years old, approaches leaning on her wooden cane to sell nuts to the agents. They politely decline her offer, but give her a package of spaghetti that the lady doesn’t know exactly what it is. “God bless you,” she thanks her as she walks away slowly and somewhat hunched over. A white van with the legend “Putin, to hell” passes by the road.
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