Video Journalist Jessica Koscielniak had just returned to her hotel room in Kharkiv, a city in the far east of Ukraine, when she heard the explosion. She looked out her window and saw smoke rising a few miles away.
In a few minutes, international correspondent Kim Hjelmgaard, in an adjoining room, received a call from the city attorney general. Russia had just bombed a civilian apartment complex. Investigators were rushing to the scene to collect evidence of a possible war crime. The two journalists should get there, quickly.
Hjelmgaard and Koscielniak grabbed their vests, helmets and gear and started. Ambulances passed them, going the other way. When they arrived at the resort, they didn’t know where to start. A cluster bomb, a 1980s Soviet-designed Smerch rocket, had exploded in mid-air, sending explosive fragments flying in all directions. There was not a bomb site, but the damage extended 50 meters in each direction. Two dozen people were hit, windows were smashed and shrapnel was everywhere.
Then they saw him. Alexander Satanovskiy, 82, was bleeding next to a wooden table in an overgrown playground where he was playing dominoes. They saw the doctors trying to save him, then solemnly put him in a body bag.
His 84-year-old widow, Anna Satanovskaya, followed as doctors carried her body to the ambulance and placed it inside. She sat on a fence in front of the doors, crying. Five people had died.
Hjelmgaard wrote, “The domino table was soaked in blood.”
It’s a war crime, right?
It would seem to fit.
Hjelmgaard explains that war crimes are violations of the laws of war as codified by international humanitarian treaties. They include atrocities against persons or property, murder, ill-treatment, sexual violence, forced deportations, hostage-taking, torture, looting or destruction of public property and unwarranted havoc by military necessities. War crimes can be committed against civilians as well as against soldiers.
War crimes in Ukraine could be unprecedented. So are the country’s efforts for speedy justice.
Soldiers in wartime must try to protect the lives of civilians. Investigators will look for evidence that the soldiers did not, based on the accuracy of the weaponry and where it was used.
In this attack, “the thing hit in a residential area. There are children around; there are probably no military targets nearby. A war crime,” Hjelmgaard says.
“But when you try to pursue this, and certainly in an international setting, there are things you have to prove. Did Russia make a mistake? Did it really mean to bomb or fire on this neighborhood? You have to prove that there You also have to prove that there were no military targets nearby Now we couldn’t see any but maybe there was something we didn’t have not seen.
He says “10 out of 10 people” would probably say, “Of course it’s a war crime, it’s civilians who are killed, in fact, by an unguided missile.”
But knowing and proving it are two different things, he says. “It gets to the heart of some of the complications of proving war crimes.”
Who prosecutes war crimes?
Different groups can investigate war crimes: the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands; the United Nations; or military tribunals convened by the victors after the wars. Each option has complications. And each one takes time.
Ukraine is not waiting. As Hjelmgaard explains, the country is taking the unusual step of prosecuting war crimes in its own courts while still under attack.
I chased Nazis in Nuremberg. Here’s how to prosecute Putin and his thugs.
Ukrainian officials say they want quick justice. Some experts say local courts could give them more leeway to pursue convictions with evidence that does not meet international legal standards.
“I think they’re doing their best with the script,” Hjelmgaard said. “There is no precedent for attempting to prosecute war crimes in an area of active conflict.”
And that’s why our two journalists went to Ukraine, why they spent weeks examining the explosion sites and interviewing witnesses. More than 1,000 Ukrainian investigators are looking for evidence such as fragments of missiles, rockets and artillery shells or DNA samples from human remains.
How are the prosecutors doing?
Since the start of the invasion six months ago, more than 5,000 Ukrainian civilians have died. There are now more than 26,000 war crimes investigations in places like kindergartens, parks, warehouses, malls, train stations, city streets and maternity hospitals.
Only eight cases have been tried by Ukrainian courts.
“Most of them are lowly military men in their twenties driving a tank. One is a rape case,” Hjelmgaard said. “They are POWs, basically, that they manage to reach and felt they had relatively straightforward cases.”
As for rocket strikes, like the one that killed Satanovskiy, most of those rockets are launched from Russia. Investigators are collecting the debris as if they were crime scenes, hoping the marks found on the missiles may provide evidence. A serial number for a specific missile could one day be linked to a specific Russian military unit, identifying a specific commander who ordered the launch.
War crimes:War crimes trials could end up in international tribunals. But could they lead to Putin?
Time and time again, our team has seen prosecutors weigh crimes that seemed obvious against the likelihood that they could be prosecuted.
As Oleksii Boniuk, who leads one of the best investigative teams, said: “We do our best to manage everyone’s expectations.”
Rockets land before the sirens sound
The front line of the war is just south and east of Kharkiv, cutting into the 20% of Ukraine controlled by Russia.
Since the beginning of the invasion, Alexander Satanovskiy had heard the sirens of air raids and artillery fire in the distance. Sometimes, however, the rockets land before the sirens even go off. His wife said he took a week off to play dominoes, but by early June evening he was back at the table with friends.
“She was in shock over what had happened,” Koscielniak said. “It was a beautiful summer day. The light was warm and golden. You wanted to be outside. It was just beautiful.”
Anna Satanovskaya spoke to our team about her husband. As Hjelmgaard wrote: “How he always sang a song to himself. How he worked as a mechanical engineer in a sewing machine factory. How he was a loving and caring husband and father. How he dreamed of one day visiting Cuba. beautiful writing.”
War in Ukraine:She is 8 years old. I ask him what the war looks like in Ukraine. “Horrible,” she said.
The firefighters told our team not to stay long. There could be unexploded ordnance on the ground. Hjelmgaard and Koscielniak knew the danger, especially that close to Russia. While in Kharkiv, they read the situation minute by minute, listening if the explosions were getting closer, watching the trails of rockets at night, wondering where they were going to land.
“Especially somewhere like Kharkiv, everything that falls in the sky is mostly unguided. It’s old Soviet stuff and it hits you or it doesn’t hit you,” Hjelmgaard says. “So you can’t necessarily streamline your way to a safe place. We were changing hotels all the time as we received new information.
“Are we close to any type of infrastructure that could be a target for the Russians? Are we close to places that have already been affected? Are there soldiers staying at our hotel? We were constantly trying to make micro-decisions about how we can increase our chances of not being hit by something random. But of course, if it’s random.
For our team, it was a professional challenge. For the Ukrainians they met, it’s a way of life.
The cluster bomb explosion killed five people and left behind people like Satanovskaya, an instant widow. “Who can punish the Russians? she asked our team. ” Please tell me ?
Koscielniak wants his reporting to show the world that they are real people, with lives, families and dreams. Ukraine’s war crimes history is not only about the crimes but also about the victims.
“They are facing a horrible crisis,” Koscielniak says. “And I think you see that in the pictures of Alexander, I think you see the realities of war and what it means to die in a war in those pictures and in the morgue. There’s nothing beautiful or beautiful in the process of death in war.
“There’s just nothing.”
Past:“I still have nightmares from Afghanistan.” A female journalist has escaped the Taliban, but she is not free.
Past:Gannett Newsrooms Steady Progress in Overall Diversity
Nicole Carroll is the managing editor of USA TODAY and president of Gannett’s news division. The Backstory offers a look at our biggest stories of the week. If you want The Backstory delivered to your inbox every week, sign up here. Contact Carroll at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @nicole_carroll. Thank you for supporting our journalism. Subscribe here.