Ukrainian police officer Karina Kostiukevych says she, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes, considers herself married to her job.
However, while she tries to bring the perpetrators of the atrocities in Bucha to justice, she has no Dr. Watson to help her connect the dots. Instead, using a mix of crowdsourcing and technology, she is part of an online army.
Ms. Kostiukevych is the mastermind behind a channel on messaging service Telegram that is holding a magnifying glass against Russian brutality in the now infamous forest-lined suburb of Kiev. Once popular with tech workers and young families, Bucha became a killing ground as Russia tried to capture the capital. The failed attempt killed more than 1,750 people in the Kiev region, including victims of apparent war crimes Ukraine is determined to prosecute.
Why we wrote this
Russia’s atrocities take time, stamina and personnel to process. Digitally savvy Ukrainians have been zealous in their fight to bring Russians to justice for war crimes.
“When the Russians left Bucha and the first bodies started arriving, I saw how huge the scale was [of atrocities] so I created the Telegram channel and started posting pictures,” she says sitting on a wooden bench in a lush park near the multi-storey brick police station of Boyarka, another settlement in the Kiev region. “Absolutely every case posted on this Telegram channel is sent to the prosecutor’s office.”
Ms. Kostiukevych is a small link in a long chain of people setting the stage for justice in Ukraine. Digitally savvy Ukrainians have been zealous in their fight to hold Russia accountable for the atrocities committed since Moscow launched a full-scale war. A chatbot called e-Enemy allows Ukrainians to report Russian troop movements, and the government has a special website where citizens can report war crimes.
Tasked with investigating and documenting war crimes too large for local Ukrainian law enforcement, non-governmental organizations and foreign investigators have joined the effort. The Russian occupation claimed at least 419 lives in Bucha. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine says it has received reports of the unlawful killing of more than 300 men, women and children in Bucha and other settlements in northern Kiev, excluding soldiers killed in combat. By June 8, the mission had registered 4,266 civilian casualties across the country.
Documenting the Crimes
Russian troops left Bucha on March 31, but the community is still struggling to come to terms with the experience — both pragmatically and emotionally. The photo collection on Mrs. Kostiukevych contains images that are too bad to post online, such as the naked corpse of a little girl, adult men showing signs of torture and sexual abuse, and elderly people who appear to be suffocated. Some remains are so charred that they give no clues as to the identity of the victim.
Russia’s atrocities take time, emotional stamina and a lot of staff to process.
“In the beginning there were hundreds of people who were taken off the streets, from the flats,” says Ms Kostiukevych. That dwindled to a daily average of five to ten by mid-May as more bodies were discovered in the forests and outlying districts, one or two every few days after that.
The Telegram channel was her own personal initiative. She runs it by wiretapping professional contacts scattered throughout the region’s police stations and morgues. It now has over 6,000 followers – a significant number given the Bucha region which had a population of around 30,000 before the war and the harrowing nature of its content. Followers are mostly locals or relatives of locals trying to find loved ones. The channel has posted nearly 3,000 images.
Ms Kostiukevych says she processed about 300 before expanding the effort to other areas and involving about a dozen administrators. Her first priority was the identification of the victims. The work to pinpoint the exact culprits behind each of these murders could take years — if at all — but she’s confident such digital evidence will be instrumental to justice in the long run.
The long term is why Telegram is so important to her project. The platform, unlike Facebook, does not ban or systematically remove graphical content, she says. Human rights activists are concerned that content posted and removed from other platforms due to its violent nature will disappear – as was the case when YouTube took down a huge number of images related to the Syrian conflict overnight in 2017 for being seen as were considered too gruesome.
“It’s very important to have this digital evidence because most people need to be buried,” says Ms Kostiukevych. “Bodies cannot be kept in morgues for more than two months. If the person is identified, we can cremate him. If the person is not identified, we bury him according to the mortuary numbering system [so relatives can identify them later]† This evidence will also be important to the International Criminal Court and the [Ukrainian] legal system.”
Ukraine has so far identified more than 13,000 possible war crimes and 600 suspects since the invasion began. It has launched proceedings against 80 people and has already completed its first war crimes trial. On May 21, a Ukrainian court found a 21-year-old Russian soldier guilty of killing a 62-year-old civilian in the northeastern region of Sumy. The Hague-based International Criminal Court has dispatched a team of 42 investigators and forensic experts to support the search for justice.
“We were thrown back to the Middle Ages”
Vadym Yevdokymento has the Telegram channel of Mrs. Kostiukevych and videos taken while Bucha was under Russian occupation scanned for traces of his father, without success. The only possible clue the young man saw of his father’s apparent death was a photo of a leg. “Only one leg, with pants and sneakers he never had,” he says, just days after doing a DNA test with a visiting French team to see if it matched any of the yet-to-be-identified bodies. . No match.
“It’s very important to have these photos,” he says, referring to both the Telegram channel and a photo exhibit in Bucha’s gold-domed church, viewed by visiting dignitaries ranging from first lady Dr. Jill Biden to U2 singer Bono. “What happened here are war crimes. The Russians said they wouldn’t kill civilians and they did kill civilians. … It is difficult, but the world and the country must see what happened here.”
“My hands are still shaking. … My soul is screaming,” says his grandmother, Ludmila Ostrenko, a retired kindergarten teacher. The deaths of neighbors—one shot in the street by Russian soldiers, another burned by a Molotov cocktail thrown into the apartment building—and the smell of those horrors still haunts her.
She remained under the Russian occupation, praying and grabbing her puppy, Luna, for comfort. “I can’t believe what happened here in 2022. It was civilization. We were thrown back into the Middle Ages.”
“There was a group of six people going up and down the street to shoot people,” she adds, sitting outside an apartment complex with shattered windows and a burned area. “They would shoot from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. They killed everything that moved. It was a manhunt.”
Follow the killers digitally
“From what I’ve seen, most of the people we found in Bucha were killed,” said Police Major Vitaly Lobas, Bucha’s chief of police. “About 75% of the cases. They killed men, women, children and the elderly. What else would you call it if they weren’t war crimes?”
The vast majority of the images on his phone are similar to Mrs. Kostiukevych’s – digital testimony to tragic endings. They’re on his phone because the police station’s computers were burned during the Russian occupation. After Bucha was freed, he and his team worked out of the local school, responding to tips and sending out patrols to document crime scenes and collect bodies. The atrocities proved so numerous that they created a grid system and combed through Bucha, street by street, forest area after forest area.
But among those photos are also those that offer hope. Images from local CCTV cameras that continued to run in the early days of the invasion, as well as photos from Russian social media accounts and the phones of dead or detained soldiers, offer clues about suspects.
“We couldn’t achieve anything without technology,” he says. “It would be much more complicated and time consuming. It’s not just the information in the photos themselves. The metadata of every image in every phone is also extremely valuable.”
By using facial recognition to compare the CCTV footage with social media photos, researchers have been able to identify 10 of those involved in committing atrocities in Bucha so far.
“They must answer for what they have done under international law,” said Mr Lobas.
Reporting for this story was supported by Oleksandr Naselenko.