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In Ukraine, evidence mounts of Russian war crimes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A year ago today, in the early morning, Russia invaded Ukraine. Intelligence officials in the West had expected the capital, Kyiv, to fall in days. And while that grim prediction did not come true, the past year has brought plenty of heartache. It's also brought mounting evidence of alleged war crimes by Russian soldiers. We're going to zoom in now on one week at the end of March 2022, when the suburbs around Kyiv were liberated after a month of occupation by Russian troops.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: We had heard stories of Russians targeting civilians, of mass graves, of summary executions, of finding dead civilians.

KELLY: That's NPR's Nathan Rott, who was in Ukraine at the time.

ROTT: We knew that that was kind of happening, but nobody had really been to these areas to kind of see what was left.

KELLY: The town of Bucha northwest of Kyiv had just been liberated, and Nate was among busloads of reporters driven in to see it. And a warning to listeners - this story contains graphic descriptions of violence.

ROTT: Every window had been blasted out, bridges that had been destroyed, like, giant craters in the ground that you could park a car in. And there was one street that we walked down in particular where there was so much ash on the street, it felt like you were walking on sand. You know, it felt like you were walking on the beach, and that was just ash from burnt homes and burnt equipment in the middle of the city streets. At the end of that street, we just saw a guy who was kind of sitting outside, watching all of us journalists walk around and take pictures and everything. And I just kind of walked up to him and started talking to him with the help of our translator, Luca (ph). And the guy was just immediately like, follow me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

LUCA: You want to come in here?

ROTT: You know, we walked through his yard to his backyard over broken glass, and...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: A whole side of his house is blasted open. It almost looks like a kid's dollhouse where you can, like, see the cross-section of the house. You're, like, looking in it. I mean, the whole side of the house was gone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: When Russian troops first came into Bucha, his story that he told us was that essentially, like, they threw a grenade into his house, yelled for people to come out, started a fire that was in their living room.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I started extinguishing the fire. I tried to. You can see right there.

ROTT: The fire happened. He and his daughter and his son-in-law had raced outside and were trying to put out the fire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) There's three soldiers. They yelled at us, hands up. We showed them our hands, walked out.

ROTT: And Russian troops came up, started questioning them, asking them, where are the Nazis? Where are the Nazis? Where are the Nazis?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: And, you know, they were all like, we're not Nazis. I don't know what you're talking about. He had this horrific story of basically his son-in-law was taken out through his front gate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) So they took my daughter's husband, Oleg (ph), outside. They ripped the clothes off him, put him on the knees and shoot him in the head.

ROTT: And his body laid there for weeks right in front of his house.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I was in the mood sitting - after sitting a month in the basement to just - I wanted to walk outside and just get shot because I couldn't deal with it anymore.

ROTT: The language war crime was being used everywhere. Ukrainians - from the first time we got off the bus in Bucha, they were like, we are here to show you Russian war crimes. I think a lot of international leaders - right after Bucha, that's when you started hearing war crimes. Like, that was the moment that put that kind of into the conversation, I feel like.

KELLY: That was NPR's Nathan Rott. Another journalist who spent time in Bucha speaking with survivors was Masha Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker. For Gessen, that work came with a deep sense of deja vu.

MASHA GESSEN: I had done this kind of work 20 and 30 years earlier in Chechnya - the first war in Chechnya in 1994, 1996, during the second war in Chechnya in '99, 2001. And I had seen Russian troops behaving this way, and I had interviewed survivors of Russian war crimes who had told the same kinds of stories in Chechnya as they were now telling me in Ukraine. And I knew that it is normal for the Russian military to behave this way. This is how Russia prosecutes wars.

KELLY: Morning Edition host Leila Fadel spoke with Gessen about their experience reporting on war crimes and the aftermath.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: When it comes to accountability, does that - what does that look like? Can it go as high as Putin? And is there a way to hold the president of Russia accountable?

GESSEN: So for some people, it's most important to see Putin and people who actually give important orders prosecuted. That's not going to happen unless Russia is militarily defeated. I think for some other people, it is more important to see the people who pulled the trigger, the people who fired - who personally fired rockets at apartment buildings, the people who personally tortured, raped and executed civilians to be prosecuted. There's an argument that that's not so important because they're not in charge. They're just part of this giant sort of organism that carries out aggression. But there's a counter-argument that the whole reason that this is possible is because individuals are never punished.

FADEL: I mean, Russia has, you describe, documented these same kinds of crimes in Chechnya. Then again, they happened in Aleppo, and there has never been accountability or a red line crossed that the world has reacted to in this way. Why?

GESSEN: The facile answer is that the world doesn't care as much about Chechnya, which is Muslim, an obscure part of Russia. I'm afraid the same can be said of Syria. The world doesn't care as much about people perceived as non-white and Muslim. I think there's a lot of truth to what I just said. I don't think it's a - it's not the complete answer.

FADEL: Yeah.

GESSEN: It also has a lot to do with opportunity. It was nearly impossible for international investigators and journalists to get to Aleppo, to get to Chechnya during the second war in Chechnya. The Russian human rights group Memorial did bring a number of cases to the European Court of Human Rights against Russian war criminals in Chechnya and won some of those cases. But the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction over what Russia was doing and what is legally its own territory. So part of it is access. Part of it is jurisdictional issues. Ukraine is in a - you know, it sounds horrible to say it, but there's, in a way, an opportunity to finally hold Russia accountable for what its military has been committing systematically for at least 30 years.

KELLY: That's Masha Gessen, staff writer at The New Yorker, speaking with Morning Edition host Leila Fadel. And you can hear more reflections on the war in Ukraine by checking your local member station for NPR's special report, Russia's War in Ukraine One Year On. To find your member station, go to npr.org/stations.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOAM AND SAND'S "CIRCLE 9 (ARMS AND SLEEPERS REWORK)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ivy Winfrey