Oksana, 47-year-old, speaks to journalists next to a destroyed Russian tank in Dmytrivka village, west of Kyiv.
Oksana, 47-year-old, speaks to journalists next to a destroyed Russian tank in Dmytrivka village, west of Kyiv. © GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

Project Sunflowers

With the support of volunteers in 19 countries, testimony is being collected in a secure database to be used in future justice processes.

Tuesday, 19 March, 2024

Project Sunflowers aims to support Ukrainian and international investigations into war crimes as well as reparations processes for victims. Based in Warsaw, the project is collecting evidence and testimonies from potential witnesses and victims in a secure database. Ewa Hofmańska, president of the Foundation Sunflowers, told IWPR’s Olga Golovina how their dedicated app was facilitating these efforts to create a virtual “memory bank”.

What are the main goals and mission of the Sunflowers project?

Project Sunflowers' mission is to support international and national authorities to investigate and adjudicate international crimes and other serious human rights violations, as well as to support legal representatives of victims of mass atrocities, and institutions responsible for preparing reparation programmes.

The Project team, together with a specialised IT company, has developed an app to collect information on potential international crimes committed in relation to the ongoing war, as well as information on persons affected by the war. We store this in a secure database in order to pass it on to the competent authorities, legal representatives and institutions that will work on future reparation programmes for survivors.

Furthermore, our aim is to raise the awareness on international criminal law, humanitarian and migration law, human rights and the rights of victims of armed conflict. We organise webinars, inviting experts to speak about the legal and social aspects of armed conflicts, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine.

Previous experience in prosecuting perpetrators of mass atrocities shows that few are caught and even fewer prosecuted. The more information that can be collected - and then passed on to the relevant authorities - the greater the chance of bringing perpetrators to justice and speeding up the implementation of reparation programmes for survivors. The amount and level of specificity of information collected is particularly

important to establish contextual elements of international crimes.

Ewa Hofmańska, president of the Foundation Sunflowers.

How does the work of your NGO differ from others that do the same job in Ukraine and is there coordination within the sector?

Our project is a kind of memory bank. We collect information, store it in a secure database and share it with stakeholders. This includes enabling potential witnesses and survivors to upload photos or videos documenting a given event.

Project Sunflowers has an international reach thanks to our network of volunteers. This means, among other things, that we are currently implementing the project in 19 countries including Ukraine. Our volunteers play a key role in gathering information, as they are the ones who contact potential witnesses and victims/survivors, then assist them in filling out the form if needed. However, before Sunflower volunteers start this task, they undergo training during which, among other things, they learn how to talk to traumatised people so as not to aggravate their trauma.

The main advantage of our app is that anyone who wants to share information can easily do it alone as the app was designed to help that person fill out the form themselves. Anyone who wishes to share information with us has as much time as they need. Even after it has been sent, it can still be withdrawn.

We store the information in a secure database, protecting personal and contact details of individuals. We will pass on the information collected to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other tribunals as well as to prosecutors and national courts, victims' representatives, and institutions responsible for developing reparations programmes.

As far as I know, there is no single common platform for all projects that collect information on evidence of international crimes committed in Ukraine and victims/survivors of the war.

The Tribunal for Putin was founded in 2022 by three of Ukraine's largest NGOs and there are many more projects that collect information. However, some of them operate locally, cooperating only with a well-defined national prosecutor's office, for example.

Our project is preparing to organise a conference to which we want to invite representatives of all such projects to share experience and try to work out a common formula of cooperation.

How do you work with witnesses and victims, and how much evidence and testimony does your database already contain?

Experienced psychologists and psychotherapists train our volunteers how to listen to and speak with potential witnesses and victims/survivors of the war. People who want to provide us with information must first visit the website projectsunflowers.org and then click the share information button and fill out the short contact form.

Our volunteer coordinator receives a notification and based on the request (including place of residence and preferred language for communication), designates a specific volunteer, residing in the same country and speaking the same language, to contact the person within three days. This allows them to verify the identity of the person. We are aware of the threat of hacker attacks on our database from the Russians and that is why the app is not made publicly available. After contacting the person, our volunteer sends them a link to the app. If needed, the same volunteer helps them fill out the form in the app.

We launched our app in December 2023. Developing it and preparing GDPR documentation took many months. So far, we have collected nearly 50 testimonies. Many more potential witnesses and victims/survivors have been contacted. We hope that they all will share information when ready. For some, it will be at the end of the war, for others even several years later. We are aware that the process of sharing information is a long one and very painful for many potential witnesses and victims. We cannot do much more than respect their will, in particular their pain and suffering.

We are still at the stage of collecting information and not yet at the stage of making this information available to the relevant authorities. But we are already in touch with the ICC and other authorities. The cooperation mode needs to be worked out.

What are the biggest challenges in your work?

The biggest challenge is access to potential witnesses and victims/survivors. It is becoming increasingly difficult to reach those for whom the Project was created. There are various reasons for this.

I had the impression, especially when the full-scale war broke out, that Ukrainians were more likely to share information about war crimes and damage caused, believing in the world’s help in bringing justice. Recently, our volunteers have been hearing more and more often from people in Ukrainian towns and villages that they will provide information, but first they need other support like food or weapons. I absolutely understand the need to survive; on the other hand it is sad that these people seem to believe less in justice.

In order to convince the unconvinced of our project, we organise webinars where we talk about the legal and social aspects of the war, about reparative justice and its healing role, about the centrality of victims in the Rome Statute system. We are noticing a growing interest among Ukrainians in these topics and this makes me personally gives me hope that this is the right direction.

Another equally important challenge is fundraising. The wave of generous worldwide donations aimed at supporting Ukraine and Ukrainians has passed. We feel it very much. Sunflowers was established a few days after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Although many entities and individuals wanted to make donations, we could not accept them because the project was a private initiative. It was only when the Sunflowers Foundation was registered that we were able to open a bank account and start fundraising. Unfortunately, those who had pledged contributions a year earlier had spent this money on other projects.

At this stage, we do not yet have the tools to provide the competent authorities with access to the information collected. Such tools, for which the idea is already there, have to be developed and therefore paid for. The Project Sunflowers is mainly an IT project. I want to emphasise that everything we have done so far within the Project has been based on the pro bono work of its initiators. 

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists