Ukraine: From Traffic Accidents to War Crimes
How regional police department had to pivot to deal with influx of with some 10,000 cases.
Serhii Bolvinov, 41, was appointed chief investigator of the National Police of the Kharkiv region just two months before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. Here, he tells IWPR’s Tetyana Dotsyak how a regional police team was forced to create a fully fledged war crimes investigation department.
IWPR: How does your unit now work?
With the war, our investigators began to perform an unusual task - war crimes' investigations. Before that, this came under the jurisdiction of the Security Service of Ukraine. The investigation department has departments for finance, traffic accidents, serious crimes, detectives, and they all started working on war crimes, because there were a huge number of them - now about 10,000. Then a specialised department for the investigation of war crimes was created. It should have 21 investigators, but it is not yet 100 per cent formed, there are 16.
Some have already completed training, including abroad and are assigned to go to Poland, where they attend lectures and study materials on war crimes investigations. They study in person and online. They are taught by experts from the UK, those who investigated crimes in hot spots, for example, in [the former] Yugoslavia, and investigators of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Serhii Bolvinov: After the Ukrainian counteroffensive, many graves - the largest containing about 450 bodies - were found in the Izyum forest. Why was it necessary to exhume them?
This is necessary so that relatives can properly bury the deceased. During the occupation, the fact of death wasn't legally confirmed - from what did this person die, did he die naturally or was he killed by the Russians? This requires expertise. In Izyum, there were only numbers on crosses, no names or surnames. Those locals who had buried [bodies], had been writing a list, but how reliable was the data? There were very many "person not identified" entries, just "male" or "female".
For example, grave number 319 from the mass burial site in Izyum [was that of well-known children’s writer] Volodymyr Vakulenko, who was kidnapped by the Russians, thrown into a car marked with the letter Z. He only managed to shout. "Glory to Ukraine!" They kept him in a pit, then he was found murdered near the road, where he had been lying for a month. Volodymyr, like almost everyone else, was buried without a coffin, the body was badly mutilated. The DNA from Volodymyr's body matched that of his father's, so the body was released for a proper burial.
During investigation, we found that he was shot - two 9 mm caliber bullets were found in his remains. This is an example of how important it is to conduct all the necessary examinations. The physical evidence that we recover from the body, the identification, and the investigation are all parts of identifying the killer.
We’re working with witnesses who saw how [Vakulenko] was forcibly taken from the house, there’s information about where he was kept, about the soldiers of the Russian army involved in the kidnapping, and bullets. In time, we will identify the killer.
How is the identity of a body determined?
Let's take the city of Izyum. Each victim we exhumed is a separate component of the crime of murder. For each [body], we assign a molecular genetic examination - we select the DNA profile of the deceased and we place the result in the database of the ministry of internal affairs. Relatives provide their DNA profiles, we take saliva and send it for examination. Their DNA profile is automatically compared with those in the database. If there is a match, we give the body to relatives for a proper burial. We try to do it as quickly as possible, but we have no right to make a mistake - to give the wrong body, to mix it up.
Every week we release more than ten bodies for reburial. We use modern mobile DNA laboratories, which… give results very quickly - in 106 minutes. The [operators] wear sterile gloves, suits and masks, so that extraneous DNA doesn't get into it, it's necessary to technically select the sample, place it in the chip, and if everything is done correctly, the machine automatically issues a conclusion.
About ten mobile forensic laboratories worked with us every day. Specialists from Kyiv, from the main investigation department of the National Police came to help who had experience working in Irpin and Bucha. Investigators from other regions were also sent to help.
How do you gather further information as part of the investigation?
The task is to record the places the Russian military stayed - these are schools, village councils, and police stations… for us it is a crime scene. [We] seized documents left by the Russians, saw their callsigns, mobile phones, award letters, maps of minefields and even found secret documents… took fingerprints, objects on which there may be traces of DNA - vodka bottles, mugs, instruments of torture. We know who exactly was in this place - name, surname, photo. We are forming the war criminal database, which is part of the ministry of internal affairs. We created the War Crimes in the Kharkiv Region Telegram channel and post photos there. If a person was injured or is a witness, he writes in the comments and we contact him.
Active operational units are listening to the phones of the Russian military, this is direct evidence of their whereabouts. Sometimes they talk about their crimes on the phone, we record it and there are cases when we managed to identify the murderers.
What was the scale of death and destruction you have recorded over the past year?
During the first year of the war, 1,780 civilians were killed, including 74 children. These are terrible numbers.
More than 11,000 damaged or destroyed residential buildings, 330 schools and more than 250 kindergartens, 26 shelling of buildings of state-owned enterprises, as well as 41 energy supply facilities were recorded.
This is the tactic of a terrorist country, which Russia is. They attack civilian infrastructure objects - there are no soldiers there. We register criminal proceedings with the preliminary qualification of the violation of the laws and customs of war. Both Ukrainian and international legislation, such as the Geneva Conventions, prohibit striking civilian infrastructure objects during war.
What weapons were used against the residents of the Kharkiv region?
We recorded air bomb attacks, both FAB-250 and FAB-500. The rotorcrafts fired unguided aircraft missiles. Missile systems of volley fire - Grad, the Tornado-G modification, the Hurricanes, which carry 40 cluster munitions - are banned [in civilian areas] throughout the civilised world. Smerch, including its Tornado-S modification, which carries 72 cluster ammunition. In particular, the Kharkiv Opera House was shelled by them - the tail part of the projectile was found. They are designed to strike infantry, and what would infantry be doing in the centre of the city? There was 125 mm shelling by tanks - when such a projectile hit a house, it destroyed it almost completely. Mortars of 80 mm, 120 mm, 240 mm calibre. We recorded hypersonic missiles. Everyone knows the S-300 type missiles, which the Russians converted from air defence and used to cause huge destruction. Kh-59, Kh-101, Iskander missiles were also recorded. And, of course, drones, which the Russians disguise as under the name Geran-2, people call them shaheds.
[To identify missiles] we inspect the place with a metal detector, with magnets, and explosives technicians collect weapon fragments. There are inscriptions on some parts, bomb technicians then give conclusions about the type of weapon or ammunition.
How many torture chambers were found in the de-occupied territories?
We have identified 27 places where the Russian military held civilians, tortured them, and killed some of them. A large number of people were kept in inhumane conditions. They beat [prisoners] with sticks, electrocuted, gas masks were used [to suffocate them], they were given bad food. They took the [people] to the toilet only once a day, with a bag over their head. People could be grabbed on the street and thrown into a bunker… the FSB, Chechens, units of the Russian Guard, the riot police were particularly brutal. We have information about the facts of rape, but there are not always victims [to interview] - they could have been killed and we may have some scary discoveries ahead of us.
As investigators, we become professionals, under tragic circumstances.