Rescue workers and forensic police exhume bodies from unidentified makeshift graves at the Pishanske cemetery on September 21, 2022 in Izium, Ukraine. The bodies will be examined by forensic officials for possible war crimes.
Rescue workers and forensic police exhume bodies from unidentified makeshift graves at the Pishanske cemetery on September 21, 2022 in Izium, Ukraine. The bodies will be examined by forensic officials for possible war crimes. © Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies

Project aims to help conflict journalists meet evidential standards that will allow their work to support future justice processes.  

Tuesday, 24 January, 2023

The Reckoning Project’s Ukrainian researchers have collected nearly 150 witness testimonies across the country, publishing a series of stories in high-profile international media outlets while also collecting potential war crimes testimony in a legally admissible format. 

The project aims to help conflict journalists meet legal evidential standards that will allow their work to be used to support future war crimes investigations.  

The team, made up of Ukrainian journalists, filmmakers and human rights researchers, has examined attacks directed at civilian populations, including the shelling of evacuation convoys and civil infrastructure. Other stories have focused on the deportation or forcible transfer of civilians from the occupied territories and the persecution of pro-Ukraine civilians and local authorities. 

While some research has been archived for future use to support legal redress, others have been written up and shared to bring public awareness to what is happening on the ground in Ukraine. 

“Journalists know how to work in difficult conditions, and they already have strong interviewing skills,” said project director Janine di Giovanni. “Our team are trained in international humanitarian law and trauma management - for themselves and to protect their witnesses -combined with a strict methodology and verification process.

“It also ticks the capacity building box because unlike international efforts at documentation of war crimes, our team on the ground is 100 per cent Ukrainian,” she continued. “It's their country, their justice.”

The team has published articles detailing experiences and highlighting the stories of people impacted by the war. 

For Germany’s Die Zeit, Nataliya Gumenyuk wrote about a man held prisoner and tortured during Russia’s invasion of Izium and detailed the account of a woman searching for her husband and son. 

Gumenyuk also published a story in Rolling Stone about civilian abuse and deaths at the hands of Russians in southern Ukraine, while an account of how Yevhen Mezhevyi underwent filtration at Olenivka prison camp was published in Vanity Fair and provided an in-depth look at how the war has torn families apart. 

Another piece in Vanity Fair by di Giovanni reviewed the work of the project as a response to war crimes committed in Bucha and many other sites throughout Ukraine. In a Foreign Policy article, she explored how Russian atrocities in Ukraine fit a recent pattern, according to Putin’s playbook as seen in Chechnya and Syria.

Other outputs have included a ten-minute film on how three children survived the siege of Mariupol only to be taken to Russia and threatened with forced adoption.

“We harness the power of storytelling with legal accountability.”

In their first round of training in May this year, the team were taught practices for attaining legally admissible evidence, focusing on data collection methods and analysis as well as verification. They also received support from the Dart Centre, a Columbia University project that advocates for ethical and thorough trauma reporting. Their specialists provided training on compassionate and professional treatment of victims, and on the impact of trauma coverage on news consumers and professionals.

Gumenyuk said, “We knew how crucial it was to find techniques which would enable journalists to work with the speakers in a way that they wouldn’t be re-traumatised, a way to communicate ethically and correctly so that the interviews would bring beneficial results and would not hurt those people.”

Project researchers have made field visits to Donbas, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzha, Chernyhyv, Sumy, Krivyy Rig, Chernobyl and many villages across the Kherson, Mykolaiv and Kyiv regions, among others. During these trips, the team documented evidence and witness testimony of the atrocities Ukrainian civilians have experienced. They have identified a pattern of attacks on the civilian population: detention, torture, enforced disappearances, rape and rape attempts, as well as extrajudicial killings and executions. 

Those who conducted these civilian attacks were not met with any disciplinary action by the Russian military, escalating this pattern of civilian targeting. Men are also being targeted without any apparent reason, and are not spared even if they share medical proof that they are not able to be part of the Ukrainian army.

“I feel that we have helped breach a gap between frontline investigative journalists and human rights investigators,” di Giovanni said, adding, “What we do is harness the power of storytelling with legal accountability.”

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