Nearly twenty years ago, French priest Patrick Desbois identified the sites used to exterminate Jews in Eastern Europe during World War II. After doing similar work with Yazidi victims of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he decided to collect testimonies from victims of the current war in Ukraine.
At the head of the Yahad Society in Onum, the French priest Patrick Desbois has been documenting for nearly twenty years the crimes committed by the Nazis against Jews in Eastern Europe during World War II. He investigates with his team the grandson of one of the deportees in mass executions. He also accompanied Yazidis who were victims of ISIS violations in Iraq and Syria.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Father Desboa decided to release a collection of testimonies about this conflict. The director of the Academic Board of the Babi Yar Memorial in Kyiv – a site containing the remains of nearly 34,000 Jews massacred in 1941 when the city was under Nazi occupation – began interviewing the victims of the war in Ukraine. With the help of brokers in the field, he was able to record these interviews using a video conferencing app.
France 24: Why did you decide to release this collection of testimonies about the current war in Ukraine? ?
Patrick Desbois : When war broke out in Ukraine, one of my close friends, Ruslan Kavatsyuk, deputy director of the Babi Yar memorial, told me this terrible sentence: “Patrick, you are coming back for our mass graves.” I didn’t really think it would be there. But when we began to see massacres of civilians without any military motive, it seemed obvious to me to do this work of compilation. If I don’t, who will? We have been working in Ukraine for twenty years. In all, 8000 people from the former Soviet Union who witnessed the Holocaust were interviewed. We know a lot of people, villages, and terrain.
Father Patrick Desbois begins investigation of crimes committed by the Russian Federation in #Ukraine.
Babin Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (babynyarhmc) 25 March 2022
How do you collect these certificates? ?
We are a team of four people here in Western Europe and we have a team of dozens of brokers on site. One of them is in Irvine looking for witnesses. He knows a lot of people and introduces us. We also feel the urgency to do so. Witnesses can disperse quickly.
People agree to speak frankly, to approximate and give their true identity. It surprised me. Whatever damage they do, they want to stay in and defend their country. In all the surveys I’ve done, I’ve never seen this one before. I think of the testimony of an injured woman who was in the hospital. She lost a part of her family while driving. She almost cried during the interview, but when it was over, she said, “As soon as I get better, I’ll get my life back and help people.” I couldn’t believe it. There really is a spirit of resistance.
How has the work you’ve already done on mass crime helped you ?
In Iraq, we photographed 450 Yazidis who had just left ISIS and were trying to identify their rapists or killers. Without these previous surveys, we wouldn’t be able to do this work today. We know how to handle these types of interviews. I think of a woman who was driving with her three-year-old son in her lap. She told us that she immediately understood that a bullet had entered her child’s body. He was asked many details about the color of the vehicle, and whether it could have been mistaken for a military vehicle or even the exact location of the attack. It was necessary to be able to locate it on an interactive map and see if there were any military targets in this area because obviously the Russians would say it was collateral damage and that there were no attacks on civilians.
This repeated denial of the Russians particularly astonishes me. When they bombed a maternity hospital, as in Mariupol, they said that it was no longer a maternity hospital and there were no pregnant women. They deny the crime as soon as it is exposed. As for the bodies that were found in the town of Butch, they say that they were laid there, that they did not die and that the bodies were moving. Historically, I’ve never seen this before. When a crime is discovered, they deny it the same day in detail. As if in Oradour-sur-Glane, on the same day, the Germans said: “No, it was the resistance fighters who shot the residents. We didn’t kill anyone.”
This rapid denial is explained by the acceleration of social media and the fact that the war led by Putin is backed by unimaginable propaganda. Any gaps in advertising must be filled in immediately. I also think that after the announcement of an investigation by the International Criminal Court or a ruling in France or Germany, the Russians know that legal action will be taken. They seek immediate protection. The testimonies we collect will be evidence of these investigations.
I remember Kherson, its rabbi, its synagogue, and its help for the poor.
I remember shooting at the mass graves of Jews. And my heart is with you. He announced that Kherson had fallen. Putin did not liberate Kherson, but exterminated it. pic.twitter.com/oGdmjjMtWY
– Patrick Desbois (@desbois_patrick) March 3, 2022
How did I feel when I found out about the pictures of the violations committed in the town of Bucha ?
It made me think of the streets of Kigali. We knew that crimes were committed in Ukraine, but until then we did not know that the Russians shot people en masse and that they used the method of mass graves. By broadcasting these images, we show the Russian authorities that they are under our very eyes. We tell them: “We know you kill civilians, we know you rape women, we know you loot apartments. The whole planet is watching you and you will be judged. Your denial will not stand.” In spite of everything, I’m afraid that the Russians will think that they have made a mistake in Bucha and that they have now decided to hide the evidence, as happened so often during the Second World War. They know that their victims and their crimes are being exposed and can decide to issue orders to that effect.
Are there also similarities with the testimonies you collected about World War II ?
People who wash their heads with propaganda turn out to be criminals, with rapes, robberies and murders. I’ve seen this many times in villages hit by the Germans. Supposedly they came with “the purity of the race” and said they only eliminate “a sub-race”. But when we saw them on the ground, they raped women, massacred families and looted apartments. There is no pure crime, it does not exist. To see that today, someone has managed to launch an ideology that thus mobilizes the population and the army and that this propaganda continues to operate, it is almost unrealistic. People think that humanity has advanced in these questions, but the degree of freedom of conscience is clearly very fragile.
It is almost inconceivable that such crimes, committed in public, would reach almost the borders of Europe, two and a half hours by plane from Paris. Everyone rages at the sight of Bocha, but I wonder what it will be like when Mariupol is liberated? Much larger massacres are expected. There will be Boutcha everywhere.