Killing of civilians, bombing of schools and hospitals, rape and kidnapping… Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russia has been accused by many countries, media and NGOs of committing war crimes. The latest condemnation relates to the discovery of a large number of civilian bodies in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, after the departure of the Russian army.
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According to the mayor of this municipality, Ukrainians buried at least 280 people in mass graves, but Russia categorically rejects these accusations. In an effort to gather evidence and establish responsibilities, monitors have been investigating on the ground since the beginning of the conflict. Human Rights Watch Crisis and Conflict Researcher Jonathan Bedno went to Ukraine at the beginning of March. Especially he worked in Lviv, Mariupol and Chernihiv.
France Info: What is the work of the crisis researcher at Human Rights Watch?
Jonathan Bedno: my mission Consists of documenting the behavior of conflict actors, in this case accusations of war crimes against Russia in Ukraine. She has been trained in investigative methods, ethical issues, witness identification, digital evidence collection, image verification or satellite analysis.
I left for Ukraine in early March with three other people from Human Rights Watch. At first, the front line was very dynamic and there was a lot of uncertainty about the development of the conflict. It was a logistical and security headache figuring out where to go. It was very cold too, its been a long time since I worked on a dispute where it was very cold.
“As always, we arrive prepared for any eventuality. We have flak jackets, satellite phones, a driver, an interpreter… We keep in touch with our office and local NGOs.”Jonathan Bedno, researcher at Human Rights Watch
We were working on several charges at the same time, including the use of cluster bombs in Kharkiv and the bombing of civilian buildings in Mariupol. We met people who had taken refuge in cellars in this city and lived in appalling conditions, forced to melt snow to drink. It was the beginning of the war, people were in shock. Many had never witnessed the bombing and were trying to reach the west of the country or Europe.
What are your main sources and how can you verify your information?
We work on the basis of information we receive from the media, from witnesses on the spot, from other NGOs. For example, when we receive a bombing video, we go back to the respective neighborhood. We try to find the residents, ask them questions to check if they were in the area at the time of the accident, to find out what they saw and what they didn’t see. Oftentimes, they are asked to create a chronology, to see if that is credible.
We do not advocate testimonies, we try to be careful on the ground because, as in any armed conflict, there are a lot of propaganda and political actors trying to direct our research in their interests. It is also to protect us.
“We use the ‘domino method.’ The person we meet puts us in touch with other people and so on.”Jonathan Bedno, researcher at Human Rights Watch
To correctly determine the legality or illegality of the actions committed, specific questions are asked: Was there a military target in the area? What type of weapons are used? Were there factories nearby? We ask people if they have photos and videos to identify as many clues as possible. Certain types of crimes, such as rape, are difficult to verify, and we rely primarily on witness statements. Moreover, it is a testimony that allowed us to identify several cases of repeated rape of a woman, in our last report.
Since we can’t do everything remotely, Human Rights Watch has a lab of analysts who verifies and verifies information using online tools. open source. We can send them pictures or videos to check satellite images, maps and their knowledge of weapons… They’re really overwhelmed right now. We are also working with our other colleagues who have traveled to the borders of Ukraine, to the Czech Republic, to Moldova, to speak to refugees who have allegedly seen things.
What will you use your investigations next?
We do not operate in jurisdictions or countries, but our work may be used by different courts in their own investigations. Our primary goal is to defend and alert public opinion with the hope of changing the course of things, and clarifying each other’s responsibilities. Since the beginning of the war, we have successfully documented the use of cluster bombs in Kharkiv, unlawful attacks on civilians in Mariupol and Chernihiv, bombings of hospitals, rape, and Russian military abuses.
The information we collect belongs to Human Rights Watch. We keep all evidence. It has happened that some of our researchers have been called as witnesses during trials, or some of our witnesses have been called, but we do everything we can to ensure their confidentiality and protection. I have been working in a conflict zone since I was 17 years old. I’m used to taking risks because the work is worth it. I will never be as affected or affected as the civilian population I meet.