The investigator tells how he hunts the ground for evidence of war crimes

Massacres of civilians, bombings of schools and hospitals, rapes, kidnappings … Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russia has been accused of war crimes by many countries, the media and voluntary organizations. The latest condemnation comes after the Russian army withdrew and found the bodies of a large number of civilians in the town of Bautcha, near Q.

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According to the mayor of this commune, at least 280 people were buried in mass graves by Ukrainians, but Russia categorically denies these allegations. Observers have been investigating the ground since the beginning of the conflict in an attempt to gather evidence and establish responsibilities. Jonathan Betnold, a researcher in the Crisis and Conflict Unit of Human Rights Watch, traveled to Ukraine in early March. He worked especially in Lviv, Mariupol and Chernihiv.

FranceInfo: What is the role of the crisis analyst at Human Rights Watch?

Jonathan Bednold: My work Documents the behavior of actors in a conflict, in this case allegations of war crimes against Russia in Ukraine. I trained in investigation methods, ethical issues, witness identification, digital evidence collection, image verification or satellite analysis.

I left for Ukraine in early March with three members of Human Rights Watch. Initially, the front line was very active and there was a lot of uncertainty about the evolution of the conflict. Where we can go is a logistics and security headache. That too was very cold, and it has been a long time since I worked in a conflict that is so cold.

“As always, we’re ready for any event. We have bulletproof vests, satellite phones, a driver, a translator … we liaise with our office and local NGOs.”

Jonathan Betnold, researcher at Human Rights Watch

at franceinfo

We were working simultaneously on several charges, including the use of cluster munitions in Kharkiv and the shelling of public buildings in Mariupol. We met people who took refuge in the basement of this city and lived in horrible conditions who were forced to melt the abominable ice. This was the beginning of the war, and the people were shocked. Many did not experience the bombings and sought to reach the country’s west or Europe.

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What are your main sources and how do you verify your information?

We act on information received from the media, witnesses at the scene, and other NGOs. For example, if we receive a video of an explosion, we will return to the relevant neighborhood. We try to locate residents, check if they were in the area at the time of the incident and ask them questions to find out what they saw or did not see. Often, they are asked to establish a timeline to see if it is reliable.

We do not call for testimonies, we try to be prudent on the ground, because in any armed conflict, a lot of campaigns, political actors try to direct our research to their interests. That too is to protect us.

“We use the ‘domino method’. The person we meet makes us interact with others and so on.”

Jonathan Betnold, researcher at Human Rights Watch

at franceinfo

To properly define the legitimacy or illegality of the acts committed, specific questions are asked: Was there a military target in the area? What kind of weapons were used? Were there factories nearby? If there are photos, videos, we ask people to identify as many clues as possible. It is very difficult to verify certain types of crimes such as rape, and we mainly rely on witness statements. And this is a witness, which in our last report helped to identify multiple rapes on a woman over and over again.

Since we can not do everything remotely, Human Rights Watch has a laboratory of researchers who check and verify information using online tools. Open source. We can send them photos or videos that they check with satellite images, maps, and their knowledge of weapons. We have been working with other colleagues who have traveled to the borders of Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Moldova, to talk to refugees who have seen things firsthand.

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What will your inquiries be used for later?

We do not work for jurisdictions or states, but our work may be used by different courts in their own hearings. Our primary purpose is to argue, to warn the public in the hope of changing the course of things, and to point to each other’s responsibilities. Since the beginning of the war, we have successfully documented the cluster bombs in Kharkiv, the illegal attacks on civilians in Mariupol and Chernihiv, the hospital bombings, the rapes and the Russian military abuse.

The information we collect is primarily for human rights monitoring. We have all the evidence. Some of our investigators were called as witnesses during the trial or some of our witnesses were called in, but we do everything we can to ensure their confidentiality and safety. I have been working in a conflict area since I was 17 years old. I developed the habit of taking risks as befits labor. I will never be exposed or affected like the public I meet.

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