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“Look for cables at your feet”: In Ukraine, investigators search for evidence of war crimes

JTo get to the crime scene, police investigators drove about 30 minutes northeast of downtown Kharkiv – ruined neighborhoods, destroyed Russian military vehicles, a field littered with blast craters and plumes of black smoke rising a few miles away, where fighting between Ukrainian and Russian military continued.

The Ukrainians had expelled Russian forces from the town of Tsyrkuny, less than 20 miles from the Russian border, just three days earlier – part of a Ukrainian counteroffensive that reclaimed a significant chunk of territory in the Kharkiv region this month.

Now police investigators were eager to visit the village, where they had a report of two civilian bodies lying at the side of a dirt road. The women had been killed by a Russian landmine weeks earlier, police said. And just as forensic pathologists would travel to the site of a murder before the war to collect evidence, they had to do the same here in their quest to gather evidence of potential Russian war crimes.

The catch: The area was still covered in booby traps and tripwires set on landmines, and the Russian military positions were close enough that a reconnaissance drone could fly by at any time and make anyone working on the ground a target of artillery bombardment.

All of this underscored a new reality for Kharkiv and other parts of eastern Ukraine, where the war with Russia is now concentrated. Even places where the Ukrainian military has made recent gains remain perilous and largely uninhabitable. Clearing them of deadly mines is a laborious process – and there’s no guarantee that the Russians won’t have regrouped for another offensive here by the time it’s over.

“We have to understand that the Kharkiv region will never be the same as before,” said Oleh Synyehubov, the region’s governor.

Without touching the bodies, they took pictures, observing that the women were wearing casual clothes and had no bags with them. They were probably out for a walk

“To push them to the borders of the Kharkiv region, of course, we will try to do that, but it will be extremely difficult. Why? Because then they will fire at our troops from their territory,” he said. “Right now, we are defending ourselves on our territory. But that would be another story – that would mean attacking Russian territory.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, estimated that the Ukrainian counteroffensive north of Kharkiv may have closed within seven miles of the Russian border and “will likely continue to divert Russian troops and resources from deployment to other axes”. in advance where the fighting was similarly stalled by the successful Ukrainian defence”.

Analysts added that the Russians are “unlikely to launch operations to retake the northeastern outskirts of Kharkiv liberated by Ukrainian forces in the near future.” They said it was partly because the Russians allegedly destroyed three bridges as part of their retreat, something armies only do when they decide they won’t try to cross the other way anytime soon. .

Members of the Kharkiv police forensic unit examine the women’s bodies

(Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

Synyehubov is less optimistic. He does not expect Russia to withdraw its troops entirely, as it has done in the suburbs around kyiv and in the Chernihiv region to the north. If so, he said, it would allow Ukraine to send more forces to Izyum, a strategically important town on the southeastern edge of Kharkiv that the Russians must capture if they plan to to encircle the Ukrainian army in the eastern region of Donbass.

He urged residents not to try to return to their homes in Russian-occupied villages until recently.

In Tsyrkuny, the army did not even let the police in until Tuesday. Before leaving for the village, Serhii Bolvinov, the head of the Kharkiv police investigation department, warned his investigators and forensic doctors: “Don’t step on the grass.

The women were likely out for a walk when they hit a tripwire, investigators said.

(Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

“Look for cables at your feet – and higher too,” Bolvinov continued, addressing his investigators and accompanying reporters. “Look for them in all directions. And be very careful.

Imagine an episode of ITUC – and there is also a war. The police had a rough idea of ​​where the bodies were, but just reaching them took hours as the sappers – technicians who clear mines – made sure the path was safe. The bangs of incoming artillery echoed closer and closer, and one soldier warned investigators to move to a less exposed location – except the only place to go was in the forest, where there was the danger of hidden explosives.

While the demining team was still carefully moving the search rods through the grass and driving them into the ground, Oleksandr Sahno passed by. He had spent almost every night in a neighbor’s basement during the Russian occupation. Now he hoped to finally find his son in the city and was on his way to a meeting point.

Members of the Kharkiv police forensic unit visit a crime scene near Tsyrkuny

(Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

The police asked him to stay near their car until they finished work; they couldn’t risk him running into Russian soldiers on the way and revealing their positions. Sahno reluctantly agreed.

The scariest part of life under occupation, he said, was the last three days, when Ukrainian forces closed in and firefights broke out in the village. Sahno was then working in his potato garden and an artillery shell landed only 150 feet away. He clumsily ran for safety when the roof of a house on his street collapsed in front of him.

“I never doubted our guys would come,” he said. “If anything, I didn’t think it would take this long.”

Criminologist Oleksandr Bogdanov, left, and Bogdan Burgelo, head of the forensic support service, prepare the scene where the women were found

(Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

After nearly two hours, a safe path had been created for forensic investigators to collect evidence around the corpses. Without touching the bodies, they took pictures, observing that the women were wearing casual clothes and had no bags with them. They were probably out for a walk when they hit a tripwire attached to an anti-personnel mine.

The back of a woman’s head had been completely blown off and her face was charred and mutilated. The bodies of two dogs were also discovered; they could have triggered a different mine later.

The bodies of the two women, who police say had been killed by a Russian landmine weeks earlier

(Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

Placing numbered yellow markers, the police took pictures of the fragments of the two landmines they found, a MON-50 and a POM-2. They bundled up the parts and some wires to eventually hand them over to the Ukrainian security service – evidence for future war crimes cases. Weapons can be used to identify who committed the crimes, as can any DNA traces on them.

Andrii Sharnin, deputy head of the Kharkiv police investigation department, said Ukraine regularly creates a database of Russian soldiers’ DNA – either through the Russian corpses the country has recovered or the troops he captured.

“Eventually – whether in two days or in two years – we will be able to determine the specific person who planted this mine,” Sharnin said.

Nervous about how long they had already been at the site, investigators hastily packed the evidence into their van and sped back to town. Oleksandr Bogdanov turned on his phone for the first time in hours. He had been the closest to examining the bodies – not that his mother needed to know the dangerous places her work took her these days.

“Sorry, I didn’t have a good serve in the bunker,” he told her on a call. “We just did some paperwork here.”

Wojciech Grzedzinski and Sergii Mukaieliants of The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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