April 2, 2023
The Globe and Mail
It has been a year since the world first saw the bloated bodies in the streets and heard the testimonies of people who had survived the systematic torture, rapes and executions that took place during the month-long Russian occupation of the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Ukrainian authorities quickly declared it a “new Srebrenica.”
Since then, countless other horrors of Russia’s war against Ukraine have come to light. Large, freshly dug gravesites and torture chambers have been repeatedly discovered in liberated areas. Apartment blocks, shopping malls and train stations with no apparent military purpose have been struck by Russian cruise missiles. On March 17, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin over his alleged role in the organized deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
But Bucha still resonates as the moment the world was awakened to the scale of the transgressions being committed against Ukrainian civilians in this war. Dozens of victims were found together in basements that appear to have been used as execution rooms, many with their hands tied behind their backs. Twenty of the dead were found along one stretch of the city’s main road, Yablunska Street – some in cars, some on foot, one on a bicycle – where they had apparently been left for weeks, decomposing in the open air, when Ukrainian troops and international media first entered the liberated city.
The scale of what occurred in Bucha has led to calls for more ICC arrest warrants – and for the massacre to be recognized as Europe’s first genocide since 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were executed by a Serb militia in the town of Srebrenica in 1995.
Payam Akhavan, a Canadian human-rights lawyer who advises the ICC prosecutor’s office on issues of genocide, called Bucha “a microcosm” of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. “It’s about destroying the Ukrainian people. It’s about, at the very least, destroying their identity, destroying their existence, not just as a sovereign state but as a nation. And part of the debate was, ‘At what point does this cross the boundary into genocidal violence?’” he said Friday after participating in a conference in Bucha on issues of international justice and accountability.
Mr. Akhavan, a senior fellow at Massey College at the University of Toronto, cautioned against focusing too much on the term genocide – which requires prosecutors to prove a specific intent – when “there’s clear evidence of crimes against humanity, which is defined as widespread or systematic attack against the civilian population.”
However, he said Bucha may eventually be treated as an example of a localized genocide, much as Srebrenica was found to be the sole incidence of provable genocide committed during the Bosnian War of the 1990s. “It is conceivable that one could have a similar approach to the extermination of the civilian population here in Bucha,” he said. “But just because an act is not genocide doesn’t mean that the perpetrators are not culpable for other crimes.”
Bucha – once a leafy community of 37,000 that was popular with middle-class professionals – was a scene of angry mourning Friday. There were demands for justice at an anniversary ceremony led by President Volodymyr Zelensky during which the Ukrainian flag was symbolically raised over the city and medals were handed out to soldiers who had taken part in its liberation. “When Bucha was de-occupied, we saw that the devil was not somewhere out there but on the ground. The heinous truth about what was happening in the temporarily occupied territories was revealed to the world,” Mr. Zelensky said at the ceremony, which was attended by the President of Moldova, as well as the prime ministers of Croatia, Slovenia and Slovakia. “We will never forget the victims of this war, and we will certainly bring all Russian murderers to justice,” Mr. Zelensky wrote on social media. “We will never forgive. We will punish every perpetrator.”
Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General, Andrii Kostin, said Friday that he had evidence of 9,000 Russian war crimes committed in Bucha and the surrounding area. He said more than 1,400 civilians, including 37 children, had been killed during Russia’s 33-day occupation of the region. Mr. Zelensky said 175 bodies had been found either in mass graves or torture chambers.
Ukraine has started legal proceedings against 100 Russian soldiers, including the colonel-general who allegedly oversaw the temporary Russian occupation of parts of the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy regions. Mr. Kostin didn’t name the colonel-general, and it wasn’t clear from his statement whether the suspect was in custody, but Colonel Azatbek Omurbekov has been dubbed the “Butcher of Bucha” for his role in the massacre.
Col. Omurbekov and his unit, the 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, have been targeted for sanctions by Canada, the United States and the European Union. Meanwhile, in July, Mr. Putin named him a Hero of the Russian Federation.
The Kremlin has dismissed the ICC warrant for Mr. Putin’s arrest as “outrageous and unacceptable” and vowed to ignore the court. Russia has also falsely claimed that the well-documented massacre in Bucha was either faked or carried out by Ukrainian forces.
ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan called all of Ukraine “a crime scene” during a visit to Bucha shortly after its liberation last year. An investigation by Human Rights Watch found evidence of “a litany of apparent war crimes” committed specifically in Bucha.
The warrant for Mr. Putin’s arrest is specifically connected to the deportation of “at least hundreds” of Ukrainian children who were taken from Russian-occupied areas and put up for adoption in Russia. A warrant was also issued for the arrest of Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights.
Mr. Akhavan called the large-scale abduction of Ukrainian children one of the most “disturbing” things he’s seen in more than 30 years as a human-rights lawyer. But he said the arrest warrants demonstrate that perpetrators are starting to be held to account. “I think that it was very valuable to achieve this quick result through the arrest warrants in order to give the victims a sense that justice is unfolding – at the very least it has begun – even though there is still a long way ahead,” he said.
And while it seems unlikely that Mr. Putin – the President of a country that flouts the ICC while wielding a massive nuclear arsenal and veto power at the United Nations Security Council – will ever personally face justice for the war he launched, Mr. Akhavan said history has proven that “someone who’s in power today may not be in power tomorrow.” “I joined the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at a time when Slobodan Milosevic was the untouchable president of the Republic of Serbia, when Radovan Karadzic was the president of the Bosnian Serb Republic and the so-called ‘Butcher of Bosnia,’ Ratko Mladic, was defiant and ridiculing this court in The Hague,” he said. “It was unthinkable at that time that any of them would be brought to justice. Yet all of them ended up in the defendant’s stand in The Hague.”
Mark Mackinnon is the Senior International Correspondent for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and a seven-time winner of the National Newspaper Award, Canada’s top reporting prize. Author of The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union (Published 2007 by Random House Canada and Carroll & Graf) and The China Diaries e-book (2013).