The smell of a body that has been left to rot is one that you never forget. It is foul and cloying and horrifically sweet; one of those scents that seems sticky, to cling to your nose and your clothes so that you catch wisps of it long after you have left the dead behind. In Bucha, Ukraine, reporters who entered the city when the Russians left spoke of the smell, a tiny detail that hinted at the truth of what had happened there: in cold conditions, the smell would not be present after just a few days. It meant that the bodies of executed villagers had laid where they were killed for days.
The Russian government claims that the bodies are fresh. Over the past week, since reports of bodies with bound hands and mass graves began to filter out of Kyiv suburbs and isolated towns that were previously under Russian control, the Russian government has insisted that the atrocities there were not committed on their watch or by their soldiers, suggesting instead that Ukrainian troops committed them as they retook the city. Bucha’s survivors tell a different story.
Proving what happened, however, is a complex, almost-impossible task. For many, the first-hand testimony reported by journalists on the scene is enough to come to the easy conclusion: that Russian troops committed unspeakable horrors in Bucha. But every party involved has their own expectation of proof – and for international organizations ostensibly in charge of extracting justice from the immoral catastrophe of war, proof must be obtained meticulously and without fault. The wheels of these courts and systems move unbearably slow, and, despite their prominence, they remain vulnerable to denials and outright defiance by the parties responsible.
“The biggest challenge of what we do is attribution,” Brian Castner, a senior crisis advisor and weapons inspector for Amnesty International who recently returned from Ukraine, said. “It’s not a question of whether these people are dead – it’s how did they die, and was their killing lawful or not.”
Castner said his team often conducts dozens of interviews with survivors in order to assemble evidence for even a single case or incident. They take particular pains to preserve evidence and the chain of custody – something he worries that the scores of journalists now working in Bucha and other cities will not do. Castner has worked as a journalist; he says the standard of proof is much, much higher in official investigations (“You do it faster, we do it better,” he told me). Sometimes this standard is almost absurdly high: on a recent trip to Ukraine, Castner described speaking to a man who had been wounded by shrapnel from a suspected cluster munition. Castner, a former Explosives Ordinance Disposal technician in the U.S. military, waited until surgeons had removed the shrapnel from the man’s body, then photographed it to an evidentiary standard, all to confirm that in that specific case, cluster munitions had been used.
Even then, his work only serves as extensive hints for an actual investigation – NGO groups like Amnesty and HRW’s investigators turn their evidence over to international organizations like the International Criminal Court, which then conducts its own investigation, the results of which may eventually bring about a trial. Even then, war crimes trials often end in acquittals, as the pitfalls of any court are writ large across the inconsistent, arbitrary and flawed systems that claim to enforce international law.
“The pace of international justice is glacial, and very frustrating – frustrating to people in my job as well,” Castner said. “If I was imagining the trial that was happening every time that I do work, I would get pretty discouraged. I would simply say… it is easy to come to a moral judgment but it can be very difficult to gather enough evidence to come to a legal judgment.”
Governments, including the United States, often abuse this demanding burden of proof when confronted publicly with evidence of their war crimes. Over 20 years in Iraq, Afghanistan, and dozens of other countries, the U.S. government used dozens of justifications, lies, and denials to obfuscate the deliberate or accidental killing of civilians by its troops. The Russian government has been honing its disinformation strategies as well, deflecting blame from their own troops as well as friendly regimes after horrific chemical attacks in Syria, clogging public discourse with aggressive denials and blame-shifting. Their claims that Ukrainian troops inflicted the Bucha massacres on their own people are perfect examples of this disinformation strategy, which the country has used consistently since first invading Ukraine in 2014, forcing journalists and investigators alike to sink time and resources into disproving a shifting, nebulous web of propaganda and conspiracies.
“It’s absolutely infuriating. On a personal level it makes me angry,” Simon Ostrovsky, a special correspondent for PBS News Hour who was part of the first wave of journalists into Bucha earlier this month, says. “It’s not easy to do what we did and what we’ve been doing over the last week – looking at these dead bodies, people who suffered incredibly before they died. And to hear the perpetrators gaslighting the whole world and their own people and not just just denying what they did but laying it at the feet of the victims?”
But when he first arrived in Bucha, on April 3, Ostrovsky himself almost didn’t believe the claims. “I was skeptical initially because [the images online] were so horrific,” Ostrovsky says. “It seemed beyond my comprehension that that was possible.”
As Ostrovsky moved through the city, his skepticism vanished. His team saw several bodies with their hands tied, some in advanced stages of decomposition, some bearing bruises and other wounds consistent with beatings or torture. They interviewed the local funeral director, who told them he knew at least one of the victims personally, and led them behind the local church, where he had dug a mass grave. Ukrainian authorities claim that over 300 civilians were killed in Bucha. The town does not appear to be an anomaly – journalists have reported similar incidents in villages that were under Russian control across the country, and authorities fear that the death toll in some may be much higher than in Bucha.
Despite this shocking trail of violence, whether or not the Russian troops responsible for massacres in Ukraine, let alone the commanders who ordered them, ever face trial for their crimes may depend more on the violent outcome of the war than the painstaking investigations taking place behind the front lines. Investigators need access to people and places affected by war crimes; which the parties responsible rarely grant.
“If you win the war nobody will come and investigate in the territories that you control,” Pierre Mendiharat, the deputy director of operations at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said.
Mendiharat has several teams active in Ukraine, and many members of MSF have observed war crimes committed by various world governments. On April 4, an MSF team came under fire while at a hospital in the Mykolaiv region of Southern Ukraine, and was quick to declare that they believed that they had been shelled by Russian forces, noting that the pattern of destruction could be indicative of cluster munitions. “We always try to publicly share when we are firsthand witnesses of such events,” Mendiharat said. “We always say what we believe to be true, and describe precisely what we are seeing.”
The pattern of constant denial is something Mendiharat said his teams observed in Syria as well, when healthcare facilities were deliberately targeted by the Russian and Syrian regimes. Mendiharat said he is not sure whether or not the Russians have established a pattern of deliberate targeting of hospitals yet in Ukraine, only offering what his team observed earlier in the month. In conflicts over the past decades, Mendiharat’s teams have witnessed bombings or attacks at healthcare sites in dozens of conflicts, including by troops from the U.S., Russia, Syria, Libya, and many non-state armed groups. Rarely, if ever, have they seen justice.
“Until now this ‘international justice’ has been the justice of the winners,” Mendiharat said. “If we want justice, we want justice for all the wars, not only when it applies to certain countries. In this case [that’s] not really justice – it’s more looking like revenge.”
In Ukraine, it may be a long wait for either justice or revenge – and there may be more victims than it is possible for investigators to count. The death toll of any war is never precise; we are always left with estimates and disputed figures. In Bucha, Ostrovsky said, “there were just so many bodies about that nobody could really know about all of them.” Each garden was a new potential crime scene. A few days later, he saw the same thing in the town of Borodyanka, a village 15 miles or so west of Bucha. Many of the dead there were killed by artillery shelling, but in a back garden, they found another corpse with its hands tied. A cloth bag was wrapped around its head; inside it was a mess. “There was no way of telling how he had died – whether he’d been shot or beaten to death with butt of a rifle – but it was clear that he was a detainee,” Ostrovsky said. Ostrovsky watched the police lift the body off the grass, stepping back in case the Russians had placed a mine underneath. Instead, all that was left behind was a patch of yellowed grass, in the outline of a man who died there. “The rest of the grass around him was green,” Ostrovsky said. “You know he’d been laying there for quite some time.”