KOROPY, Ukraine — Four men pulled long strips of cloth to lift a coffin from the gaping hole in the backyard of a small house. They threw open the lid and revealed the moldy corpse of Oleksiy Ketler, who was killed instantly by shrapnel in March when a mortar fell onto the road in Koropy, a village outside Khavkiv in northeastern Ukraine.
Mr. Ketler, a father of two young children, would have celebrated his 33rd birthday on June 25 had he not been outside his home at the wrong time. Now his body has become another display in Ukraine’s wide-ranging effort to gather evidence to prosecute Russia and its military for war crimes in the brutal killings of Ukrainian civilians.
Experts say the trial is moving extraordinarily fast and could become the largest effort in history to hold war criminals to account. But it faces a series of formidable challenges.
First, the investigations are conducted as the war rages in the east. As investigators examined Mr. Ketler’s body, the booms of incoming and outgoing shelling thundered nearby. Ukrainian helicopters, most likely bringing new troops to the front line, flew low.
Also, although researchers from inside and outside Ukraine are all gathering evidence, there is little coordination. And despite the influx of experts, “there really aren’t enough people” to investigate, indict and adjudicate the cases, said Andrey Kravchenko, the region’s deputy prosecutor, who was sitting in his office in central Kharkov at the time. the sound of outgoing shelling seemed to be heard. grow closer.
A building that prosecutors had used as an office was hit by missiles in what Mr. Kravchenko thought was a deliberate attack, and now his team often changes headquarters.
The demand for accountability is great.
Ukraine’s justice system is now almost entirely devoted to investigating war crimes, with most of its 8,300 prosecutors scattered across the country to collect evidence, said Yuriy Belousov, Ukraine’s chief war crimes prosecutor.
Ukrainian courts have already handed down six guilty sentences to Russian soldiers. Ukraine’s top prosecutor said last week that nearly 20,000 other cases — containing allegations of torture, rape, execution-type murders and the deportation of what Mr Belousov said could be tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia — were under investigation.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
At the same time, hundreds of international experts, detectives and prosecutors descended on Ukraine from an alphabet soup of international bodies.
At the beginning of the war, the Supreme Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, arrived in Ukraine with several dozen investigators. But the court, which is based in the Netherlands, hears a limited number of cases, usually only trying to prosecute the higher echelon of political and military leaders.
It’s slow, too: Investigators working on the 2008 Russo-Georgian war asked for arrest warrants only this year.
There are also a number of other initiatives. Amal Clooney, an international human rights lawyer, is part of a team advising the Ukrainian government on bringing international legal action against Russia. The United Nations has started a commission to investigate human rights violations in Ukraine – with three human rights experts – but cannot establish a formal tribunal because Russia has veto power in the UN Security Council.
Investigators in Poland are collecting testimonials from refugees who have fled there to feed them to Ukrainian prosecutors. France has sent mobile DNA analysis teams to collect evidence with Ukrainian authorities. Non-governmental organizations in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, are going to areas recently occupied by Russian soldiers to collect witness statements.
The involvement of multiple countries and organizations does not necessarily lead to a more productive investigation, said Wayne Jordash, a British criminal lawyer living in Ukraine. Jordash, who is part of an international task force supporting Ukrainian prosecutors, has been critical of some of the efforts to provide legal assistance to Ukraine, describing it as “smoke and mirrors” with no results and clear priorities.
The International Criminal Court’s investigators were just getting started, he noted, and experts from other countries have been cycling in for weeks, too.
“You can’t just skydive two weeks into an investigation and expect it to make sense,” Mr. Jordash said.
Iva Vukusic, a post-conflict justice scientist at the University of Utrecht, said: “Funds are thrown in, but maybe later we’ll see they weren’t spent properly,” for example, double research efforts instead of providing psychosocial support to victims.
Ms. Vukusic noted the magnitude of the endeavor. Across the country, she said, “there are thousands of potential suspects and thousands of potential lawsuits.” All the material needs to be properly organized and analyzed, she said.
“If you have 100,000 items — videos, statements, documents — if you don’t know what you’re sitting on, it limits the use of material,” said Ms. Vukusic.
She also warned that the International Criminal Court leadership could face criticism for collaborating too closely with Ukrainian authorities because, she said, Ukraine was also “an actor in this war.”
She feared that Ukrainian officials had high hopes for justice and might be wasting scarce resources on trials in absentia.
“Not a big deal will be ready in two or five years due to the magnitude of the violence and the fact that it has been going on for so long,” she said.
Mr Belousov, the Ukrainian war crimes prosecutor, also acknowledged that. “We’re playing a long game,” he said. Even if the perpetrator is tried and convicted in absentia, Mr Belousov said: “We understand that in a year, or two, three or five years, these guys will not be able to escape their sentence.”
Mr Belousov said he appreciated the international aid but that coordinating it was the “biggest challenge” faced by law enforcement agencies.
Kharkiv prosecutors, for example, used a shiny new forensic investigation kit donated by the European Union for their dig in Koropy, the village in northeast Ukraine. But a police officer from a unit in Dmytrivka, a 45-minute drive west of Kiev, said they had not seen or met any international investigators, nor had they received any equipment from them.
Mr Belousov said Ukraine wanted to lead the prosecution of the cases – a departure from previous post-conflict situations in which national authorities initially left the trial to international tribunals.
But most Ukrainian detectives have little experience with this type of investigation.
For example, Andriy Andriychuk, who joined the police force in the region west of Kiev two years ago, said his work has rather involved investigating local disputes or cattle theft. Now it’s about “a lot more corpses,” he said.
On a recent sunny afternoon he was called to a wooded area near the town of Dmytrivka. A few days earlier, police officers had received a call from forest rangers who had arrived at a man’s grave. The dead man, Mykola Medvid, 56, was buried with his passport; his hat hung on a cross made of sticks.
His daughter and his cousin have identified his body. The local morgue officially determined the cause of death: a fatal gunshot to the chest.
Since then, his daughter Mariia Tremalo has not heard from the investigators. No witnesses have come forward and it was unclear who allegedly killed her father and why. Yet she is hungry for justice.
“My father is never coming back,” she said. “But I would like to see the perpetrators punished.”
At the moment, that seems anything but impossible.
In Koropy, the village near Kharkov, Mr. Ketler’s mother, Nadezhda Ketler, was inconsolable while the gravediggers and inspectors were at work. She walked across the road to another part of her property. Six officials stood by her son’s body, photographing and documenting how his best friend, Mykhailo Mykhailenko, who looked petrified and smelled of stale alcohol, identified him.
The next day, Mr. Ketler’s body was taken to the city’s morgue, where the ultimate cause of death was determined.
Finally, Ms. Ketler mustered the strength to show investigators the crater created by the bomb that killed him, leading police to the exact spot where he died. Mrs. Ketler stood watching the trees as they rustled in the wind. She spoke to no one. She said she wasn’t sure if a war crimes trial, if one ever came, would ease the pain of losing her child.
“I had to bury my son twice,” Mrs. Ketler said later. “You see, this is hard enough to do once, and to have to do it a second time. A mother’s pain isn’t going anywhere.”
Evelina RiabenkoDiana Poladova and Oleksandr Chubko reporting contributed.