You can see a photo of an apartment building block in Ukraine. The sky is clear, and there’s some grass in the foreground. The buildings, however, are destroyed. The armed aggression of Russia destroyed them.

It's crucial for victims to be heard: Bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice

As part of the ifa-award, Emiliia Dieniezhna, CCP alumna and journalist interviewed two members of the Ukraine 5 AM Coalition. The alliance consists of around 40 Ukrainian NGOs and experts, that collect and document war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russian armed forces during the ongoing war of aggression. For their important work they are honoured with this year’s ifa-award.

Interview with Daria Svyrydova & Aliona Luniova

How did the idea of forming a coalition come to your mind? How did it all begin?

Daria Svyrydova, human rights activist, co-founder of Ukraine 5 AM Coalition: 

At that moment, creating a coalition wasn’t a specific decision. It was a quick, emotional reaction. I am originally from Crimea, so after the peninsula's occupation in 2014, unfortunately, I had to leave Crimea for Kyiv. I left my home and, to some extent, started a new life. After that, I worked for many years in both the governmental and non-governmental sectors, dealing with issues related to Crimea. I focused on de-occupation, reintegration, and documenting crimes. So, I had a certain understanding of how to act in the situation of Russia's aggression. I also had experience regarding what was not done when the occupation of Crimea began, when there was total confusion.

When I saw the scale of what started happening on February 24th and the crimes that took place on the first day, I immediately realized that documenting these crimes would be a challenge not only for the non-governmental sector but also for any state. Therefore, anyone willing to contribute to documenting crimes was invaluable at that moment. It was crucial to unite efforts and experiences with colleagues. On the afternoon of February 24th, I wrote to several colleagues suggesting that we have a call and discuss what we can do now. The next day, we had our first call and coordinated further steps. I couldn't go to the front, but I had experience and knowledge of documenting crimes. I knew I could be helpful and understood the need to collaborate with colleagues. 

How willing were organizations to join when the full-scale offensive began, and are these organizations still active in the coalition?

Daria Svyrydova: 

I initially contacted colleagues with whom we had collaborated for many years on Crimea-related issues. They were part of organizations with experience in Crimea or Donbas, in reintegration, and in documenting crimes. When we first met online, there were seven organizations present. However, this meeting was more about connecting people than organizations. At that time, participants were in very different places: I was in an underground parking lot, someone was in the subway, another person was evacuating families and children.

We needed to understand where everyone was and what we could do in these conditions. Later, there was a need to systematize efforts and involve people and organizations willing to work in these difficult conditions. At the beginning, there were about seven organizations, including ZMINA, the Crimean Human Rights Group, colleagues from the Institute of Mass Information, and CrimeaSOS. These were organizations working in this field. All these organizations are still active in the coalition. In the early days, we developed guidelines, for example, about what constitutes a war crime. Before Russia's full-scale offensive, war crimes were at best confused with military crimes, and at worst, they were simply not understood. In the guidelines, we explained what constitutes a war crime, how it can be documented, and how it may manifest in different events. For example, if a missile hits your house or if a loved one is killed. We disseminated explanatory messages through media and social media. Currently, there are not seven but thirty-eight organizations in the coalition.

What are the current key goals of the coalition?

Aliona Luniova, human rights activist, ZMINA: 

Documentation of crimes is a key element. Almost all organizations that joined the coalition in the early days were already experienced in documentation and knew what it was like in 2014-2015. Back then, convincing the state to document crimes was very challenging. My key motivation for joining the coalition was the desire to reassure the state. However, our state not only stood firm but also took on significant responsibilities for documentation. It wants to account for crimes and is doing so. 

In addition to documenting crimes, we have other goals. First is informing about human rights violations in armed conflict conditions, war crimes, and creating public awareness. Second is the legal-analytical direction. We prepare analytical documents based on the data we obtain through documentation, and this analysis has a human rights and advocacy focus. Another part of the coalition's activities is advocacy. This includes not only international advocacy to make Ukraine heard abroad but also national advocacy. We collaborate with the state on various fronts, such as advancing the idea of supporting victims of war crimes, compensation and reparations issues, ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, etc. These issues relate to building an effective accountability system. The coalition is a place for professional legal discussion. However, we approach this discussion not only from the standpoint of legal support but also in terms of how justice can be achieved through non-judicial elements. Another focus of our activity is the implementation of transitional justice approaches. We want the coalition to unite around what our future will be as a country after the war. We also plan to implement monitoring of judicial processes because it is essential to not only document the crime and provide support to the affected person, but also to observe how the case looks in court. 

We want the coalition to unite around what our future will be as a country after the war.

Aliona Luniova

Daria Svyrydova: 

When we talk about documenting crimes, it's not some abstract activity but about specific individuals interacting with victims and witnesses, and it's quite a traumatic job for those involved in documentation. Therefore, we need to support the representatives of non-governmental organizations working on this topic. Because if they don't have the moral strength to work with it, that will also be a challenge. We have support programs for the members of organizations dealing with documentation and those who directly go on field missions. We also provide technical support to people going on field missions, assisting with security, insurance, medical aid, etc. 

What does the process of documenting crimes look like in practice for those involved? What challenges do they face?

The photo shows a crime scene during the Russian aggression toward Ukraine. There are four men amidst the destruction of a house. One is seemingly injured and sitting down. One is tending towards him, one man on the left side is looking down and another one is just on the far left of the photo and you can just see his arm.
People go to the crime scene and communicate with victims and witnesses. Photo: Picture alliance / / Ximena Borrazas

Daria Svyrydova: 

This work unfolds in various ways. Some analysts work with open sources, with digital evidence. They study open sources andinformation about a particular crime, and also seek confirmation of the crime from additional sources, using digital evidence. Digital evidence is not always recognized as proper evidence in national investigations, but international justice actively uses it. Another type of work is field missions, where people go to the crime scene or to de-occupied or front-line territories, or to places where people were forced to leave due to combat. There, they communicate with victims and witnesses. It's not about interviews in the sense needed for an investigation, like interrogation or obtaining detailed information about the crime. Here, we're talking about gathering information about the victim, witnesses, the crime they witnessed, and about which they can provide information.

This information is collected, and recorded, so that it can later be passed on to national law enforcement agencies or international judicial bodies. Teams obtain consent from victims and witnesses to use this information or transfer it to relevant law enforcement agencies or international judicial bodies. 

Aliona Luniova: 

This war is probably one of the most documented wars. Indeed, there are many different sources, and we try to process these sources comprehensively. We use both open sources and field missions, which are crucial sources of information. Field missions involve not only documentation but also an opportunity to talk to people and provide them with informational assistance. We also pay great attention to avoiding a double traumatization of people who talk to us. For this, we have a shared document where all coalition members can see who is going where and with whom they will communicate. This guarantees that victims or witnesses do not have to speak to several colleaugues. In addition, everyone documenting crimes has access to a shared database, which also allows us not to duplicate our work and avoid re-traumatizing people. This is crucial because the justice system must be human-centered and victim-centered. It is necessary to care for the affected person. Unfortunately, we have too many victims.  

The materials from these field missions can be used to prepare various reports. Our goal is to ensure that the testimonies we receive don't just sit somewhere waiting for their time but actively contribute here and now. While some cases cannot be publicly presented, various coalition organizations work on storytelling to make these stories publicly known. Some organizations participating in advocacy events abroad bring affected individuals along with them to these events, so that they can testify if they have the opportunity. This demonstrates that it's not just another story about the war in Ukraine from newspaper columns but about living people. We understand that people in occupied territories become completely defenceless and desperately need support. It's crucial to emphasize that normal life for people in occupation is impossible until the territory is de-occupied. One of our coalition's focuses is to show how the Russian Federation treats Ukrainians in the occupied territories. It's vital not only to support organizations involved in documentation but also to support newly emerging organizations, such as associations of relatives of political prisoners or civilians held hostage. We strongly advocate for the inclusion of such organizations in the coalition. 

The coalition's goal is to achieve justice for all victims of crimes and war.

Aliona Luniova

I want to add that the coalition's goal is to achieve justice for all victims of crimes and war. This justice isn't just about documenting the crime and making a decision at some point to hold the guilty accountable. For many people, part of this justice is a certain moral satisfaction. It's crucial for many victims to be heard, and for people to learn about their trauma, loss, and the crimes committed against them or their loved ones. They want the memory of these events to persist so these individuals don't become mere statistics in the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Prosecutor General's Office. 

I think a lot about how long this will last and whether it will happen during my lifetime for Ukrainian society to heal from Russian aggression. But I realize that preserving the memory of what happened will contribute to the healing process, especially preserving the memory of each person who fell victim to this aggression, including their names. This is an important mission carried out by coalition organizations when bringing the affected individuals, their stories, and their names to international platforms. 


This is a shortened version of the interview.

Read the full version here

Redaktion und Autoren
Auf dem Bild sieht man die ukrainische Journalistin Emiliia Dieniezhna. Sie hat lange braune Haare und trägt einen grauen Blazer.
Emiliia Dieniezhna

Emiliia Dieniezhna ist eine ukrainische Journalistin und Anti-Korruptions Aktivistin. Sie ist eine CCP Alumna und hat beim ifa für das Ukraine-Hilfsprojekt gearbeitet. Dieniezhna hat in der Ukraine Fremdsprachen und in Belgien EU Politikwissenschaften studiert. In der Ukraine hat sie für nationale Fernseh-Kanäle gearbeitet, darunter auch für "Ukraina", "112-Ukraina", "NTN", so wie für das Bloomberg Projekt. Außerdem hat sie ein Praktikum bei der Deutschen Welle gemacht. Seit dem russischen Angriffskrieg in 2022 wohnt sie teilweise in München, wo sie eine wöchentliche Kolumne "Zwischen den Welten" für die Süddeutsche Zeitung schreibt, wie auch Beiträge für Engagement Global und die Funke Mediengruppe.