“Russia Commits War Crimes To Instill Fear”

Oleksandra Matviichuk’s face shows the weariness of almost a month and a half of war, although her voice, sometimes broken by deep sighs, continues to sound firm and determined. This 38-year-old lawyer and activist, founder of the Center for the Defense of Civil Rights in Ukraine, has decided to stay in her country to document possible human rights violations and alleged war crimes by troops with her team. of Russia since the invasion began on February 24.

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The horror of war is nothing new for her or for the organization she leads, which has documented evidence of crimes and other abuses since 2014, when the conflict between pro-Russian militias and the Ukrainian Army began in Donbas and after the annexation of Crimea. by Russia.

Matviichuk tells elDiario.es that at the end of February he had to leave his house in the center of kyiv to move to a safer neighborhood, and although now the situation “is a little calmer” in the capital, he has spent many nights in a shelter sheltering from the bombs of an unexpected invasion.

The war has also forced her to separate from her family, because although her husband remains in kyiv, he works in another field and they cannot be together. Her mother has been evacuated from the country and almost a month ago she lost contact with her father, who was in an area in the east occupied by Russian troops. “In reality, no place is safe in the country,” says the activist.

For Matviichuk and his team there is no doubt that Russia is committing war crimes. The recent images of the devastation in Bucha, a city located northwest of kyiv where Ukrainian soldiers have found dozens of civilian bodies after the withdrawal of Russian troops, add to the “deliberate attacks on civilian places such as schools or residential buildings, torture, cruel treatment, hostage taking and cases of sexual violence”, among other abuses, according to the lawyer. The objective of her NGO’s work is to denounce war crimes before the International Tribunal in The Hague.

What is the work of the Center for the Defense of Civil Rights of Ukraine in this war?

We work in various fields. We provide assistance as a logistics center, since we have a database with different initiatives that work in the humanitarian field and medical assistance, among others. We connect people in need with these initiatives. We are also documenting war crimes. Russia commits war crimes to instill fear and it does so systematically on a very wide scale. We are collecting many testimonies from victims of war crimes so that they can have a legal defense at the international level because within the country this is much more complicated to solve and we need the cooperation of the international community. And we carry out different humanitarian initiatives. We have launched several campaigns in this regard, since in all this time Russia has only allowed one humanitarian corridor for the international committee of the Red Cross and there are other evacuations that are carried out with great risk under the bombardments of Russian troops. We are also on social networks (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) and we try to provide useful information to citizens, such as which pharmacy is open or what can be done when there is a bombing. We also share information abroad about human rights violations.

What kind of crimes have they documented so far?

We have documented different types of war crimes such as deliberate attacks against the civilian population and against civilian targets, mainly residential buildings, schools, kindergartens, churches and other critical civilian infrastructure that provides heat and electricity. We have also documented deliberate killings, torture, cruel treatment and hostage taking, as well as deliberate attacks on medical personnel.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has blamed Russia for the massacre of civilians in Bucha, while Moscow has denied those accusations.. Does your NGO consider this to be a war crime?

Yes, they are barbarians [en referencia a los soldados rusos]. On this article [de la agencia de noticias rusa RIA Novosti] they openly write about killing civilians. Our goal is to document war crimes in order to bring Putin and all those who have perpetrated crimes before the International Tribunal in The Hague.

The UN Human Rights Council announced last week the creation of a commission to investigate war crimes and other abuses committed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What do you expect from that commission?

Not much. It is important to create this type of commissions at the international level and we are already in contact with some members of that commission and we will be happy to provide them with information on this. Let’s hope that they carry out a rigorous investigation from which valid conclusions and some recommendations can be drawn, but Russia is obviously not going to comply with them. This commission does not have a mechanism that forces Russia to comply with them.

A few weeks ago commented on twitter that the case of a woman who had been raped by Russian soldiers had come to them. Have more cases of sexual violence been found?

We have not only received one case, we have received more. We have gathered hundreds of volunteers and gave them some simple guidelines to be able to work. When we receive these contacts, we pass them on to international organizations because our volunteers are not prepared to serve victims of sexual violence, since they need a lot of prior preparation.

I have documented other violations in the past and so I know it is very important to be prepared not to cause further harm to survivors with inappropriate behavior and to not harm yourself. Unfortunately, it is happening and there is a very important indicator for me because from my own experience I know that it is a crime that is usually hidden. First of all, most victims don’t even report it to the police, they try to hide it. If we are already aware of some cases of sexual violence, it is because the problem is greater and the victims have already raised awareness to denounce it publicly.

Many women have left Ukraine with their children to seek refuge in other countries, but there are also many others who, like you, have decided to stay. What role are women playing in this war?

Women have a fundamental role in this war. They are in the army, they help build the defenses, they make important political decisions, they launch and lead initiatives… They have a leading role.

After almost a month and a half since the Russian invasion began, what can we expect from Vladimir Putin?

He has decided to change tactics because he has understood that he has failed. He thought that this war was going to end faster and it has not. I don’t know what he’s going to do because I’m not a military expert, but I know he’s not going to stop and he’s not going to stop because the international community is not actively doing anything to stop him.

What do you think the international community can do to help Ukraine?

Ukraine has been asking Western allies for fighter jets and air defense systems all this time and has received none. We are unarmed, it’s a pity. If you say you support Ukraine, you can’t sit idly by while we die… I am a human rights defender, but the law in this case is not solving the problem. We cannot go with the Geneva convention in hand and stand in front of a tank and tell them “you cannot deliberately bomb civilians”, it does not work like that. If the law doesn’t work, if diplomacy fails, give us a chance to protect at least our own civilian population. I really don’t get it. Western countries make the excuse that if they sell weapons to Ukraine, we would enter World War III, but before the war started they sold weapons to Russia without any problem. I am not the one to judge, but history will put everyone in their place.

Do you think the war will last much longer?

We are prepared for a prolonged war. Russia wants Ukraine to return to the past because it belongs to them. When Ukraine became a democratic country, that damaged Putin’s authoritarian regime and that’s why the war started. He will do whatever is in his power to prevent that democratic transition in Ukraine.

What will happen next?

I believe that sooner or later we will be able to rebuild a country where we have a stable government, where the rights of the population are protected, where the judiciary is independent and the police do not repress student demonstrations. But I don’t know because our allies in the West are not sanctioning Russia more economically: they haven’t taken all the Russian banks out of the SWIFT system yet, they still trade Russian gas and oil, so the Russian economy will be able to continue financing this war. That’s why I’m not sure I can witness Ukraine getting it. If Ukraine succeeds, it will be a great gift for the country’s democratic future.



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