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How a celebrated Ukrainian writer turned into a war crimes researcher

by Kate Tsurkan April 27, 2023 11:16 PM 9 min read
Victoria Amelina, a Ukrainian writer who became a war crimes researcher during Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine, takes a photo in a home in the village of Kapitolivka in Kharkiv Oblast in March 2023. (Photo: Victoria Amelina/Facebook)
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Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has galvanized Ukrainians into action, compelling them to figure out how they can contribute to their country’s victory. Oftentimes, it has called for a radical departure from the known comforts of their daily lives.

That’s exactly what happened to Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina.

Soon after Feb. 24, 2022, Amelina started volunteering in humanitarian aid warehouses in her native Lviv, a city in the west of Ukraine that welcomed thousands of internally displaced Ukrainians. She herself provided refuge to people who had fled war-affected regions.

The atmosphere in Lviv during the first weeks of Russia’s all-out war was fraught with fear.

The windows in the apartment of Amelina’s mother were shattered when a Russian missile struck the nearby Lviv tank repair plant, and less than a month into the war, the first deaths in Amelina’s circle of friends started to become known.

“We thought that anything could happen back then,” Amelina, 37, told the Kyiv Independent. “Even a Russian offensive from Belarus with Lviv as the main target seemed possible.”

She was walking along Zamarstynivska Street, where the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin who coined the term “genocide” once lived, when she realized that she wanted to do more to advance the Ukrainian war effort.

Amelina is one of Ukraine’s most celebrated young literary figures and a common presence at literary festivals both in Ukraine and abroad. However, she didn’t want to just write texts about the war or speak about it at international events. In late March 2022, Amelina made the decision to train to become a war crimes researcher.

“I don’t think law and human rights are fields reserved for people with law degrees. Law is about human beings ultimately, or at least it should have people at the center; this is what makes law similar to literature,” Amelina explained.

Amelina reached out to the Ukrainian human rights organization Truth Hounds, which has been working for the past eight years to document human rights violations and crimes not only in Ukraine but elsewhere in eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Training began with an initial theoretical course that took two days to complete, accompanied by a week-long supervised field mission. The overall training period concluded by the end of May, and there were many nights spent reviewing the Geneva conventions and the Rome Statute to the howl of the air raid sirens.

As of mid-March, the Prosecutor General’s Office has recorded over 80,000 war crimes allegedly committed by the Russian military in Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion. The task of investigators is already monumental and will only become more challenging as the Ukrainian military continues to recapture territory.

Due to the number of crimes, Ukrainian officials are working in coordination with trained civilian organizations, both local and international, in an effort to document these crimes. War crimes researchers pass along their findings to the Prosecutor General’s Office, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and other relevant legal bodies.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials have been meeting with representatives of the ICC and coordinating with EU officials, as well as over 30 countries, to establish a war crimes tribunal that would someday bring justice to Ukraine’s victims.

A missing colleague

Amelina’s foray into working as a war crimes researcher happened to coincide with the disappearance of her colleague Volodymyr Vakulenko, a celebrated children’s literature writer who had remained in the village of Kapitolivka near Izium in Khakiv Oblast to care for his disabled son.

“I just knew there would be thousands of war crimes even without this particular case,” Amelina said.

According to Kharkiv Oblast police, on March 24, 2022, Russian forces took Vakulenko away by force in a car with the Russian war symbol “Z”.

The entire Ukrainian literature community was desperately holding onto hope that Vakulenko would be found alive after liberation, despite the odds.

As a member of the Ukrainian branch of PEN, the cultural and human rights non-governmental organization that supports writers worldwide, Amelina had been doing everything she could to raise awareness about Vakulenko’s case.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about him,” she said, a sentiment shared by the rest of the Ukrainian literature community.

Truth Hounds started planning their first trip to Kharkiv Oblast as soon as the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the area began in September. Amelina volunteered to join them, pulling out of a literary festival in Sweden that she was supposed to attend at that time.

During the field mission in Kharkiv Oblast with Truth Hounds, Amelina wanted to check in on Vakulenko’s parents, who were also in Kapitolivka, as soon as possible. However, the war crimes research team found three torture chambers in the city of Balakliia alone and spent several days documenting war crimes in Verbivka and Izium.

The Ukrainian literature community’s hopes were extinguished on Nov. 28 when DNA analysis confirmed the body of Volodymyr Vakulenko was in grave number 319 of the infamous mass graveyard in the forest near Izium.

Serhiy Bolvinov, the head of the investigation department of the Kharkiv Oblast police, told BBC Ukraine in December 2022 that investigators had established the presence of two 9 mm caliber bullets in Vakulenko’s body, which “probably” could be bullets that were fired from a Makarov pistol.

The diary that Vakulenko started keeping shortly after the start of the full-scale invasion has remained a testament to his memory and what Ukrainians like him had to endure during the Russian occupation. Once Amelina made it to Vakulenko’s parents, she and his father searched for the diary, which they knew he had managed to bury near a cherry tree in the yard before the Russians came for him the last time.

“As a writer, I feel this gesture and it hurts me a lot: It is the last attempt of a writer to speak and be heard, read,” Amelina told BBC Ukraine in December 2022.

Vakulenko’s diary is now kept in the Kharkiv Literary Museum for posterity. His final entry ended with: “Everything will be Ukraine! I believe in victory.”

Victoria Amelina traveling through Kherson Oblast in February 2023. (Photo: Victoria Amelina/Facebook)

A prerequisite for lasting peace

“Every survivor of occupation is unique. Most people are happy to talk to us,” Amelina said. Many of them show their thanks by providing her and other war crimes researchers with parting gifts – especially food. She has received walnuts, apples, and other food items from people’s gardens.

“One man even offered me a bottle of Russian beer from the occupation times but I decided against trying it,” she added.

According to Amelina, each field mission with Truth Hounds typically lasts about a week. During that time, she is able to talk to two to three people per day, and some testimonies can take up to six hours to record. One meeting often provides a lead on the next, with survivors mentioning other people – such as friends, family members, or neighbors – who were detained or tortured.

Before each testimony, war crimes researchers need to make certain that victims are stable enough to psychologically relive the hell they’ve endured.

“You don't talk to someone who is crying or on the verge of tears,” Amelina said.

“Ideally, you have to grasp what it is that gives them strength. For example, if you’re talking to a woman who lost her son but has grandchildren, it’s smart to talk about them for a bit. Regardless of the technique, empathy is key – you have to care enough so the person comes out of it stronger than before.”

There is no discernible difference between war crimes committed in Kharkiv, Kherson, or any other oblast in Ukraine, Amelina said. Russian forces have shown no hesitation in resorting to torture and murder, targeting Ukrainian civilians from all walks of life, including teachers, doctors, children's book writers, and even children.

The devastating impact of Russia’s crimes are revealed not only in the testimonies of survivors but also in the landscapes of the once-occupied territories of Ukraine, which still bear the signs of their brutality. When it comes to documenting the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage – including libraries, museums, and other institutions – war crimes researchers simply need to look around.

As for the questions posed to survivors, some organizations send researchers out into the field with preestablished questionnaires. According to Amelina, she prefers to work without them.

“We just start from the beginning, from life before the war. For example: ‘Were you born here?’, ‘How long have you lived here?’, ‘How long have you worked in the library?’, ‘Did you expect the invasion to begin?’, ‘How did you first encounter the military?’ It all depends. These are just examples,” Amelina said.

“When you catch a phrase like, ‘After we saw the dead POWs’ or something along those lines you start digging deeper,” she added.

According to Amelina, the questions that follow should always be open-ended, such as how the military officers were dressed, what they looked like, how they spoke, and so on – it’s important for war crimes researchers not to lead on the victims and let them speak naturally.

“We just need the truth,” Amelina said.

Despite the often difficult nature of fieldwork, there can be the occasional heartfelt moment. Amelina recalled one such instance when she was recording the testimony of a man in Kherson Oblast. He was describing to her the harrowing account of his kidnapping and torture at the hands of Russian occupying forces, while his children ran around them, playing and laughing.

Amelina was deeply moved by his children's ability to find joy and laughter even amidst the difficult circumstances of war. After she finished recording their father’s testimony, the children approached her, and she offered them some candy, telling them that their father was a hero.

She acknowledges that the children were probably too young to understand the significance of her words, and would probably not remember them in the future. Nevertheless, she felt it was important to say it for their parents' benefit. "I said it more for their mom and dad to hear," Amelina explained.

There are some people who are too frightened to speak with war crimes researchers. Other survivors agree to speak but later refuse to sign the release papers which permit to pass their testimony to Ukrainian law enforcement, the International Criminal Court, or even just for safekeeping in historical archives.

“Such instances feel like a defeat to me,” Amelina said. “It means I failed to help that survivor in achieving justice.”

Although the work of a war crimes researcher can be arduous, taxing, and potentially traumatizing, Amelina remains steadfast in her conviction that justice will eventually be served to Russian war criminals.

“This is a prerequisite for lasting peace, healing survivors and witnesses’ trauma, and completing Ukraine’s democratic transformation. We need to stay healthy and live long enough to witness all the trials,” she explained.

Victoria Amelina at the ruined cultural center in Vysokopillia, Kherson Oblast, in February 2023. (Photo: Victoria Amelina/Facebook)

Words for war

Amelina hasn’t entirely put her literary career on hold – she still writes and occasionally attends literary festivals abroad.

Ukrainian writers understand that it is vital to continue promoting their culture, given that Russia’s genocidal war has committed a multitude of crimes in an effort to erase it, such as destroying cultural heritage sites, burning Ukrainian books, looting priceless artifacts from museums, and imposing Russian curriculums in schools of the occupied territories.

However, Amelina acknowledged that initially, it was difficult for her to reconcile the stark contrast between discovering torture chambers in liberated territories one day and speaking in front of an audience of curious readers the next. Even walking around tranquil cities sometimes took on an unexpectedly distressing quality.

“You cannot stop thinking that it’s better to stay on the pavement and avoid grass as there could be mines,” Amelina said. “Even in London or Berlin.”

Many foreigners come up to her at international literary events asking how she deals with the trauma of a war with no foreseeable end in sight.

“I tell them that they help me, because they listen to me,” she said.

War crimes testimonies are a far cry from the flourishing poems and prose that Amelina is known for. When speaking to the survivors of Russian occupation there is only the need to document hard facts. However, Amelina's writing has long exhibited a profound sense of empathy, and perhaps that’s what makes her particularly well-suited to assist survivors of Russian war crimes in amplifying their voices.

Russia's war has made its way into Amelina's own writing, as it has for most writers in Ukraine over the past nine years, especially since the start of the full-scale invasion. Currently, she is focused on penning a non-fiction book that delves into the tireless work of journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, and volunteers who document Russian war crimes.

“It’s impossible to write about anything other than war now,” Amelina said. “There’s just no other way.”

Note from the author:

Hi, this is Kate Tsurkan, sharing an important culture-related story from Ukraine. Due to Russia’s ongoing genocide, most stories about Ukrainian culture will, unfortunately, be related to war for years to come. But I’ve been working with Ukrainian writers in particular for years, and I’m proud to show you what they’ve done for their country.

Please consider continuing to support our reporting to see more pieces like this.

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