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Ukrainian officials search for evidence of Russian war crimes

Tamila Pehyda, a retired school teacher, looked on in tears as gravediggers exhumed her husband’s remains and a forensic pathologist examined them to establish the cause of death.

December 6, 2022
By Anthony Deutsch
6 December 2022

By Anthony Deutsch

VYSOKOPILLIA, Dec 5 (Reuters) – Tamila Pehyda, a retired
school teacher, looked on in tears as gravediggers exhumed her
husband’s remains and a forensic pathologist examined them to
establish the cause of death.

As suspected, Serhiy, who was 70 when he died in June in the
southern Ukrainian village of Vysokopillia, was killed by
shrapnel during heavy artillery shelling as Ukraine sought to
recapture territory from the Russians.

The grisly process is being organised by Ukrainian
authorities who are gathering evidence of how people died and
whether potential war crimes have been committed by Russian
forces fighting in Ukraine.

They, and many of the relatives involved, want to hold
Russia accountable for what has happened since its full-scale
invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

“Of course, they must be responsible for everything, both
morally and physically,” Tamila told Reuters on Monday as she
stood by her late husband’s temporary grave. How much grief they
have brought here. To children, to grandchildren.”

Like many Ukrainians from villages and towns that have been
largely flattened in artillery exchanges and close combat, she
fled Vysokopillia when she could. Serhiy decided to stay behind.

So did Tetiana Muzychko, 58, deputy head of the local
municipality who ran to Serhiy’s house when she heard loud
blasts. She said he was conscious when she found him, but the
injuries to his legs and lower body were so severe that he died.

“The wounds were incompatible with life,” she said as she
comforted Tamila on a cold, sunless day.

Snow powdered hastily dug graves where Muzychko said more
than 20 villagers killed in the fighting were likely buried.

“They (Russian forces) said: ‘Why are you shooting at us? We
came to free you.’ I asked them: ‘Free us from what? From the
fact that we live well, better than you?'”

She said she hoped Russia would be held accountable at the
highest level for alleged abuses during the war, including by
the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

“They must answer for everything they have done.”

Moscow has previously denied allegations it has targeted
civilians, and has rejected accusations of war crimes. Tens of
thousands of people – both combatants and civilians – have been
killed in the fighting.

Russia sent troops into Ukraine in what it called a “special
operation” to degrade its southern neighbour’s military
capabilities and root out people it called dangerous
nationalists. Kyiv rejects this justification as a sham.

Tamila was to bury her husband in a permanent grave.
According to tradition, she placed Serhiy’s hat, glasses and
comb in the coffin before his remains were interred.


Ruslan Gavrylov, head of the district prosecutor’s office in
the nearby city of Beryslav, oversaw the exhumation and
examination. Because the cause of death was clear, he said an
autopsy would not be required.

He and others investigating potential crimes face the
unusual and sometimes dangerous task of doing so while the
conflict is raging.

Last week, prosecutor Oleg Palagniuk was taking pictures of
damage from an overnight rocket attack on a residential
apartment block in the city of Kherson when a salvo of rockets
from across the Dnipro river thudded into a nearby neighborhood.

He instinctively put on his helmet, but there was nowhere to
hide and so he kept on working.

Palagniuk’s work has intensified since Russian forces
retreated from Kherson to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River
last month. After withdrawing in one of the biggest reversals of
the war so far, Russian forces have been shelling Kherson.

“The investigative team arrives, records everything and
quickly leaves the scene as there is a risk of repeated
shelling,” he told Reuters.

“After yesterday’s shelling, half of the city again has no
electricity, water and communication. It is really very
difficult. But we have to work.”

In the time since the city was liberated, local prosecutors
have recorded 1,500 suspected crimes in Kherson city, he added.
That is too many for him and his team to look into properly.

Multiple war crimes investigations are ongoing in Ukraine
against alleged perpetrators in the conflict dating as far back
as Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Overwhelmed local judicial authorities are expected to pass
along cases involving high-level perpetrators, mass atrocities
and widespread violations of humanitarian law to the world’s
permanent war crimes judiciary, the ICC.

Which specific cases will ultimately go to The Hague will be
determined by Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, with
the assistance of a team of international humanitarian law
experts working alongside prosecutors such as Palagniuk.

Russia has accused Ukrainian forces of carrying out abuses
of their own.

More than 50,000 incidents of international crimes have been
reported by Ukraine’s prosecutor general since Russia’s
full-scale invasion. Hundreds of cases of war crimes, genocide
and crimes of aggression are being pursued by Ukrainian
(Writing by by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Mike
Collett-White and Angus MacSwan)

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