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Human Rights Watch's Yulia Gorbunova on cases of alleged war crimes by Russian forces


Disturbing images of death and destruction are emerging from this country as Russian troops pull out of the outskirts of Kyiv. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, calls them, quote, "stage-managed anti-Russian provocation." But Human Rights Watch has been investigating and alleges Russian military forces have committed numerous war crimes against Ukrainians.

And a warning - we will be describing some of that violence now in our conversation with Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

YULIA GORBUNOVA: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: You know, before we get to your report more broadly, I do want to start with the place that much of the world is focused on today, and that's Bucha. Can you start by telling us some of the specific stories that Human Rights Watch has documented there?

GORBUNOVA: So I've interviewed an eyewitness in the town of Bucha, which is about 30 kilometers northwest of Kyiv. And the case that I documented refers to events that took place on March 4, when Russian forces were occupying Bucha. And on March 4, they brought around 40 or 50 residents of the town to the square to question them, to check their phones, to find out if there were, you know, any fighters among them, territorial defense members. So people were there for hours, and it was quite cold.

And at one point, Russian soldiers brought in five men that they rounded up, and they forced them to kneel on the side of the road. And they made them take their shoes off. And then they pulled their T-shirts over their heads. And then they shot one of the men in the back of the head. And so the men fell over. And, you know, everybody who was at the square screamed. And then the commander laughed and said, you know, don't worry; we're here to cleanse you from the dirt.

DETROW: There's so much of a focus on Bucha right now, but it's important to point out that the Human Rights Watch report details these alleged crimes all over Ukraine. You're talking about rapes, executions, widespread looting of people's houses and property. Can you tell us a little bit about how Human Rights Watch confirms these stories in your reports and what you'll be doing in the coming days and weeks as new allegations come forward?

GORBUNOVA: Yeah. So basically, we conduct our investigations in a number of ways. Wherever possible, we try to be on the ground. Sometimes it's not possible. Like, we obviously could not be on the ground in Bucha while it was occupied. But we gather witness testimonies, as many as we can, and we make sure that we get corroborating testimony.

We analyze very carefully, you know, images and photographs that we ask people who witness the potential grave abuse to send to us, to share with us. We analyze images that we get from open sources and, you know, very carefully verify them, especially considering the amount of, you know, falsified images and sort of old images that people are trying to make look like they're just, you know, events that just occurred. There's quite a lot of that. So it's very thorough work that we have to do.

DETROW: One thing that's come up a lot as we've traveled across Ukraine the last few days is that, you know, we're learning about Bucha because Russia pulled back from it and the Ukrainian military liberated it. It may not be unique. It may just be the place that Ukrainian officials and reporters are able to see right now. And I'm wondering, are you thinking about that? And what are you bracing for going forward?

GORBUNOVA: No, absolutely. I mean, that's definitely incredibly concerning. You know, I feel that this may be just the tip of the iceberg. It's likely that there will be much more cases like that to document in days and weeks to come, as Russian forces are retreating and Ukrainians are retaking these areas and more information comes to light and more people who are able to speak about what happened come forward.

DETROW: President Biden said today that he would like to see Russian President Vladimir Putin tried for war crimes. As far as Human Rights Watch is concerned, what do you want to happen next? What do you think should happen next?

GORBUNOVA: We think that it's absolutely essential, given the evidence of war crimes and serious human rights violations committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. It is absolutely essential that there is a swift and impartial investigation, and that would be an important step to holding Russian authorities accountable for their actions.

DETROW: Yulia Gorbunova is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Thanks so much for joining us.

GORBUNOVA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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