“No time for reflection, emotions or crying”
An interview with Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Kyiv-based human rights defender and civil society leader in charge of the Center for Civil Liberties. Interviewer: Igor Mitchnik.
This interview was conducted on March 11th, 2022.
IGOR MITCHNIK: Mrs. Matviichuk, where are you now? How do you feel personally and how are things in your organisation?
OLEKSANDRA MATVIICHUK: I am in Kyiv, a little bit tired. We have been resisting a large-scale Russian invasion for more than two weeks now. But we will stand. Of course, all of us in my team are in danger. It’s an ongoing war. Anything can happen.
You have been documenting human rights violations and crimes against humanity for many years now. Did you expect that Russia would invade Ukraine again?
We started documenting human rights violations from the beginning of the hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the occupation of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the annexation of Crimea. So we have been documenting war crimes for more than eight years now. Unfortunately, another invasion was predictable, but we hoped that it was not going to happen.
Do you see any similarities between Russian military strategies used in Ukraine and the ones that the Russian army used in other countries?
We have united our efforts with human rights defenders from Russia, Moldova and Georgia. We identified several dozens of people who have committed the same kind of crimes in these countries, particularly in Chechnya, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I am sure that if we would collaborate with Syrian human rights defenders too, we would identify the same people who are now committing the same crimes in Ukraine. These are not coincidences. It demonstrates very clearly that Russia uses and has used armed conflicts as tools to obtain its geopolitical goals. Committing war crimes is a military technique for Russia to quickly obtain control over regions and territories.
Journalists have reported that there have been house searches and arrests of activists in territories occupied by the Russian army in recent days. Are such raids something we can expect for every part of Ukraine that might be occupied by Russia?
Yes, this is certain. As soon as Russian soldiers and militia consolidate their control over a territory, they start repressions against civilians. We saw them applying the very same tactics in occupied parts of Donbas. There, they have deliberately targeted civil activists, human rights defenders, journalists, artists and religious leaders. Basically, they have gone after every active citizen who could peacefully resist the occupation. That’s why it remains so crucial to prevent Russia from occupying any new territories.
What kind of atrocities have you already documented during this war?
So far, we have documented different categories of war crimes. The most widespread crimes include the deliberate shelling of civilian objects such as residential buildings. These also involve the targeting and arbitrary killing of the civilian population. Critical civilian infrastructure, such as schools, kindergartens, and hospitals, is also damaged. The most malign example was the shelling of the maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol on March 9th, which was a shock for the whole world. The second kind of war crimes involve treachery. For example, Russians deliberately cover up as civilians to get closer to Ukrainian military positions. Also, the Russian military has used civilian objects for military purposes. We reported cases in Kyiv, where they used ambulances to cross the city. Also, their soldiers used Ukrainian uniforms, which is a separate war crime and prohibited by international humanitarian law. The third category of crimes is connected with deliberate attacks on medical personnel. Many medics are being attacked when they fulfil their professional duty to provide assistance to injured people. Lastly, we have observed that Russia is using indiscriminate weapons, which are prohibited by the Hague and Geneva Conventions. The Russian army has used unguided bombs, cluster ammunition and incendiary ammunition in populated areas. These kinds of weapons can lead to uncontrolled casualties among the civilian population.
The gender dimension is often overlooked in wars but in this one it seems very visible across the western world. Most of the refugees fleeing the country are women and small children, as most men cannot leave the country. Stories of gender-based violence have appeared as well. However, many women have also joined the ranks of the Ukrainian military or territorial defence units. Based on your experience in human rights protection and documenting human rights violations, particularly by the Russian regime, what role might gender play in the ongoing war?
Women are currently represented in all areas of the country’s defence. Women serve in the Ukrainian army. Women have joined territorial defence units. Women take important political decisions. Women provide medical care. Women document Russian war crimes. You can see a significant number of women in every field of the social resistance to this invasion. At least in times of war, we suddenly seem to have gender equality in Ukraine. Women are currently at the forefront of the battle, equal to men.
What kind of support does Ukrainian civil society need now to resist the invasion?
After the start of the large-scale invasion, Euromaidan SOS published a statement in which representatives of Ukrainian civil society asked international organisations, states and our international allies to revise and review their support priorities. Yes, there are already more than 2,5 million refugees from Ukraine in countries abroad and it is very important to provide them with assistance. But this may be the easiest task in this dire situation. While dealing with this, we should not overlook the need for the international community to consolidate all their efforts and advocacy work in order to pursue all possible actions that could stop Putin and prevent even more refugees from fleeing the country. This includes closing the skies over Ukraine to prevent the bombing of cities and supporting the Ukrainian army with the purchase of fighter jets, missiles, air defence and anti-tank systems. They should also disconnect all Russian and Belarusian banks from SWIFT and impose an embargo on all key Russian exports: oil, gas, metals, minerals. These points are no less urgent right now, because millions of Ukrainians are still in Ukraine, suffering and dying because of the ongoing Russian aggression.
How do you think Ukrainian civil society and Ukrainian society as a whole will change with this war?
It’s very hard to predict what will happen after the war, because now we have no time for reflection, emotions or crying. But I see from the general mood in the country that Ukrainians share the dream to rebuild our country and our destroyed cities together. They are committed to the successful democratic transformation of our country after the war. This dream encourages all of us to continue our struggle.
You have been working with Russian civil society actors for many years. How did the war affect the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian civil society actors?
It will leave lasting damage regarding these relations, as war provokes a lot of emotions. I know that our Russian human rights colleagues are very brave and struggled to prevent this war from happening, and some continue doing this work under the threat of serious persecution. Yes, they are a tiny minority in Russia, while the majority in Russian society supports this war, spurred on by the militarisation of the Russian state and society, and state propaganda. But as long as our Russian human rights colleagues continue to position themselves publicly, there will be grounds to restore these relationships between Ukrainian and Russian civil society representatives in the future.
Oleksandra Matviichuk is a Kyiv-based human rights defender and civil society leader. She heads the human rights organisation ‘Center for Civil Liberties’, and coordinates the work of the initiative group ‘Euromaidan SOS’. She has profound experience in organising human rights activities against attacks on rights and freedoms, as well as in documenting human rights violations during armed conflicts. In March 2022 she was one of the key initiators of the Global Initiative “Breaking the Vicious Circle of Russia’s Impunity for Its War Crimes” (short name “Tribunal for Putin”). She is the author of a number of alternative reports to various UN bodies, Council of Europe, European Union, OSCE and International Criminal Court.
Igor Mitchnik works as a Project Lead for the Swiss-German NGO Libereco – Partnership for Human Rights. Prior to that, he was co-founder and Head of Office at a German civil society hub in the East Ukrainian city of Sloviansk (Donetsk region). He has been working and conducting research in and on different post-Soviet conflict regions over the last years – e.g. as a Mercator Fellow on International Affairs at the Sloviansk-based office of the Humanitarian Organisation People in Need, at the peacebuilding NGO Conciliation Resources in their South Caucasus team, and at the Central Asia Project of the International Crisis Group in Kyrgyzstan.
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