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Crime, punishment and war in Ukraine: the value of human life

The crimes committed by the Russian army in Bucha may have been the first and most publicised, but that is not to say that they are the most terrible thing that has happened since the escalation of the war, says Revaz Tateishvili, a trainer and coordinator at the Ukrainian NGO Insha Osvita and, after February 24th 2022, an activist documenting Russian war crimes. Interviewers: Marcus Chavasse and Kamila Łabno-Hajduk.

October 28, 2022 - Kamila Łabno-Hajduk Marcus Chavasse Revaz Tateishvili - Interviews

Burial of the remains of 13 unidentified and two identified people who were killed in the Bucha district during the Russian occupation. Photo: Drop of Light / Shutterstock

MARCUS CHAVASSE AND KAMILA ŁABNO-HAJDUK: You were a history educator up until February 24th 2022, when a large-scale war in our region was still a theoretical concept. Everything changed that day. How has it changed for you?

REVAZ TATEISHVILI: First of all, I wouldn’t say that anything changed on February 24th. In Ukraine, this war actually started in 2014. Some things escalated quickly, of course, but we’ve been living with this whole concept and paradigm for eight years now, and the only thing that changed is the priorities. For example, if your town or city is occupied, you’re not doing educational work anymore, instead you’re helping the troops, giving humanitarian aid, etc.

After Kyiv, Chernihiv and Kharkiv were liberated, our organisation’s focus changed to documenting what happened. These things we need to document so that future generations understand what went on, the devastation that the actions of some people led to, and so on. This work has become our priority. We still want to work with history and historical projects, though our priorities have temporarily changed, just as they did after the other escalations in 2014, 2016 and then just before the pandemic. Each time we thought, “OK, there’s another escalation, people are dying on the frontline and we need to help them.” So we did what we could, and this time it was the same, just on a larger scale. We knew how to respond and what to do. It wasn’t the first time for us.

So you and your organisation felt in some way prepared for it?

Yes, and within the whole of Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it was just our organisation that was prepared.

What you have been doing in the last few months has been unique. What was the documentation and evidence gathering process like?

There were several simultaneous approaches, because in the first months of the war there wasn’t any governmental structure for documenting and taking account of all of the victims, of which there were too many. Our governmental infrastructure was not capable of taking it all into account. Therefore we, as volunteers, started taking photos and interviewing victims before any official investigation started because we knew that with so much information and so many victims, it wasn’t easy for the government to respond quickly; some of the evidence could have just washed away in the meantime.

My team conducted photo documentation for the first one or two weeks after the Russian troops withdrew from the northern front. After that, the official investigators took over this work. They restricted access to the area and only professionals were able to go there, so we refocused our attention to the survivors and started recording all of their statements – only from those who wanted to give a statement and only under anonymity. The only people who actually know the names of the victims are the prosecutors. Well, we hope so at least; I’m not sure about data security right now in Ukraine, it’s an ongoing process. But we made an effort to conceal the identities and just to record statements and create a database of these victims.

Afterwards, I think it was in late April, we gave all of the documentation and the list of victims to the prosecutors in Ukraine and our efforts were once again shifted to elderly people who were dying under different circumstances, for example a lack of medicine, accommodation, food, etc. Right now we’re working in Donetsk Oblast in Dobropillia, which is 85 kilometres from the frontline, and in Pokrovsk, which is 40 km from the frontline. These two cities act as receiving hubs for all the people who are running from the frontline who don’t have anything except for maybe a phone and their passports. The prime objective right now is simply to accommodate them and give them enough medicine, food and shelter to live another day. We cannot know what will happen next with this unpredictable behaviour from Russia. Maybe there will be more atrocities, maybe not. We hope there won’t be.

If there is something that we see that our government is not capable of doing or administrating, civil society – even those who work in education or in project management or in other fields – approaches the issue as a kind of “coordinated mess” and tries to advance any aid possible right now. This does not include military aid: other organisations and volunteers are focusing on that.

Do you have a sense of how many volunteers are out there working?

It’s really hard to say. Right now, some of the initiatives were set up by people for people, without any legal representation. Now, they are registering their first organisations, and growth is exponential. For example, in the first two months there were 200 organisations registered, and right now there are more than 600 organisations being registered every week. This is a huge number of new organisations created essentially out of nothing. I see this as an indirect indicator that a lot of people are working in different fields.

We are not quite coordinated. There are no governmental or centralised initiatives that can coordinate this kind of potential. But I also think that because of that, there are no critical spots that the Russian army can hijack in some way, because everyone is working very independently and we can be more flexible than the government is.

Is there cooperation between organisations despite the lack of coordination?

Yes. Take the organisations that are advocating a gender equality agenda, for example. Just before the escalation of the war, we created this big network of feminist and gender equality organisations in Ukraine (including educational organisations). There are a lot of them doing different things but all advocate for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. And because of that we had a kind of structure in chats and secret groups on Facebook, Viber, Telegram and elsewhere. Thanks to networking jobs like this done prior to the escalation, we were able to coordinate some of the efforts because we knew who does what in different regions.

For example, in the Donetsk region, we knew organisations working for the advancement of gender equality and we knew that they quickly started responding to the needs of civilians and military personnel. So, our network was good enough for us to understand what some other organisations are doing and where we can help.

Is there a database where information about victims and other documentation is kept?

I don’t think there is a centralised database except for the secret government one that is not shared with anyone. I don’t think that even the government has the best picture. They can more or less see what is happening, but they don’t share anything with us. This is harmful to some of our efforts. For example, one of our projects is aimed at preserving and relocating historical and cultural heritage from occupied territories, and we know that some of the other initiatives that would definitely benefit from this project did not know about it and did not act quickly enough to actually preserve some of the heritage that is now lost because of the war.

What we can do about it is an ongoing question. Before the escalation, all of these civic and volunteer processes were decentralised, and right now decentralisation can also be destructive. But in the face of an enemy who actively targets civilian infrastructure, humanitarian aid centres and other civilian efforts, we cannot afford to share our information publicly with unknown people, unfortunately. In short, there is no centralised effort, neither from the government, nor from the other civic groups.

So, in some ways it’s beneficial that it’s not centralised, because Russia cannot target all of your efforts, but it’s a double-edged sword when decentralisation results in damages as you mentioned.

In wartime, some crimes become symbols of an invader’s cruelty and are not forgotten. Later, they play an important role in shaping the national identity and politics of memory. Do you think that will happen with the Russian crimes committed in Bucha?

I think that Bucha will definitely go down in the history books, but I just need to caution any foreign reporters on this matter: just because Bucha was the first and the most publicised war crime, this does not mean that it is even the most horrific thing that the Russian army has done. After the war ends, we will see the whole perspective, the full picture. Right now, we have information from people who have contacts in Mariupol who report so many ongoing crimes, rapes and other horrific things that are going on in the occupied territories. Right now, we know about places that are specially equipped for torture in Kherson, in Severodonetsk and other occupied territories. We don’t know exactly what is going on. We cannot verify anything right now.

The only thing that we know is that our national identity will definitely change. I don’t know how, but the trauma will last for generations. The amount of displaced people is comparable to the Syrian crisis, when half of Syria was relocated – we’re facing almost the same thing in our country. The change will be something huge. We already understand that Bucha was just one thing: it wasn’t occupied for long and not all of their goals were achieved. As to understanding the motives and the emotions that the perpetrators feel towards us, it’s hard. It’s hard to process logically and it’s hard to process emotionally. We understand that when the picture becomes clearer in the future, it will be horrifying.

When talking about the future, the crime is evident, but what about the punishment? There are international institutions that deal with this, such as the International Criminal Court, and we know the famous trials of Nazi criminals after the Second World War. Do you see any perspectives for similar actions when the Russo-Ukrainian War is over?

On a personal level as a Ukrainian, it definitely needs to happen, because otherwise there won’t be any resolution to the conflict. It’s not that we want vengeance; it’s about the understanding that if there are no consequences to what has been done to so many people on a continent that was meant to be peaceful, it means that other dictators and other crazy people will take advantage and misuse this blind eye approach from the international public.

I don’t think that justice should be carried out only by Ukraine. I think this conflict is international, it’s not just a Russo-Ukrainian conflict, because the consequences of this war will be felt by everyone. Perhaps not even by a lot of European people, who fortunately have the money and access to free markets to buy grain and other resources. But for those who cannot afford a meal right now, this war will be detrimental and there will be not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of people who feel this war who don’t live in Ukraine.

Our economy and way of living is too globalised to not feel the consequences of the war. In order to avoid a repetition of it in the future, in order to not see other places go up in flames to the detriment of the global economy and way of living, we need accountability. We will need some kind of process that will ensure that people who participated in this kind of atrocity will pay for it.

I must add that I am vehemently against the death penalty that was present in the Nuremberg Trials, and I hope that the majority of Ukrainians are against it too. After seeing what death can bring to you, I wouldn’t ever wish it upon anyone.

Shifting the focus to education, how do you think the current war is being discussed in schools? How has it changed since 2014?

I cannot say this is an opportunity, but in some specific cases we use this ongoing conflict to show perspective on our history, because it’s not the first time Ukraine has been at war with Russia. Before, it was actually quite hard to talk about some of the chapters in our history, as some of the movements were hijacked by propaganda in the USSR. For example, the Ukrainian guerrilla fighters against the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s were depicted as Nazis. Because of decommunisation and reimagining ourselves as a post-Soviet country that doesn’t have such stereotypes and propaganda, it’s much easier to say things that were controversial before. Now everyone understands what you mean.

As to how our perspective on teaching about the war changed, right now we have much more personal documents and accounts that we didn’t have in 2014 because of the difference in scale. But the approach is the same, the understanding of the issues that arise from the war is the same. For example, the need to respect the identity of the people who tell their stories, the need to conceal some of the information so it wouldn’t be as horrifying. We went through it all in 2014 already.

But in every other aspect, any other way you look at it, we are losing a lot. A lot of very capable, very bright people – especially teachers – are in Europe right now, and I don’t think that they will return anytime soon. A lot of children in occupied territories don’t have any access to remote learning, because even the VPNs are blocked in some of these places. I think that as civil society we will find some way to still convey education to these children, but it’s really, really hard simply because of the technical solutions that we need to come up with in order to continue education. Even in our organisation, out of 41 trainers we are left with 25 or 26. We lose a lot of brains and education is of course brain-heavy work.

The war is still going on and we don’t know how long it will last. How do you see your place and your future: will you continue documenting and gathering evidence, or will you go back to teaching and education – or are you balancing the two?

Right now, I’m already re-establishing myself in education. We are going from this emergency reaction to the war to a steadier approach, and we’re already working on how to continue our educational projects. We’re working on technical solutions in order to ensure that people from occupied territories, for example Severodonetsk and Kherson, and of course Sevastopol and Simferopol and the whole Republic of Crimea, will be able to have access to this education, no matter what.

We don’t know what kind of solutions will work because we feel that, even in education, we’re still very much at war with Russian propaganda. We need to be careful even with announcing some of the educational opportunities, because the Russian bots are very active. But for us, it’s free publicity even though they work relentlessly to discredit any efforts of Ukrainian civil society. So, we’re almost back to the previous reality that we had since 2014. We see that we’re in this for the long run, we need to adapt and somehow continue education and this is our priority right now.

It’s a difficult question perhaps, but you mentioned some almost “opportunities” that arise from education about the war, ways of reframing the past using the present. Are there any other silver linings that you see right now?

It’s difficult, but yes. If we compare for example Ukraine to Russia in this current situation, we are way worse than they are, because it’s taking place on our territory, and we are the ones facing the huge devastation and enormous losses. But if we look a little bit further towards the long-term perspective, I understand that Ukraine will be the land of opportunities just as I know that the war will end, and we will have the opportunity to rebuild what we have lost.

Thinking about rebuilding the things that I feel passionate about, and the places that are very dear to me motivates me to go further. Right now, I couldn’t say that there are silver linings; I can’t think of any good things that can come from this war, but the perspectives are quite optimistic.

Is there anything else that you would like to add that we didn’t cover?

I have a message for the (Polish) readers: this war could be an opportunity for us to rethink and re-evaluate what we understand by the value of human life. Unfortunately in Ukraine, and let’s be honest in many European countries, refugees are considered to be some kind of vermin, people who come here to exploit the social systems. I hope that this war will shift this understanding. Every human being is valuable. And not just as a human being, but as a person who could show you a new perspective, for example, or who could pay taxes in your country, or who could be a good friend to you, or whose children could be good friends with your children. If we don’t regard them as valuable then we are missing an opportunity, we are missing their talents and stories and so much more from those who we consider lesser, but there are no lesser people anywhere.

People from Syria, Libya and Morocco are fighting in Ukraine for Ukrainian independence. The country that did not receive them with open arms is now a battlefield that they are willing to defend. I really think that this can shift our perspective: what are we doing in our work if we are not helping everyone that needs and deserves this help? And I hope that from this new perspective, with Ukrainians as refugees in Europe, that when people with white skin come into a country and nothing strange or horrible happens, people realise that maybe it’s not about the colour of the skin, but the attitudes that we have towards people.

Thank you for keeping the topic in the news, because right now in Ukraine the only thing we fear is that people will just become indifferent about what’s happening, and this is the most devastating thing that could happen.

Revaz Tateishvili is a trainer and coordinator at Insha Osvita, as well as an activist documenting Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Marcus Chavasse is a project manager at the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. He works on the historical memory and education programme Confronting Memories and provides support to history teachers from across Europe in preparing multi-perspective lesson materials on the Second World War.

Kamila Łabno-Hajduk is a historian and political scientist working at the College of Eastern Europe in Poland. She cooperates with the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum on providing support to history teachers from across Europe.

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