Unearthing the evidence of Russia’s war crimes in east Ukraine

Oleksander Ilenkov, war crimes prosecutor for the Kharkiv region, watches the exhumation of a body in Mala Rohan, Ukraine, May 23, 2022.
Click to play video: '‘I put my sons remains into a bag’: Investigators find harrowing evidence of war crimes in Ukraine' ‘I put my sons remains into a bag’: Investigators find harrowing evidence of war crimes in Ukraine
Ukraine is investigating countless war crimes committed during Russia's invasion. – May 26, 2022

MALA ROHAN, Ukraine — Incinerated by a Russian tank shell, the Mercedes sedan sat for two months on Shlyakhova Street.

It was just another rusted frame on a rural road littered with them, but when Oleksander Ilenkov got to it, it became a war crime scene.

Illenkov is a prosecutor in Kharkiv region. Before the Russian invasion, he brought murderers and thieves before the courts.

Now he investigates war crimes and on Monday he was at the scene of two civilian deaths attributed to Russian forces.

Read more: A Ukrainian village falls victim to another type of Russian war crime: cluster bombs

Accompanied by forensics experts and police, he collected the bodies and took statements from witnesses, beginning the process of bringing the cases to trial in Ukraine.

“Some people are in court already, and our job is to collect evidence,” Ilenkov said.

As his team took measurements and photos, artillery guns rumbled, a reminder that there were limits to what could be accomplished in a courtroom during wartime.

Prosecuting suspects means not only gathering evidence under dangerous conditions, but also identifying suspects and taking them into custody.

A vehicle that was hit by a Russian tank shell at the roadside near Mala Rohan, Ukraine. May 23, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

A reckoning has begun since Ukrainian defence forces pushed the Russian army back from Kyiv and Kharkiv.

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Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said 49 war crimes trials had been opened and 600 suspects identified. The first conviction came last week when a captured Russian soldier, Vadim Shishimarin, pleaded guilty to shooting a 62-year-old.

“While courts around the world are working to hold Russia accountable, the bulk of the investigation — and the largest number of prosecutions — will be done by Ukraine itself,” a post on her Twitter account read.

Russia has denied killing civilians.

Ilenkov said he was investigating 13 civilian deaths in the region around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Four bodies had been examined so far, he said. Three of the deaths were attributed to the tank shelling of a house.

Ukrainian war crimes investigator examines bullet holes at property where man was killed in Mala Rohan, Ukraine, May 23, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

The investigation into a fourth death began Monday in front of a house in Mala Rohan, a village 15 kilometres east of Kharkiv that was held by Russia until Ukrainian forces retook it in March.

The owner met Ilenkov at the front gate and said a 51-year-named Valery Kot was buried in the yard. He had died on March 25 during shelling.

He hid in the cellar when the shelling began and emerged when it ended, but then the barrage resumed and he was later found dead beside the house.

The investigators examined bullet holes in the metal front gate and an adjacent red brick wall, labelled them with yellow evidence markers, and took photos.

They placed police tape around the burial site, beside a cherry tree on a slope overlooking power transformers. A cross made of sticks lashed together with string served as a grave marker.

Valery Kot, top left, in a photo found in the house where he was killed in Mala Rohan, Ukraine. May 23, 2022. Handout

While two locals wearing surgical masks dug him up with shovels, an old man with a cane said Kot was on a pension, his family now in Poland.

He had worked for the police and then took a job as a security guard in Belgorod, a Russian city north of Kharkiv. He respected older people and never told lies, the man said.

Once Kot was unearthed, the diggers lifted him out and placed him beside the hole. He was dressed in Adidas sweatpants, a sweater and a pale blue jacket.

“It looks like a war crime,” Ilenkov said.

Owner of property in Mala Rohan, Ukraine, watches as war crimes investigators dig up man killed by Russian forces and buried in yard. Stewart Bell/Global News

Kot had not died from shellfire, he explained. Rather, he had been shot three times, apparently by a heavy machine gun. Since Russian soldiers held the town at the time, he reasoned they were responsible.

He noted that Kot was unarmed and was not a member of the Ukrainian armed forces. The intentional killing of civilians is a war crime.

To confirm the cause of death, the body would be sent to the coroner’s office, and ballistics experts would be called in, he said.

Read more: ‘Wolverines’ of Ukraine step out of shadows

Minutes later, Ilenkov was onto his next case at a nearby home. A woman dressed all in black led him through her front gate to the garden behind her house.

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She said the remains of her son Vladimir Vladimovic were buried beneath a piece of corrugated roofing placed overtop to keep the dogs from digging him up.

He was 38 and had worked for the railway. When the Russians took over Mala Rohan, he had stayed to help the villagers, she said.

“He helped everyone,” she said. “He was a very beautiful man.”

A mother holds a photo of her son, killed by a Russian tank shell in Mala Rohan, Ukraine. May 23, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

It happened at 7 a.m. on March 15, she said, when he was driving from Kharkiv to Mala Rohan with a load of medicines.

The friend who was with him called and told her what had happened. Hoping it was a mistake, that maybe he was in the hospital, the mother went looking for the car.

She found the wreckage near the village of Vilkhivka. She saw a Russian tank on the road. “My son was spread in pieces,” she said.

She gathered the bones she found and placed them in bags. Someone saw her struggling and gave her a wheelbarrow.

She pushed her son back to her house, a distance of 15 kilometres. Because of the shelling, it was too dangerous to lay him to rest in the cemetery so they buried him in the yard.

“Like a dog,” she said.

War crimes investigators exhume the remains of a man killed by Russian tank in Mala Rohan, Ukraine. May 23, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

Two months later, Ilenkov’s war crimes team exhumed the remains and accompanied the mother to the road where she had found him.

The shell of the Mercedes was still there, surrounded by broken glass and metal scraps. The mother and father confirmed it was the vehicle. Police took away the plates.

They said they would use them to identify the owner, who had survived. How he wasn’t killed, nobody knows, but the mother suspects he may have jumped out in time.

The father of a man killed by a Russian tank leaves the scene where it happened near Vilkhivka, Ukraine. May 23, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

Fragments of bone were still inside where the driver’s seat had been. The investigators placed them in evidence bags and took photos and video.

The vehicle appeared to have been directly targeted by a tank facing it on the road, Ilenkov said following his examination of the scene.

Russian forces held the area at the time. “We have enough information that it was done by Russian Federation soldiers,” he pronounced.

Mother searches for the remains of her son, killed by a Russian tank shell near Vilkhivka, Ukraine. May 23, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

Walking with a cane, the father, Volodymyr, paid silent tribute beside the demolished car. The mother Olha picked through the scorched debris.

She descended into the ditch beside the road and wandered the grassy field, looking for remains of her son, not wanting to leave any of him behind.

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Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca