Digital clues and the stories Ukraine's mass graves tell

Mass graves offend something deep in the human conscience because they fly in the face of our instinct to honor the dead. Years ago, I wrote a book about a war crimes trial in Rwanda and I always assumed mass graves were the work of perpetrators – a ham-handed effort to cover up unspeakable crimes. 

But in Ukraine, that’s only half the story. 

“In Bucha we have different kinds of mass graves,” says Mykhaliya Skoryk-Shkarivska, the city’s deputy mayor. 

The first is the kind that Ukrainians actually stumble upon, unexpectedly, in the forest or on the outskirts of town. “These are the mass graves where Russians executed people, digged the holes in the graves to hide them,” she says.  

And then there is a second kind of mass grave; the kind that appeared in many of the Russian-occupied cities in Ukraine – these mass graves were dug by local people to prevent disease, or to stop stray dogs from desecrating the bodies. In Bucha, the largest is near the Church of St. Andrew, in the center of town. Municipal workers and hospital employees dug it when they were still under occupation this past spring. 

“Russians allow them to do a temporary cemetery, so they dug a big trench and put like, they are saying… about 67 bodies inside,” says Skoryk-Shkarivska, who advised the mayor on digital innovation before the war. 

Eventually there would be hundreds of bodies in the temporary cemetery at St. Andrew. “You have to bury people even without the documentation. And when you do it without the documents, you have to dig them out” so people can identify them, she says. But there was no one to connect a name to a face with a body. 

To keep track of hundreds of DNA samples, establish cause of death, and gather evidence of possible war crimes someone has to organize millions of little digital clues. It fell to Skoryk-Shkarivska, in charge of all things digital for Bucha, to build a system to modernize something she’d never expected to modernize: a way to account for the dead. 

“Our system was not able to manage such a big amount of requests looking for the bodies or looking for the disappeared people and of course to recognize the corpses, '' she says. “Nobody in Bucha expected it to become a place of tragedy.”

Creating a system to account for the dead

Before the war, Skoryk-Shkarivska’s (“My foreign friends call me Mika–it is easier, no?” she says) digital innovation involved getting city data on computers and automating tax collection. City workers provided permits for single funerals on the cemetery grounds. 

Life as she knew it changed on a Thursday, announced by black smoke. Her first glimpse of what was to come was out near the airport. She was driving to get some gas in her car when she saw Russian aircraft flying low and she turned to see that the Ukrainian helicopters parked on the tarmac were already on fire.

“I heard heavy battles, very close,” she says. 

That was the starting gun. The world watched as things got worse from there. Russian troops entered Bucha on March 3, 2022 and they left 32-days later, leaving death and destruction in their wake. 

Mika had fled from Bucha hours after she’d seen the helicopters ablaze. She had been an activist and a journalist and was sure she would be included on a Russian hit-list. She gathered her son and didn’t wait to find out.

When Mika returned to Bucha in mid-April, the city’s satellite communications and electricity were back on and she had already mapped out what she would do next. “We asked our colleagues to provide us some smartphones and one iPad,” and she began collecting data on the dead. “We had lots of imprisoned people. We had lots of killed people,” she says. 

Bucha had police databases, missing persons reports, photographs of the disappeared on Telegram channels, but the problem was all these little clues were siloed. There was no central repository, no single database to search. Mika came to find out that even Ukraine’s morgues were mostly pen-and-paper operations. 

Digitizing records was something Bucha’s city officials had always intended to do – but never got around to.

Mika decided it was time to change all that. “We received data from five morgues around Bucha and we created a primary database,” she explains. The database ingested everything the morgues knew about the more than 400 bodies they had examined but didn’t have room to keep.

They had catalogued not just sex, approximate age, and hair color but a collection of details that might help families find their loved ones. Things like tattoos, birthmarks, and scars. Mika created a second database that cataloged who went into which mass grave and where. Then she cross-referenced the information so when families arrived with details about their missing relatives she knew exactly where to look. 

Her system allowed the families not just to honor the dead but to hold real funerals and proper burials for the people of Bucha. Knowing precisely what happened to each of them – before they were put in the mass graves – will take some time. “I think that in one year, in two years, maybe three years time, we will have not only the names and the data from the morgue, but also the results of the investigations,” she says, adding that it will be a painstaking forensic endeavor that will unfold in slow, incremental steps.

The database helps anchor things, offering not just a semblance of order but closure, too. “We are still helping families to recognize their killed relatives,” she says.

As forensic pathologists, ballistics experts, and international authorities descend on the city of Bucha, Mika has given them a place to start.

‘War crimes are about organizations’

Ambassador Stephen Rapp was the chief prosecutor of a Rwandan war crimes trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. I met him more than 20 years ago while I was writing a book about the trial of the journalists behind the radio station, RTLM, that helped foment the genocide. 

In the intervening years he’s been involved in war crimes prosecutions in Sierra Leone and Syria and then became an Ambassador-at-Large focused on war crimes at the State Department. So he is intimately familiar with what it takes to build these kinds of cases, and he’s advising the Ukrainian government on how it might build cases against Russian soldiers who committed atrocities during the war.

“Building a war crimes case is quite different from building a normal violent crime case,” Rapp says. “Most violent crimes involve some planning, but they are over and done with in a few minutes. You can control the crime scene and you can take advantage of video cameras.”

In Bucha, crimes were committed all over the city for 32 days. And, while there will be social media posts, CCTV footage, and witnesses’ secret iPhone videos to help build these cases, finding all that digital evidence — in a city of 30,000 in the midst of war — only scratches the surface of why trials for war crimes continue to be so complicated.

The physical evidence tells just part of the story. 

“You have mass graves, bodies left on the street for three or four weeks with hands tied behind their back with bullets in the back of heads,” Rapp says. “Those are situations in which there are war crimes without question. But then there’s the issue of who committed those crimes? Who's really responsible? Were they rogue units? Scared young soldiers who just acted out of their own impulses? Or was that part of a strategy in which the military command really looked to intimidate the population? That’s what we have to prove.” 

Before 2014, answering those kinds of questions was nearly impossible. Then two things happened. Mass surveillance moved from something that was largely in the purview of governments to becoming open source. 

And no collective of citizen investigative journalists leveraged that better than an organization called Bellingcat. It was behind a number of remarkable investigations, but the one that put it on the map was the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which disappeared from the radar over Ukrainian airspace in 2014. All 298 people aboard were killed. 

Bellingcat began looking through social media posts around eastern Ukraine, the area where the airplane went down. They managed to uncover the actual video of the Russian surface-to-air missile launcher not just coming into Ukraine shortly before the crash, but actually heading back to Russia the very next day carrying just three missiles instead of four. 

Dutch investigators were then able to find intercepted calls from that same period, and what they heard was confusion after rebels realized they may have just downed a commercial plane and their arguments over how to whisk the missile launcher back to Russia. In the end, four men — three Russians and a Ukrainian — were charged for the murder of all 298 people in absentia.

The story, unfortunately, doesn’t have a completely satisfying ending: eight years later, there’s still no verdict in the case. But Rapp says it is a good illustration of just how much digital information can help prosecutors make a seemingly impossible case stick. And, he adds, that was back in 2014.There is a lot more digital dust now, which could help when it comes time to prove who is responsible for crimes like the ones in Bucha. 

“It’s people up the chain,” he says. 

People like Russian President Vladimir Putin. People who ordered the bombardment of civilian targets in Ukraine. People who told soldiers to show “no mercy” to the residents of occupied cities. 

“Of course, it’s not an easy way to prove this system of command responsibility from the highest level,” Andriy Kostin, the prosecutor general of Ukraine told CBS’ Face the Nation recently. “We know who is responsible for it. Because the crime of aggression is the mother of all of these crimes: of war crimes, genocide, because without aggression, there will be no other war crimes. And for that reason, for the crime of aggression, the highest political and military leadership should be prosecuted and should be punished.”

Ambassador Rapp, who is part of a group strategizing how those trials might be organized, says it is a little more complicated than that. He says prosecutions need to be structured and systematic to bring speedier justice. In Rwanda, among others, there was the trial over the media, and a case focused on genocide and rape in the university town of Butare. 

“They could be working with police in particular on a strategic approach or perhaps moving in the direction of having a special court or a special division within the national court and within the national prosecutor service to deal with more mid-level offenders,” he said. 

Actually trying to prosecute Putin would be more complicated, he says, though Rapp made clear that Putin isn’t doing himself any favors by not having court martials or investigations when news of fresh atrocities surface.

Putin giving awards to at least one of the major units involved [in Bucha] as heroes and defenders of the fatherland, that you could impute responsibility all the way up to him, potentially,” he said.

Which is what Mika wants. She wants Putin and everyone who might have been responsible for what happened in Bucha to be held to account. 

In the meantime, it is hard to shake the feeling that Bucha is prelude. Mika says while she’s worried about what Putin might do next, her life in Bucha has to go on. So she’s making those accommodations you have to make when you’re at war. She carries her smartphone everywhere now because Bucha has instituted a new missile warning system – it sounds like one of those Amber Alerts but in this case it warns of rocket attack. 

She says the war has changed everyone. “My little son, he's seven years old. He's all the time talking about killing Putin and about Russians as enemies,” she says. And while he is back at school sometimes his class is held in the basement when the smartphone alerts ring. “It’s hard to be in a position that every minute you have to stop what you are doing and hide from the air attack.”

She says he builds pillow forts to protect them both now and has taken to singing Ukrainian patriotic songs. 

Sometimes they sing them together.

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Dina Temple-Raston

Dina Temple-Raston

is the Host and Managing Editor of the Click Here podcast as well as a senior correspondent at Recorded Future News. She previously served on NPR’s Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology, and social justice and hosted and created the award-winning Audible Podcast “What Were You Thinking.”