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Germany seeks Russian war crimes witnesses

Eugen Theise
September 7, 2022

Berlin is investigating war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Witness accounts by Ukrainian refugees are crucial, regardless of whether the perpetrators will eventually be tried in Germany or elsewhere.

Protests in Berlin against the war in Ukraine, Berlin reichstag buuilding,with protest signs and placards held up
Protesters in Berlin have spoken out against the war in UkraineImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

"We barricaded the windows with bricks when we heard shelling nearby," said Tetjana Kun, remembering the start of the Russian invasion. Six months later, the 65-year old is a refugee in Berlin, tearfully recounting the days of the occupation of Bucha near Kyiv.

"One day — I think it was March 10 — I saw through a crack in the window a convoy of cars driving down the street with white flags and a sign that read 'children,'" she said. The next day, she ventured into the city for the first time in weeks as the convoy had raised her hopes of evacuation. But what Kun saw shocked her. "The convoy I had seen the day before was completely shot to pieces," she said.

Tetyana Kun
Tetjana Kun still vividly remembers what she saw in BuchaImage: Privat

She recalls seeing overturned cars, engines, wheels with burnt tires, pillows, blankets and children's clothes full of holes, backpacks and suitcases everywhere. "There was a lot of blood on the cars," she said. A Russian soldier standing at a roadblock came over and she asked what had happened to the convoy. He told her they'd shot at them "because they didn't know who was in the cars," she said.

Hundreds of eyewitness reports

Until her escape on March 19, Kun witnessed many crimes being committed by the Russian occupiers, crimes that soon afterwards shocked the entire world when the Ukrainian army liberated Bucha in early April.

Julia Gneuss of the Department of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure at the University of Potsdam believes Kun should definitely tell German officials what she saw. "Investigations in connection with war crimes in Ukraine are structural investigation procedures," the lawyer told DW, adding that information is first gathered to "get as detailed a puzzle as possible."

Bodies lying in a muddy street, one with head covered, hands bound
Tied up and shot dead: Bodies strewn in the streets of BuchaImage: Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS

In June, the German parliament approved financing additional staff to investigate alleged war crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine. The Office of the Attorney General, which is coordinating the investigation, said it would gather "all evidence of war crimes." Law enforcement agencies have already received hundreds of statements from Ukrainian refugees indicating war crimes, the Attorney General's office has said.

Conviction in Germany unlikely

Given there are about 1 million refugees in the country, it's hard to say whether hundreds of testimonies can be considered a success. Kun, for instance, has yet to testify to German authorities. "I don't know who to turn to. And how should I testify? I don't know the language," she said.

In an effort to facilitate access, the Federal Criminal Police Office has had brochures distributed among refugees that explain that people can testify at any police station in Germany, and that they can fill out questionnaires in Ukrainian. Based on those documents, the authorities decide whether to speak to the witness, through an interpreter if necessary.

As recently as 20 years ago, Germany added the principles of international humanitarian law to its own legislation. That means anyone responsible for war crimes, no matter where they were committed, can be sentenced by a German court. War crimes include attacks by soldiers on the civilian population and civilian infrastructure like residential areas, hospitals, train stations and schools, but also the murder and torture of civilians or prisoners of war, extrajudicial executions, rape and the use of weapons prohibited by international conventions like cluster bombs and chemical weapons.

Trials in the absence of the accused are not provided for by law in Germany, however. In order to convict Russians responsible for the atrocities in Bucha, they would have to be in Germany, which is not a very likely scenario. So how significant are the German investigations under those circumstances?

Basically, the Germany authorities don't want the country to be a safe haven for international law criminals, said Julia Gneuss. And if a suspect would be caught elsewhere in Europe, Germany could then provide the witness accounts to help convict war criminals there. 

Mass murders and looting

Kun saw armed Russian soldiers threaten and rob locals in Bucha. "Once a tank stopped by a butcher's in the center of town. The soldiers got out and started shooting in different directions while others took away the loot. They shot at the surrounding windows, perhaps to make sure no one was taking pictures or filming," she said.

Her worst memory, however, is from Yablunska Street on the southern outskirts of the city, the area where Kun was born and spent her childhood. She saw entire families shot dead in their own gardens.

"There were not only dead bodies on the street, but also dead dogs — they even shot dogs," Kun said. According to city authorities, more than 400 civilians were killed in Bucha.

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.