The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid the death and rubble, Ukrainian teams hunt for evidence of possible war crimes

People dug through piles of rubble on March 6 in Markhalivka, a village about six miles southwest of Kyiv, following a Russian airstrike. (Video: Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post, Photo: Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)
9 min

MARKHALIVKA, Ukraine — Ihor Mozhayev walked unsteadily atop the rubble of his destroyed house, a dazed look on his bruised face. In his path were the remnants of what was left of his life.

A red Christmas decoration, a dust-covered leopard-print pillow, notebooks with neat handwriting, a school bookbag and pieces of toys were among dozens of shattered memories. Scattered in the debris were family photos of loved ones now forever lost.

Mozhayev, 54, his right cheek purplish and swollen, picked up a small plastic chair stained with blood. “That’s her chair,” he said in a low voice that faded into the hum of a bulldozer nearby. “During the day she was always sitting up in this chair.”

The chair belonged to his 12-year-old disabled daughter, Masha. She was killed with her mother, grandmother, and three other civilians in a suspected Russian airstrike on Friday in this speck of a village roughly six miles southwest of the capital, Kyiv. Two of Mozhayev’s grandchildren, ages 7 and 8, were pulled from the rubble, miraculously alive.

On Saturday, as Mozhayev surveyed the wreckage, a slim man dressed in camouflage green with a Ukrainian military identification card around his neck filmed his every move. He was gathering evidence for a potential case against Moscow before an international tribunal.

What are war crimes — and could Russia be committing them in Ukraine?

As Russian forces encircle Ukrainian cities and widen assaults to once calm areas, the six villagers killed entered the grim — and growing — registry of civilian deaths compiled by the United Nations since the invasion began 11 days ago. As of midnight Saturday, the U.N. had recorded 364 civilian deaths, including 25 children, and 707 wounded. Among the wounded were 36 children. Heavy artillery, multiple rocket launchers, missiles and airstrikes caused most of the deaths, the U.N. said over the weekend, adding that the toll is likely higher.

The rising number of civilian casualties has prompted accusations that Moscow has committed war crimes in its relentless bombardment of nonmilitary targets in cities, as well as its alleged use of weapons that heighten the risk of death and injury for noncombatants.

In pursuit of evidence, Ukraine’s government has opened a new front in the conflict, dispatching visual teams to bombed sites to make a case against Russia at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

“The Ukrainians are mobilized as never before,” said Serhiy Lysenko, the military videographer who was filming in the rubble. “This is more about making a record of Russia’s crimes. We do believe in The Hague.”

Blinken raises issue of possible Russian war crimes

“We’ve seen very credible reports of delivered attacks on civilians which would constitute a war crime,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Human Rights Watch has accused Russia of using internationally banned cluster munitions to bomb residential areas and kill civilians in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. Such weapons open in the air, dispersing hundreds of small submunitions over a large area can kill or maim indiscriminately and “might constitute a war crime,” the watchdog group said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a phone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, said Russia’s forces were doing all they can “to preserve the lives of civilians” in Ukraine, according to a Kremlin readout on Thursday.

Last week, the ICC announced that it will “immediately proceed” to investigate possible war crimes unfolding in Ukraine. And on Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the decision, saying “we have seen the use of cluster bombs,” as well as reports of other types of weapons used that “are in violation of international law.”

The airstrike, and the family tragedy it bore, is one piece of possible evidence that many in this devastated village hope will help hold Russia accountable.

With 11 people living in Ihor Mozhayev’s house, it was unusually full when it was hit.

Among the occupants were a daughter and her family who had fled their apartment in Kyiv the day of the invasion. A niece and her boyfriend, as well as a family friend, were also staying there.

“We thought we would be safe from the war here,” said Dasha Kormilenko, Mozhayev’s daughter, standing in the debris of wood and bricks next to her father.

Earlier on Friday, her mother, grandmother, husband and the family friend drove out in their car to stock up on food and other supplies. About 3 p.m. they were pulling up in front of their spacious house on a quiet street lined with other houses. Mozhayev was resting on a couch in the living room.

That’s when the airstrike hit.

“There was a loud noise, and then an explosion,” he recalled. “I woke up buried under the rubble.”

He managed to reach his phone. Neighbors arrived and began to dig through the rubble, following his shouts for help. Five minutes later, they pulled him out, as well as his two grandchildren, Sasha and Losha, the children of Dasha.

Mozhayev, his chest squeezed between the toppled bricks, had difficulty breathing. “I was in a state of shock,” he said. “They took me to a hospital.”

Four hours later, his friends reluctantly gave him the tragic news.

His wife, Anna, and the others had died inside the car, which exploded into flames. Masha, who couldn’t walk because a drunk driver hit her eight years ago, was also dead. So was the boyfriend of Mozhayev’s niece.

Dasha and his niece were fortunate in not being there. They had both gone to Kyiv to collect some more possessions from Dasha’s apartment. Many of the neighbors, too, were fortunate. While the strike obliterated at least five houses and damaged several others, only one woman among the neighbors was hurt, a woman whose arm was fractured.

His other neighbors, said Mozhayev, had already fled. Many were by then in the western city of Lviv. “Some 30 percent of people in the village seems to have left,” he said.

On Saturday morning, Mykola Medynsky arrived at the site of the attack. The tall and burly Ukrainian military chaplain clutched a wooden cross and wore a long, camouflage-green cleric’s robe and a gold embroidered vestment. He was accompanied by Lysenko, the military videographer.

Since the invasion began, the pair have comforted hundreds of civilians trapped by war in the capital. “We go down to the basements where people are hiding,” said Medynsky. “If we feel that people have anxiety, we start to work with them gently, with prayers, psychological work, moral support.”

They have visited five sites where Russian rockets or missiles have hit residential buildings or areas like Markhalivka where there are no government buildings, army bases or other military targets. They said this was the deadliest attack yet in and around the capital. “In Kyiv no one was killed, but here six people died, and the destruction was huge,” Medynsky said.

There was another reason he was here with a cameraman, he said.

“I came here to help people, but at the same time, I want our press service to show this footage to the world as yet another proof of Russia’s crimes, crimes against peaceful civilians.”

War crimes, under international law, include the targeting of civilians, as well as assaults that cause disproportionate civilian casualties given the military objective. This includes attacks on hospitals, clinics, schools, and other key civilian sites, as well as attacking or bombarding towns, villages or dwellings that are undefended and which are not military objectives.

Still, many horrific acts of violence that result in the deaths of noncombatants would not meet the criteria. And in most cases, proving that civilian killings constitutes a war crime is extremely difficult, requiring lawyers to show the attacker intentionally sought to harm civilians or strike forbidden targets.

No one here understands why the village was targeted. Ukrainian forces manning a checkpoint into the village said there was a small military unit nearby, Lysenko said. But there was also speculation, he added, that the Russian jet was hit by Ukraine’s air defenses and jettisoned its bombs to reach safety. But Lysenko rejects this argument.

“He fired at the residential area just out of spite,” he said, referring to the Russian pilot. “If he simply wanted to get rid of the munitions, he would have fired them into the woods or fields nearby.”

Minutes later, Medynsky stood atop a pile of debris and gathered Mozhayev, his family and neighbors together. Then, he delivered a melodic sermon that lasted three minutes.

“A true Ukrainian people is being born, a true Ukrainian nation, a people that no one will ever be able to divide,” he told the gathering. “And your family perished, having made a sacrifice, so that you and future generations would live. … Let us, all together, pray for those who perished for Ukraine.”

As he finished, tears were sliding down Dasha’s face.

Afterward, the family returned to the rubble.

With their hands, they dug. They were looking for deeds of apartments they owned in Kyiv, their children’s birth certificates, their passports, even a large bag of money they had placed in a bedroom, said Dasha, who is in her 20s.

Her father’s house was once the safest place to store their valuables. Now, these are the items they needed most to leave the village, perhaps even the country. Their neighbors have offered rooms in their homes, but the family understands they can’t stay there forever.

As he sifted through the debris, Mozhayev found a black and white tattered photo of his wife Anna as a girl in ponytails. “She was younger than me by eight years,” he said, eyes on the photo.

“She went to buy flour to bake bread,” said her husband, his voice fading. “She was in line for an hour and a half,” came home, and pulled up in the car just as the bomb fell.

Volodymyr Petrov in Markhalivka and Claire Parker in Washington contributed to this report.