Ukrainian female fighters who recently met with U.S. State Department officials and members of Congress said they witnessed war crimes committed by Russia during its war on Ukraine. During an interview with VOA, two Ukrainian warriors detailed personal stories and firsthand information on atrocities committed by Russian troops.
United Nations investigators have said there is evidence that Russian forces who invaded Ukraine in February 2022 committed war crimes. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine presented its findings on Friday, September 23, to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
"They [Russian troops] use forbidden ammunitions like cluster munitions and phosphorus bombs that burn everything to the ground. It's prohibited by all the civilized world," Daria Zubenko, a senior sergeant in the Ukrainian armed forces, told VOA State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching on Friday. "We know the facts of women being raped and even children."
Russia has repeatedly dismissed accusations of abuses during its war on Ukraine.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization to boost troop levels, recruiting civilians of fighting age into the military at a time when Russian armed forces are suffering significant losses.
Despite the buildup, "we don't fear," Yaryna Chornoguz, a Ukrainian combat medic and drone operator, told VOA. She added that Ukraine's counteroffensive, with the new security assistance from the United States, has been making progress. "We believe we win them because of our new weaponry."
Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced an additional $457.5 million in civilian security assistance to boost capacity of Ukrainian law enforcement and criminal justice agencies. A portion of this new assistance will continue U.S. support for the Ukrainian government's efforts to "document, investigate and prosecute atrocities perpetrated by Russia's forces," according to the State Department.
The following includes excerpts from the interviews, which have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Interview with Daria Zubenko
VOA: Can you please tell our audience your name?
Daria Zubenko: My name is Daria Zubenko. I'm a a senior sergeant of Ukrainian armed forces.
VOA: Which area in Ukraine are you from?
Zubenko: I was born in Chernihiv. It's the north part of Ukraine. Mostly I lived in Kyiv, studied there and worked there.
VOA: What have you seen during the war?
Zubenko: I was in the armed forces officially since 2018. Before, I was a volunteer paramedic in 2015. I spent some time on the front line in 2015 around Mariupol region near Donetsk. I gave first aid. And then, after a break, I joined the official armed forces and became an instructor of sniper school.
With the full-scale invasion in the end of February, I took part in operations around Kyiv when there was war and combat battles around Kyiv region and also in Chernihiv region. I was in Irpin, I was in the village Moshchun that is north from Kyiv, where Russians were stopped. And then we had operations in Chernihiv region, going into the villages that have just been left by Russians.
I saw people coming out of their houses. When they saw Ukrainian troops and Ukrainian flags, they started crying and saying, 'Thank you, boys and girls, finally you came.' Most of them asked 'Please make sure that Russians never come back.'
What those people have experienced is really horrible. We saw pictures of Bucha, Irpin and recently liberated cities like Izium, Kupyansk, and all these mass graves, all this evidence of people being tortured, captured and killed.
In [a] small village of Yahidne near Chernihiv, people spent about a month locked in the basement. Russian troops didn't let them go out — there were about 200 people there in one place, with small children. The youngest child was 3 months old.
And there were some older people — none of them unfortunately could survive all of this. Some men were taken out of this basement and convoyed by Russians to the forest and shot. I saw women who just received the news about their husbands being killed — I felt ashamed that we just let this happen.
Russian (troops) don't have any principles or any rules of war when dealing with civilians. That's why we hope to liberate our cities and towns as soon as possible.
VOA: Today, the U.N. investigators said they found evidence of war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. Do you think it's a valid finding?
Zubenko: It's good that these crimes are being investigated. The evidence is found, gathered, and we can finally get some punishment to those who are doing that. For Russia, no international law ever worked.
We know the facts of women being raped and even children. We know evidence of people being killed (while) trying to evacuate. They (Russian troops) were shooting civilian cars. We know people have been captured and held somewhere in the basement and tortured.
VOA: Do you agree with the finding that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine?
Zubenko: Absolutely. We know, for example, they use forbidden ammunitions like cluster munitions and phosphorus bombs that burn everything to the ground. It's prohibited by all the civilized world. But for Russia, it's OK. We saw it with our own eyes. We just need the world to react properly and for Russia to be completely isolated.
Interview with Yaryna Chornoguz
VOA: Can you please tell our audience your name, and where on the front line you were fighting?
Yaryna Chornoguz: My name is Yaryna Chornoguz. I'm a soldier of Reconnaissance Battalion of Ukraine Marine Corps which belongs to Ukraine Defense Forces. I'm here right from the front line from the Donetsk Region. My battalion has been on the front lines during 13 months. We have seen plenty of towns, Donetsk region, Mariupol, Bakhmut, Sloviansk, and the others.
VOA: What have you seen during the war?
Chornoguz: First, when the war started, our battalion had been eight months on the rotation in [the] Luhansk region. And then at the end of February we were relocated to the Mariupol direction in order to reinforce our embattled forces there.
But when we came to the outskirts of Mariupol, it was already in battle. We tried to restrain the breakthrough in the Mariupol city to the north of Ukraine. And there, my battalion, we had really hard battles. I was on the observation post on the fuel road when we see a big long Russian tank column that moved on us and on the Ukrainian village and we had hard battles. My commander was killed.
I saw with my own eyes how Russian tanks destroyed and ruined villages of Ukrainians. During the first month of [Russia's] full-scale invasion, I had a quite hard experience to help not only wounded soldiers because I'm a combat medic, but also a civilian.
I already told that story to the American news [outlets] about rescuing the boy age 10 from the basement and his mother with a 10-month [old] child in her hands. I just had this picture before my eyes when we took the boy in a blanket … to our military car and evacuated that village. Every day, it was bombed by cluster munitions by Russians.
What I can say now is that [the] HIMARS system, and the Howitzers that we got from the U.S. changed everything. They [Russian troops] came with such big forces, with such long tank columns and we managed to stop them. And I believe that we've made counteroffensive.
VOA: Thousands of Russians, men of fighting age, are fleeing the country after the partial mobilization [of civilians into the military] order from the government. What does that tell you?
Chornoguz: I can tell you that Ukrainians are joking about this conscription of Russians that Putin has announced. Because you know, for artillery that we got from our allies, and with our experience — it doesn't matter whether it's 10 occupants per square meters or whether it's 100. It doesn't matter. We believe we win them because of our new weaponry. We don't fear.