A U.N. monitoring team in Ukraine says many violations of international humanitarian and human rights law allegedly committed by Russian forces may amount to war crimes.
The team has documented hundreds of violations since Russia invaded Ukraine 76 days ago. However, head of the U.N. human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, says the evidence gathered so far does not scratch the surface of the extent of atrocities committed during that time.
Latest reports put civilian casualties at more than 7,000 including about 3,390 killed. Bogner says the actual number is likely much higher.
She adds each death is not just a statistic. Each death is a person whose life has been destroyed, whose dreams for the future have been obliterated.
Russia has denied targeting civilians.
Last week, Bogner and her colleagues visited 14 towns in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions that had been occupied by Russian forces until the end of March.
She says people they met told them of relatives and friends being shot and killed by Russians while trying to escape. In one village, she says they met a 70-year-old man who had spent 24 days hiding in the basement of a local school.
“He told us with tears in his eyes that he shared a 76 square meter room with 138 people — the youngest was just two months old. The space was so crowded that he had to sleep standing up and so he tied himself to wooden rails to not to fall down,” she said.
Bogner says the monitoring team saw schools, hospitals, residential buildings destroyed in many areas visited. Throughout Ukraine, she says at least 50 Christian, Jewish, and Muslim places of worship have been damaged.
She says the team has been receiving credible information on unlawful killings, torture, allegations of rape, including gang rape, and disappearances.
“We documented some cases where Russian armed forces had detained civilians, mostly young men, and transferred them to Belarus and then Russia, where they have been held in pre-trial detention centers. Overall, since the 24th of February, we have documented 204 cases of enforced disappearances…the overwhelming majority of them by Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups,” she said.
Bogner says her team has received reports of prisoners of war having been subjected to torture, ill-treatment, and incommunicado detention by both Ukrainian and Russian armed forces. She notes this violates fundamental rules of international humanitarian law and must stop.
She says the monitoring mission will release a report of its findings in June. While alleged abuses committed by both Russian and Ukrainian forces are documented, she notes the scale of violations committed by Russia is significantly higher.