Ukrainian fighters who recently met with US State Department officials and members of Congress said they had witnessed war crimes committed by Russia during its war against Ukraine. During an interview with VOA, two Ukrainian warriors detailed personal stories and first-hand information about the atrocities committed by Russian troops.
United Nations investigators said there is evidence that Russian forces that invaded Ukraine in February 2022 committed war crimes. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine presented its findings on Friday 23 September to the UN Human Rights Council.
“They [Russian troops] use prohibited ammunition such as cluster munitions and phosphorus bombs which burn everything to the ground. It is forbidden by all civilized people,” Daria Zubenko, Master Sergeant of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told VOA State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching on Friday. “We know the facts about the rape of women and even children.
Russia has repeatedly denied accusations of abuse during its war against Ukraine.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization to boost troop levels, recruiting combat-age civilians into the army at a time when Russia’s armed forces are suffering significant losses.
Despite the buildup, “we are not afraid,” Yaryna Chornoguz, a Ukrainian combat medic and drone operator, told VOA. She added that Ukraine’s counteroffensive, with new security assistance from the United States, was progressing. “We believe we are winning them with our new weaponry.”
On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced $457.5 million in additional civil security assistance to build the capacity of Ukraine’s law enforcement and criminal justice agencies. Some of this new aid will continue to support the Ukrainian government’s efforts to “document, investigate, and prosecute atrocities perpetrated by Russian 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 am a a senior sergeant of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
VOA: What region of Ukraine are you from?
Zoubenko: I was born in Chernihiv. It is the northern part of Ukraine. Most of the time I lived in Kyiv, studied there and worked there.
VOA: What did you see during the war?
Zoubenko: I was officially in the armed forces since 2018. Before that, I was a volunteer paramedic in 2015. I spent time on the front line in 2015 in the Mariupol region near Donetsk. I gave first aid. And then, after a break, I joined the official armed forces and became a sniper school instructor.
With the large-scale invasion at the end of February, I took part in operations around Kyiv when there were wars and fighting around Kyiv region and also in Chernihiv region. I was in Irpin, I was in the Moshchun village which is north of Kyiv, where the Russians were arrested. And then we had operations in the Chernihiv region, going to the villages that have just been vacated by the Russians.
I saw people coming out of their homes. When they saw the Ukrainian troops and the Ukrainian flags, they started crying and saying, “Thank you, boys and girls, you’ve finally arrived. Most of them asked “Please make sure the Russians never come back”.
What these people have been through is truly horrific. We saw pictures of Bucha, Irpin and recently liberated towns like Izium, Kupyansk, and all those mass graves, all that 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 wouldn’t let them out – there were about 200 people in one place, with small children. The youngest was 3 months old.
And there were old people – none of them, unfortunately, could survive all this. Some men were taken out of this basement and taken by Russians into the forest and shot. I saw women who had just learned that their husbands had been killed – I was ashamed that we let that happen.
Russian (troops) have no principles or rules of war when dealing with civilians. That is why we hope to liberate our towns and villages as soon as possible.
VOA: Today, UN investigators said they found evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Do you think that’s a valid conclusion?
Zoubenko: It is good that these crimes are being investigated. The evidence is found, gathered, and we can finally punish those who do this. For Russia, no international law has ever worked.
We know the facts of raped women and even children. We know of evidence of people being killed (while) trying to evacuate. They (the Russian troops) were shooting at civilian cars. We know that people were captured and held somewhere in the basement and tortured.
VOA: Do you agree with the conclusion that Russia committed war crimes in Ukraine?
Zoubenko: Absolutely. We know, for example, that they use banned munitions such as cluster munitions and phosphorus bombs that burn everything to the ground. It is forbidden by all civilized people. But for Russia, it’s OK. We have seen it with our own eyes. We just need the world to react properly and Russia to be completely isolated.
Interview with Yaryna Chornoguz
VOA: Can you please tell our audience your name and where you were fighting on the front line?
Yaryna Chornoguz: My name is Yaryna Chornoguz. I am a soldier from the Ukrainian Marine Corps Reconnaissance Battalion which belongs to the Ukrainian Defense Forces. I am here from the front line of the Donetsk region. My battalion was at the front for 13 months. We saw many cities, Donetsk region, Mariupol, Bakhmut, Sloviansk and others.
VOA: What did you see during the war?
Chornoguz: First, when the war broke out, our battalion had been on rotation for eight months in [the] Luhansk region. And then, at the end of February, we were transferred in the direction of Mariupol in order to reinforce our besieged forces there.
But when we got to the outskirts of Mariupol, it was already a battle. We tried to limit the breakthrough in the city of Mariupol in northern Ukraine. And there, my battalion, we had really tough fights. I was at the observation post on the fuel road when we saw a big long column of Russian tanks moving on us and on the Ukrainian village and we had a hard fight. 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] large scale invasion, I had quite a difficult experience helping not only wounded soldiers because I am a combat medic but also a civilian.
I’ve told this story before on the American news [outlets] about the rescue of the 10 year old boy from the basement and his mother with a 10 month old [old] child in his hands. I just had this photo in front of me when we took the boy in a blanket… to our military car and evacuated this village. Every day it was bombarded with cluster bombs by the Russians.
What I can say now is that [the] The HIMARS system and the howitzers we received from the United States changed everything. They [Russian troops] came with such great forces, with such long columns of tanks and we managed to stop them. And I think we made a counter-offensive.
VOA: Thousands of Russians, men of fighting age, flee the country after the partial mobilization [of civilians into the military] government order. What does that tell you?
Chornoguz: I can tell you that the Ukrainians are joking about this conscription of Russians announced by Putin. Because you know, for the artillery that we received from our allies, and with our experience — it doesn’t matter whether it’s 10 occupants per square meter or whether it’s 100. It doesn’t matter. We believe we are winning them with our new weaponry. We are not afraid.