Warning: This article contains horrific images.
Jeroen, Last week I was for the first time in Bucha, the suburb of Kyiv now known all over the world. What did you find there at that moment?
First of all, there are a number of streets with black buildings, almost unrecognizable wreckage of tanks and armored vehicles, remnants of grenades in a spectacle of craters on the surface of the moon. We visited the city led by the Ukrainian army with dozens of journalists at the same time. To be honest, it was abrasive and I didn’t feel comfortable with that either. But sometimes you have to do something like that, if that’s the only way to come close.
The city of Boetsja and the surrounding area is known as one of the affluent neighborhoods and the place where people love to live. I now spoke to the afflicted people who survived the attack about their dead loved ones, their dead neighbors, and the raid of their city by the Russian army.
Horrific images of Bashta spread all over the world. Do we know more about what happened here?
It is clear that civilians were outlaws during the Russian occupation. What’s new for me is that the Russians ordered some civilians to collect the dead bodies and bury them in the church. So, on the other hand, the Russian army was also hiding its actions. But the kill rate was way too high for that. The mayor said at least 300 civilians were killed here.
People were shot in front of their homes. Others on their bikes in the middle of the street. I saw with my own eyes how some of the victims who were pulled out of a mass grave had their hands tied behind their backs, it was really horrific. A local priest told me that many of the bodies he saw had one shot in the head. It’s too bad for words, yet you have to find the right words for it.
You’ve been through a lot as a journalist in war zones like Chechnya and Georgia, but what impression does this make on you?
All these experiences made me realize the need for thorough investigations of war crimes. And I have not seen in previous wars that it is so fast with this in Ukraine. This is something that makes me feel positive. It is courageous that the direct investigations are carried out by local justice and an international team of lawyers, including the French.
In Chechnya, the investigation began later at that time. Now this official treadmill is starting to spin faster and a lot of speed is set. This is very important if you want to convict people of war crimes. This should go to the ICC as soon as possible.
At least seven journalists have been killed and 11 wounded since the Russian invasion began on February 24, according to Reporters Without Borders. Are you worried about your safety?
Yeah. It must. You should not feel safe in these types of areas. Although I am currently in Kyiv where it is relatively calm now, a few hundred kilometers from the real front line. You always have to keep in mind that the forehead can move. Also, people in a stressful situation sometimes do things they never thought possible.
It is possible that Russian forces will return and a missile attack cannot be ruled out. You cannot afford 100 percent security. But compare him to a fireman: he also does not say when the fires are too big that he will not put them out because they are too dangerous for him. Especially when it comes to human lives, as here, it’s a story that should always be told.
I was also in Kyiv before the invasion, when the massing of Russian forces around Ukraine had already begun. What shocked you then?
The impressive resistance you see now began to unfold long before the February 24 invasion. Of course, the war in Ukraine has been going on since 2014. This is something that needs to be emphasized, because the people here have already prepared well for a possible Russian invasion. And also very combative. They all thought: to give up a piece of Ukraine like Crimea, so we will never do it again.
I recently visited Lviv, a historical city about 80 kilometers from the border with Poland. What did you see there?
Lots of chaotic and heartbreaking scenes of people trying to get out of Ukraine. But there is a lot of militancy by those who are left behind and have armed themselves with their teeth to defend their city and country.
Before the war, I visited the now destroyed city of Mariupol and various places in eastern Ukraine, where fierce fighting is now taking place. How does the coming period look for you?
I’m not looking beyond a day at this point. At first, the plan was not to go to Kyiv, but since the front turned to the east, the possibility suddenly appeared.
Transportation through Ukraine is complicated. On the way you move from one checkpoint to another in many parts. That’s why we chose to travel by train last week. Unbelievable, they always lead, war or no war. There is also a curfew and sirens sound every night. You then have to wait until the weather is safe and take all kinds of precautions. That’s why we put this consideration every day: do we stay here or go somewhere else. You must always be on the alert.
“Infuriatingly humble social media buff. Twitter advocate. Writer. Internet nerd.”