Content warning: This article contains images and accounts of death that may be distressing.
On November, 29, 2022, photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly entered the small village of Pravydyne, in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine. On assignment for The New York Times, he was accompanied by his Ukrainian colleague Evelina Riabenko, her husband, and a group of war crimes investigators from the Ukrainian state, including forensic expert Serhiy Motrych. The group fanned out around the area, speaking to villagers about their experiences over the past eight months.
Just a couple weeks before, the area had been under Russian control. Occupied from the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine it had been liberated after a counter-offensive saw Ukrainian forces recapture the city of Kherson and much of its surrounding areas. After some time walking around the village, Evelina came with some disturbing information.
“Hey,” Riabenko said to O’Reilly, pointing in the direction of a partially destroyed, pale blue house. “This woman told me that there’s a house over there where there’s bodies buried in the garden – they were executed by soldiers.”
The pair alerted the war crimes investigators, and together they went over to the house and started speaking to the neighbours. They told them that the building once housed six out-of-town security guards, who worked for an agricultural firm, and one of them had started a relationship with a 15-year-old girl named Viktoria Volokhova. She had allegedly been abused by her stepfather, and fearing that he might be in line for retributive action, he fabricated a story saying that the guards were spying on the Russian military, according to the neighbours.
Local resident Anatoliy Sikoza said he heard an explosion at the house one morning and ran over. Amongst the rubble were the bodies of the six security guards and Volokhova, but Sikoza told O’Reilly and the investigators, he didn’t think the explosion had killed them. Volokhova’s body indicated that she had been strangled, while some of the men’s hands were tied together and their heads appeared to have gunshots through the back of the skulls. The investigators exhumed the bodies, and the evidence on the corpses corroborated Sikoza’s claims.
That story, and the harrowing photographs O’Reilly took that day – including the mass grave where the men were buried – is found among the pages of newly-published photobook Ukraine: A War Crime. It is just one tragic tale that the book, published by FotoEvidence, contains. Alongside it is an immense collection of hundreds of photographs taken by 92 photojournalists who have spent time working in Ukraine covering the war since Russia’s full-scale invasion began on February 24, 2022.
The book’s title sets out its mission in no uncertain terms. Spread across over 500 pages, it is a wide-ranging archive and dossier filled with photographic and written evidence of war crimes committed over the past 20 months by Russian forces in the country. Many of the pictures are horrific and distressing – mass graves found in similar cases to the one O’Reilly found, countless civilian corpses lining streets, dead children killed in shelling, and written tales of people burying friends, neighbours and relatives. As of 24 September 2023, Ukraine has accused the Russian military of committing 108,682 war crimes, with The Guardian recently reporting that human rights lawyers are working with Ukraine’s public prosecutor to present a document providing evidence of war crimes to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“Svetlana [Bachevanova, Concept and Artistic Director of the book] was very interested in creating a document that might be useful, that shows war crimes and talks about it – it’s a historical document of the first year of the war,” explains Sarah Leen, Editor of Ukraine: A War Crime. “So there was a lot of death in the photography that was submitted and a lot of horrible civilian tragedy, not to mention the soldiers. And there’s a lot of work being done by Ukrainians to investigate the death of civilians because I’m sure this will end up in court some day.”
The book begins with the opening salvos of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. It progresses roughly chronologically, with sections that are dedicated to some of the war’s most tragic moments and places, from the massacres in Bucha and other suburbs of Kyiv to the wanton physical destruction of towns and infrastructure – razed to the ground via relentless artillery fire and bombing.
“The biggest case of atrocities and war crimes would be places like Bucha and Izium – those are the most notable,” O’Reilly says, reflecting on what he saw during his time in the country. “I wasn’t in Bucha when all of that was happening, but I think you can talk about war crimes on an almost daily basis in terms of the disregard for civilian life and the shelling of civilian centres.
“With war crimes, if they are ever tried, bringing people to justice is a very long process,” O’Reilly continues. “It takes decades, so the important things for us as photojournalists is to document what we can.”
Leen edited the book with the help of Ukrainian Irynka Hromotska, the project’s Assistant Photo Editor, and together they worked to integrate the work of Ukrainian photojournalists, as well as their international counterparts. Alongside the high-profile tragedies, the book also explores the wider impacts of the war – how children have been forced out of school and settled in new countries, the thousands of pets left without their owners and homes, and the scores of families split up with men leaving their homes and communities to go and fight in the military.
“It was really challenging to handle. First of all, it was really hard to look at, I swear I was getting PTSD looking at some of the pictures,” Leen says. “Then trying to find that balance in the book between the tragedy of this war, the war crimes and the strength and resilience and courage of the people who are living through this.”
And that strength of the Ukrainian population forms a key part of Ukraine: A War Crime. There are images of resistance – such as the residents in Drohobych banding together to make traditional meat dumplings (pelmeni) for soldiers on the frontline, or civilians learning how to make and use Molotov cocktails. “I think it’s important to show what we showed in terms of the war crimes, the tragedy involved and the suffering,” she adds. “But also, the Ukrainian people have been absolutely astounding and amazingly strong. The way they stepped up to volunteer, the way they take care of one another – their children and families – the way they’ve been living continuously through the bombings and everything that is so directed at civilians.
“It’s not something that’s on some frontline [far away]. It’s at their homes, their apartments, their schools and their hospitals. They’re hand in hand – the tragedy of the war and the resilience of the people.”