Opinion: In Ukraine, a river of horrors has swelled to a flood | CNN

Editor’s Note: Oleksandra Matviichuk is a Ukrainian human rights lawyer and defender who heads the Center for Civil Liberties. The Center received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 for its work. In February 2022, she, together with other partners, created the “Tribunal for Putin” initiative to document international crimes taking place in Ukraine. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.


Since my organization, the Center for Civil Liberties, was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize last year, I’ve met a lot of people around the world. They often ask what motivates me to keep on going amid this terrible conflict. How do I manage to get up every day, eat breakfast, have coffee and then turn to my daily work as a human rights lawyer: documenting the now thousands of hideous atrocities that have been committed — and are being still committed — by the Russian Federation’s armed forces against the people of Ukraine.

During those first weeks of the war last year, it was anger that fueled me. Anger that these Russians with their tanks and artillery and planes should decide they had the right to take away our freedom; anger that they should decide we Ukrainians can’t have a democratic future.

Like other Ukrainians who believe a government should serve and protect its people, rather than plunder them, I know how much we have achieved in rooting out the corrupt legacies of Soviet rule that have lingered so long in our system. I know how much blood was spilled in Kyiv’s Maidan Square during our Revolution of Dignity in 2014 by people who wanted to break from Russia’s toxic political grip.

Ukraine has made many steps on a democratic path that began during this revolution. Government was decentralized to give more rights to local communities. Parliament adopted anti-corruption legislation, making it difficult to hide misuses of power. Changes to our Constitution opened the way to judicial reform. There are a lot of things that still need to be done, but we were on the right track.

And then Vladimir Putin unleashed his armed forces to take it all away, expanding on the aggression that began with the seizure of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. So, I was very angry. And I was going to do what I could to fight back — the same decision made by so many Ukrainians both at home and abroad.

For me, it is vital that we continue our progress toward democratization, even during this full-scale conflict.

Putin has attempted to convince the world that democracy and human rights are fake values because, he argues, they have offered no protection against the reality of war and the projection of power. That’s why we, in turn, must demonstrate justice. We must be able to say yes, there was a period when the law didn’t work, but it was only temporary. We must fix this problem, and hold Russian war criminals accountable.

My organization, the Center for Civil Liberties, has been documenting abductions, illegal detentions, rapes, tortures and extra-judicial killings in the occupied territories since 2014. But since February last year, that river of horrors has turned into a flood.

Together with other organizations, we have recorded over 31,000 cases of war crimes and abuse of civilians in cities, towns and tiny villages across our country up to the end of 2022. Yes, this is part of a wider effort, collecting evidence towards that goal of holding to account the perpetrators. But we are also telling the human story of what happened — of the pain inflicted on individuals, families and communities — to bring home that this is not a matter of numbers, but people.

Our work makes it clear that the global community needs to establish an international tribunal to hold Putin and his commanders to account.

Destroyed Russian armored vehicles line a street in the city of Bucha, Ukraine, on March 4, 2022.

To those who argue Ukraine should stop fighting now, and accept lost territory, I say, come with me and meet the citizens who survived Russian atrocities in Bucha. Come hear the stories that I hear of life in towns and villages in Eastern Ukraine overtaken by Russian forces: the killing and persecution of mayors, public activists, journalists, volunteers, priests, artists and countless others. During this brutal occupation, people have had no rights, they cannot protect their freedom, property, life and dearest. There can be no peace until the Russians withdraw from our territories.

Over this past year, the emotions I have experienced have evolved. Yes, I still feel anger over the death and destruction inflicted on Ukraine. But I have also felt a rising tide of love.

Because amid so many disappointments — in the ability of the international order to protect us, in the idea that the laws of war protect civilians — I have found we can still rely on people.

I have seen this war show the best of my fellow Ukrainians, supporting each other, every day, everywhere, in millions of the most simple acts. During the blackouts caused by Russia’s attacks on our power stations, for instance, I see messages on neighborhood Internet chat groups — people saying, “we don’t have power but we still have gas; please get in touch if you need to cook a meal.” I see people rescuing each other from the rubble of buildings brought down by Russian missiles. I see them looking after refugees fleeing the fighting in the East.

This was the spirit I saw before in Maidan Square during the 2014 protests. Those protests kept on, despite the police beatings, and then the killings, because we believed in something better. And it came.

And so this love extends further, perhaps, to the vision of a country that can rise from all this — of a future Ukraine where human rights are respected. Where perhaps we no longer need a Center for Civil Liberties to fight for them. Perhaps even to a vision of the world where this spirit of shared humanity prevails.

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