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Truth is a mighty weapon in fight against inhumanity

Ukrainian servicemen attach a cable to the body of a civilian while checking for booby traps in the formerly Russian-occupied Kyiv suburb of Bucha, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022. As Russian forces pull back from Ukraine's capital region, retreating troops are creating a "catastrophic" situation for civilians by leaving mines around homes, abandoned equipment and "even the bodies of those killed," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Saturday.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian servicemen attach a cable to the body of a civilian while checking for booby traps in the formerly Russian-occupied Kyiv suburb of Bucha, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022. As Russian forces pull back from Ukraine's capital region, retreating troops are creating a "catastrophic" situation for civilians by leaving mines around homes, abandoned equipment and "even the bodies of those killed," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Saturday.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The charred and twisted metal on our screens from Bucha, near Kyiv, appear like an apocalyptic scene from Dante’s Inferno. Abandoned military hardware and soft bodies tied and shot from behind are reminiscent of scenes from the Second World War.

It makes uncomfortable viewing. And so it should. Such is the global outrage at the sight of bodies strewn on the street that cries of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes have echoed around the world. Even before we witnessed the scenes in Bucha there had been ample evidence that the Russian military had targeted civilians.

Early on in the invasion of Ukraine, an armoured personnel vehicle was filmed driving through a civilian neighbourhood. It diverted its course to run directly over a civilian car driving towards it, crushing it. The Russian military was sanctioned to target civilians.

I learned eyewitnesses reported that Russian troops “began to shoot from tanks in a circle, at homes near the street”. The formation of military hardware in a residential neighbourhood demonstrated clear intent to kill civilians. One observer said: “I think they had orders to shoot at houses and civilians…”

I have worked in war zones. In Kosovo, the plan was clear; to use the military to force the Kosavar Albanians to leave. In northern Syria just two years ago, the plan of the Turkish military was also clear; to use military conquest to force the Kurdish population to leave. In Myanmar in 2017 the tactic was the same. I documented how the military came in at the same time in three large townships to terrorise the Rohingya populations. This could only mean an order was given somewhere. More than 600,000 Rohingya refugees fled thereafter. Last month, the US government designated that crime genocide. I knew that after speaking to just 10 people at the time.

Former International War Crimes prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, told me that war is often the pretext for ‘forcible population transfer’. This innocuous-sounding legal term is enshrined in the Rome Statue that defines war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Ethnic cleansing is not a crime by international law, but ‘forcible population transfer” is. It amounts to the same thing – terrorise, and kill, so people leave.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes a one-sided attack on a sovereign nation. When this attack is extended to its defenseless citizens, it constitutes egregious crimes against humanity. But is it genocide? It is too early to judge; it will take years before such crimes are heard in a court of law. Only recently are the first hearings taking place about the crimes committed in Darfur in 2004. And we are still awaiting justice for the Holocaust.

I have spent 30 years documenting the crime of genocide. As the director of a technology-based storytelling company, I work with technology organisations, universities and individuals to ensure evidence is recorded in real time and kept securely.

We are the eyes of the world. Truth is an important weapon in the fight against injustice. As historians and advocates for humanity, we know there is no greater weapon than truth if justice is ever to be served.

One day, a court will determine the specific crimes committed in Ukraine this year. In the meantime, we will collect the truth, to ensure that the victims whose tangled bodies we have seen on our screens will get their day in court.

About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.
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