She was a famous Ukrainian writer but the war turned her into an investigator of crimes against humanity

The Ukrainian writer, Victoria Amelina, during one of her tours looking for testimony on war crimes in towns surrounding the city of Kharkiv. (Twitter)

There is a time to write and another to listen. One to get carried away while hitting the little keys and another in which the writer is nourished, reports and receives testimony. Ukrainian novelist victoria amelina37, decided it was time to put down the computer, put on a headset, and start compiling what was happening, delve into the darkest to give light to the next generations. Her country is at war, invaded by Russia, and she understood that she could no longer abstract herself and imagine stories. The reality in Ukraine is too heavy not to perceive it. Amelina put aside daily writing to become a chronicler of horror. For eight months he has been traveling through the battlefields looking for testimonies and gathering evidence that, he hopes, will bring the war criminals before international courts and receive punishment. “It is impossible to write about anything other than the war and there are already too many journalists more qualified than me to tell what is happening. I decided to do something for which you can no longer interview”, Amelina tells the Kyiv Independent from Kharkiv.

Her conversion into a war crimes investigator began with the disappearance of her colleague and friend, Volodymyr Vakulenkofamous writer of children’s literature who had remained in the town of Kapitolivkanearly iziumin the oblast (province) of Khakiv, to care for your disabled child. The area was occupied by the Russians at the time. The rampant murders, rapes and torture that became known as soon as the invading troops were forced to withdraw made her think of the worst. She decided that as soon as the town of Kapitolivka was liberated, she was going to go and investigate what had happened to Vakulenko. But for that she had to prepare. It was when she contacted the organization Truth Hounds, specialized in the collection of evidence to present the charges in cases of crimes against humanity. She attended virtual and face-to-face classes from prosecutors, anthropologists, and police officers. She spent whole nights reading the statutes of the geneva convention and the treaties of rome.

“I do not believe that Law and human rights are fields reserved for people with a Law degree. As a last resort, the law deals with human beings, or at least it should have people at the center; this is what makes law look like literatureAmelina explained.

Mariia Kurbet visits the grave of her son, Vasyl, in the Bucha cemetery.  The victims of some of the worst war crimes committed by the Russians in this invasion of Ukraine are buried there.  (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)
Mariia Kurbet visits the grave of her son, Vasyl, in the Bucha cemetery. The victims of some of the worst war crimes committed by the Russians in this invasion of Ukraine are buried there. (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko) (VALENTYN OGIRENKO/)

In September, as soon as Ukrainian forces liberated Kapitolivka, he traveled with a team of experts to begin the investigation into the disappearance of Vakulenko and hundreds of others. “I knew that there would be thousands of war crimes even without this specific case,” says Amelina. This is how he learned from the Kharkiv police that agents of the Russian special forces took the writer away on the night of March 24, 2022in a car that was identified by the classic “Z” of the invaders. Two days later they found three torture chambers in the nearby town of Balakliia. In the forest, on the outskirts of Izium, a mass grave with hundreds of corpses was found. Amelina was there preparing the bodies for identification and taking photos of the victims’ distinctive features and clothing. On November 28, when the DNA tests arrived, it was confirmed that Volodymyr Vakulenko’s corpse was found in grave number 319 of the infamous collective forest cemetery. Serhiy BolvinovKharkiv police chief of investigation, informed BBC Ukraine in December 2022 that two 9 mm caliber bullets were found in Vakulenko’s body, fired with “probably” with a Makarov pistol, like the one used by Russian officers.

Amelina continued to investigate, went to see Vakulenko’s parents and managed to find the diary that her friend was writing about the war and had buried under a cherry tree in the yard a few minutes before they were going to kidnap him. She joined the evidence for when the time comes for the trial. This month it is being exhibited at the Kharkov Literary Museum. In her last entry you can read: “Everything will be Ukraine! I believe in victory.” “It seems that he wrote it in a hurry, with his executioners at the door”Amelina commented.

There is another story that marked Amelina and that has been developing for decades in her hometown of Lviv, where she was born in 1986. She explains it this way in an essay she wrote for Arrowsmith Press: “The historian Timothy Snyder titled his book about these lands between the Baltic and the Black Sea “Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin”. In it he recounts how both regimes pursued their utopian project in my native Ukraine, murdering millions of people in the process. The Red Terror and the Ukrainian genocide known as Holodomor, the mass killing of Polish officers and the so-called Ukrainian Executed Renaissance, which involved the systematic disappearance and killing of hundreds of the country’s writers, the Holocaust and other Nazi mass murders occurred here, in the territory I call home. These events turned the region into the deadliest place on the planet during the 1930s and 1940s″.

Volodymyr Vakulenko, famous Ukrainian children's writer.
Volodymyr Vakulenko, the famous Ukrainian writer of children’s literature. Victoria Amelina investigated his disappearance and recovered the diary that Vakulenko was writing. (PEN Club/Facebook)

While developing his literary career with stays in Canada and the United States, he earned the Joseph Conrad Award 2021 and was a finalist European Union Prize for Literature 2019 for his novels “The syndrome of the fall or Homo Compatiens” and “Dom’s Dream Kingdom”, translated into English, Polish, German, Czech and Dutch, traveled through her native Lviv in search of the roots that later led her to her work as a war crimes investigator. “My hometown is situated right in the middle of the ‘bloodlands’, in western Ukraine. Lviv was founded in 1256 by Danylo, King of Ruthenia. However, German speakers remember it as Lemberg, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Poles remember it as Lwów. During the too-long life of the Soviet Union, Lviv became Russified: many of its new citizens called it L’vov,” she continued to explain in her essay.

He discovered that his city was home to some of the most brilliant authors who described the atrocities committed in these bloody lands and that while they belonged to the former Soviet Union, there was never any talk of the Holocaust or anything that happened there. “It is that, if they had to explain a genocide, they had to talk about their own. It was better for them to ‘forget’ everything”, explains Amelina. This is how she found around her own house the family of Philippe Sandsauthor of “East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity”. This brilliant book examines the life and work of Raphael Lemkin and hersh lauterpacht, the lawyers who played a key role in the Nuremberg trials, and who in the process defined modern concepts of human rights. “If it weren’t for these two men, who happened to also live and study in the city of Lviv, the world would be a different place today. As my family and I would be, ”he says. Lemkin, was the one coined the term “genocide” to describe the systematic destruction of a nation.

In the same neighborhood of Lviv, lived the Polish writer and philosopher Stanislaw Lemmbest known as the author of the science fiction novel “Solaris”later adapted to the cinema by Andrey Tarkovsky (1972) and Steven Soderbergh (2002). Stanislaw Lem was one of the few descendants of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Lviv. He never wanted to speak or write explicitly about his experience, and he never returned to the city. “This silent ‘neighbor’ became important to me as a writer. I wanted to understand how the silence about genocide overlaps and is transposed. When I dared to write about the Holodomor survivor who lived in the Holocaust survivors’ apartment, I set my novel precisely in Stanislaw Lem’s apartment in Lviv, near the old park that all the neighbors shared”, writes Amelina.

Victoria Amelina, investigating war crimes in Ukraine.
Victoria Amelina, investigating war crimes in an abandoned residence near Zaporizhia, Ukraine. (Twitter)

With the memory of its illustrious “neighbors” and its “war task” as she defines it, the writer works increasingly committed to her new role as an investigator of crimes against humanity. This week he is in the Zaporizhzhia area, where the Russians still occupy the largest nuclear power plant in Eastern Europe, and where Ukrainian troops are preparing to launch the crucial spring counteroffensive. “We are going to advance behind the soldiers. It is better to interview people as soon as the invaders leave, they are fresh memory and find the evidence before it is erased. There will be time for the other”comments Amelina while thinking of a special court like the one that works in The Hague where the evidence is presented and the genocidal have to sit down.

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