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March 22, 2022 12:23 pm
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Renowned Investigator of Nazi Holocaust in Ukraine Announces Probe Into Russian War Crimes During Invasion

avatar by Ben Cohen

Interview

Russian troops are seen on a truck outside the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko

The French Catholic priest who launched an organization dedicated to documenting the mass graves of Ukrainian Jews murdered by Nazi mobile killing units during World War II has announced a new body to investigate war crimes committed by Russian forces during the present invasion of Ukraine.

Father Patrick Desbois will be supervising a team of investigators drawn from two Holocaust-related organizations: the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) in Ukraine and his own Yahad In Unum, based in France. A statement on Tuesday announcing the Russian war crimes probe said that investigators were now working “to collect as many filmed testimonies as possible of the victims of these crimes, examining the charge that civilians including women, the elderly, and children have been targeted without any link to military targets.”

Speaking to The Algemeiner on Tuesday morning, Fr. Desbois said that the bulk of the current crimes under investigation involved the indiscriminate targeting of Ukrainian civilians. “We’ve begun interviewing victims of the Russians, and we are asking those whose homes were hit by missiles or shells whether they were located near any military installations,” Desbois said. “We can already state that many civilians have been killed with no visible connection to any military target. At minimum, that’s a war crime.”

Desbois expressed particular concern for the city of Mariupol, where the impact of the Russian onslaught could conceivably qualify as a graver “crime against humanity,” he said. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Tuesday that 100,000 civilians seeking to flee had been trapped by Russian shelling and a lack of safe corridors out of the devastated port city.

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“People in Mariupol have been using snow to boil rice and noodles to eat,” Desbois said. “Now there is no more food or access to water. It’s civilians who are starving there.”

There was a cruelly absurd aspect to the Russian attack on Mariupol, Desbois commented, where almost half the population is composed of ethnic Russians.

“The people there are Russian-speakers, they are not classified as enemies of Russia,” said Desbois, who has traveled to Russia as well as Ukraine on numerous occasions to carry out Holocaust-related research. “Many people identify as Russian. Yet they are experiencing an even more intense attack. When they go out to try and find food or supplies, many are shot.”

Added Desbois: “These people were not ideologically hostile to Russia. Now they are.”

Desbois then emphasized that the charges of war crimes should not be restricted to Russian President Vladimir Putin alone. “To accuse only Putin is a mistake,” he said. “We also have to focus on the people giving orders on the ground.”

During the “Holocaust by bullets” — Desbois’ poignant term for the slaughter of nearly 2 million victims in mass shootings in Ukraine — many of those who carried out the shootings evaded criminal trial later on, he said. He cited the example of Babyn Yar, where nearly 34,000 Jewish men, women and children were killed in mass shootings on the edge of the capital Kyiv on Sept. 29-30, 1941.

“At Babyn Yar, nearly 2,000 Germans were involved in shooting the victims, and only five were judged,” Desbois said. “It’s why we have to avoid making the mistake of saying, it’s just Putin. Remember that the excuse of the people on the ground is always that they were just obeying orders.”

Desbois was scathing toward Putin’s self-styled depiction of the war as a “special operation” to “denazify” Ukraine. “I worked there for 30 years. It is a democracy,” he said. “Of course, it’s not a perfect democracy, but it’s much more of a democracy than Russia.”

The widespread acceptance of Putin’s narrative about Nazism among ordinary Russians showed that “the Russian population has a limited understanding of what the Holocaust was,” Desbois said. His own research on the fate of Jews in Russia and its constituent republics — for example, Kalmykia, where hundreds of Jews were murdered by the Germans and local collaborators in 1942 — showed that “there were police in Russia working for Hitler who killed Jews, just as the Ukrainian police did.”

“I was once at a Holocaust commemoration in Moscow, and every speaker said that Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine are today ‘Nazi’ countries,” Desbois recalled. “Putin has the same argument, the same narrative, for all of Eastern Europe; no reality interferes with it and you cannot negotiate with it. If he succeeds in Ukraine, why not do the same to Latvia or Poland?”

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