When Anatoly Berezhnoy, 26, and his wife, Diana, moved to the outskirts of kyiv a year ago, the young couple envisioned a peaceful life together and became active members of the Irpin Bible Church. But their wooded suburb quickly became one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s targets, and Berezhnoy died earlier this month while trying to help a family evacuate the beleaguered city.
After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Berezhnoy helped his wife and church members flee to western Ukraine, then returned to Irpin. Berezhnoy’s aunt, Tatyana Kobzar, said he joined the Territorial Defense in kyiv on the first day of the Russian invasion and monitored Russian media and phone calls for information that could help the Ukrainian army.
He also continued to help civilians fleeing the city. Berezhnoy was with Tetiana Perebyinis, 43, and her two children when they came under Russian shelling on March 6. New York Times photographer was nearby and captured photos of the four of them died in the street, luggage strewn around the bodies. They are among approximately 5,000 civilians known to have died during the invasion, although the United Nations says the death toll is likely much higher.
Serhiy Perebyinis, Tetiana’s husband, told LE MONDE that he intends to appeal to world courts and take legal action against Russia for the death of his wife and children: ” It’s a war crime, and someone has to be held accountable.”
The Biden administration this week indicated its agreement with Prebyinis. During a Friday briefing, President Joe Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and said he believed “that would also meet the legal definition of that.” The president was in Poland to meet with American servicemen and refugees, signaling to Russia a strong NATO alliance against the country’s deadly invasion of Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement two days earlier saying Russian troops had committed war crimes.
“We have seen numerous credible reports of indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians, as well as other atrocities,” Blinken wrote in the statement. “Russian forces destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping malls and ambulances, killing or injuring thousands of innocent civilians.”
Russian forces in Mariupol shelled a maternity ward and a theater housing civilians. The word “kids” was written in giant letters on the floor next to the theater. The Biden administration has warned that Russian attacks on Ukraine could intensify in the coming weeks and that Moscow could deploy chemical weapons.
Pursuit war crimes presents a number of challenges and could take years. Prosecutors will have to prove that attacks on civilians were intentional or reckless, and how civilians rallied to protect their cities could blur the lines.
Neither Russia nor the United States recognizes the authority of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Still, war crimes experts say the United States could help justice efforts by sharing detailed information gathered through satellite imagery and eyewitness reports.
Ukrainians like Serhiy Perebyinis can take their tragic stories to international courts.
Perebyinis was in the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk to help her mother recover from COVID-19 during her last conversation with her family. They had moved to the basement after a shell hit their building in Irpin and decided to evacuate the next morning.
The next day, Perebyinis could not reach them by phone, but he could see that they had stopped on a road between Irpin and Kyiv. The family used a mobile app to track everyone’s locations.
“Then my wife’s phone was transferred to hospital number seven in Kyiv,” Perebyinis said. “I called my friends in Kyiv and asked them to come to the hospital to pick up my family.”
Fifteen minutes later, he saw a photo on social media of the murderous scene and recognized the clothes and suitcases of his children, Alisa, 9, and Mykyta, 18.
“My wife, my two children and two dogs are dead. I remained alone. We lived happily for 23 years,” Perebyinis said, adding that one dog died instantly and the other was found at a nearby animal hospital. This dog died the next day. “I lost everyone and lost my reason for living,” Perebyinis said.
Anatoly Brezhnoy’s wife, Diana, also considered bringing war crimes charges to the International Criminal Court, according to Kobzar, who lives in Washington state. She described her nephew as a kind man with a big heart.
“I remember him as a shy child with a big smile. His smile was so contagious. It also made people around him smile,” Kobzar said. Anatoly joined his mother Nina and other family members in a kingdom of God where he sang the glory of his Savior and God.”