NPR Investigates a Single War Crime in Ukraine : Up First Since the invasion into Ukraine began 11 months ago, investigators have opened more than 50,000 war crimes investigations looking at alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops. NPR Investigative Correspondent Tim Mak heard a rumor about a man, brutally killed, who lay in the streets of a town for 30 days. So he decided to investigate. One war crime, one story, to show the challenge that war crimes investigators face all over Ukraine.

NPR Investigates a Single War Crime in Ukraine

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We're going to start this episode with a number - 50,000. That's the number of investigations happening right now into alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine - hospital bombings, kidnappings and notably thousands of executions of unarmed Ukrainian civilians. Oleksandra Matviichuk heads the Centre for Civil Liberties, one of the recipients of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. She believes the numbers obscure the sheer scale of the loss.

OLEKSANDRA MATVIICHUK: Yes, I'm a professional human rights lawyer, but first of all, I am a human being. And what I started to notice - that I started to use numbers instead names.


MARTIN: This is UP FIRST Sunday. I'm Rachel Martin. And, today we're going to hear from NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak. Tim was in Ukraine in the first days of the war, as terrified Ukrainian civilians faced the Russian onslaught. As the war went on over so many months, Tim wondered if anyone could ever be held accountable for the civilians who were murdered in Ukraine. So he decided to focus on his own number - one. He wanted to investigate just one alleged war crime.

He had heard a rumor about a man who was brutally killed. His body lay in the streets of a town for 30 days. One killing, one man, one story that might show the challenge that war crimes investigators face all over Ukraine. Tim didn't know very much about this man, just that he may have served in the French Foreign Legion and that the killing happened in a village called Novaya Basan. So after the village was liberated by Ukrainian forces, he went there.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Did you hear about a French legionnaire that was killed in this town?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Oh, so that car is actually right here.

MARTIN: The burned out remains of a car was there, but no body. Tim walked around the village, asking for information. Finally, the local administrator was able to point him toward a neighboring village, Bobrovytsia, where he said the dead man's mother lived. Her name was Oksana. Tim Mak takes the story from there.

MAK: When we got there, Oksana welcomed us into her home.

OKSANA BREUS: (Through interpreter) Do you want coffee or tea?

MAK: We sat in her kitchen. Oksana went to get a photograph of her son and put it on the table between us.

Your son was in the French Foreign Legion, is that correct? What was his name?

OKSANA BREUS: Oleksandr.

MAK: Oleksandr Breus. After a stint in the French Foreign Legion, he returned to Ukraine before the war broke out.

How old was Oleksandr?

OKSANA BREUS: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Twenty-eight? Twenty-eight years old.

OKSANA BREUS: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: She told me he died on the fifth day of the war, the morning of February 28, on his way to evacuate his girlfriend and sister from Kyiv.

OKSANA BREUS: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: She didn't know how Oleksandr was killed or who killed him, but she did have a video that showed the scene of the killing on the day of Oleksandr's death. So she played it for us.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Oh, my God. Is that...

Watching the video, Oksana was overcome. And at the moment we watched it, we recognized that Oleksandr's killing was almost certainly a war crime. By all indications, he was an unarmed man in civilian clothes brutally killed. The video shows a man lying on the ground. His left arm lies limp and his right arm is curled up across what remains of his head. It looks like an execution. The man taking the video narrates what he's seeing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: "The Russians drove through, dammit," he says. On the video, Oleksandr's body is next to the same burnt-out, destroyed car we had seen near Nova Basan. There's a large hole in the back door on the driver's side.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Poor thing, says the man on the video.

OKSANA BREUS: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Oksana could no longer continue.

I think I'm going to talk to his sister if she wants to talk about it, I can - stop this.

Still, she wanted to show us one more thing.

OKSANA BREUS: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Oleksandr's dog, Clifford.

OKSANA BREUS: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: "Such a handsome dog," she says. "Do you see how much he misses him?"


MAK: When we returned to Kyiv, we showed Oksana's video to an official in Ukraine's State Bureau of Investigation. He told us it was clearly a war crime. The man was not a threat, in civilian clothes, carrying no weapons and apparently facing away from the direction of the Russian advance.

SERGEY VASILIEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Sergey Vasiliev (ph) leads the prosecutions in the district where Oleksandr was killed. He said that the investigation had been hampered by the war itself.

VASILIEV: (Through interpreter) As the first complications that we had, it was the physical inability to go on the scene and do a full-scale examination of the scene because there was heavy bombarding and heavy shelling.

MAK: Having spent most of his career during a time of peace, Vasiliev was learning about investigating and prosecuting war crimes on the fly. He was also in short supply of people who knew how to investigate war crimes.

VASILIEV: (Through interpreter) We have problems with the lack of medical expert. We have a lack of people, investigators. That's true. We have these problems.

MAK: When we spoke, Vasiliev's office was already dealing with a huge caseload.

VASILIEV: (Through interpreter) My prosecutors - we spending 24/7 on these 1,300 cases.

MAK: Oleksandr's case was one case among many that overwhelmed investigators were juggling. Early in our investigation, we realized that justice for the thousands of victims would be limited. There were too few investigators for far too many cases reviewing evidence under the stress of an ongoing war. Vasiliev said they were doing their best, and they'd be in touch if they had more information. So we kept digging on our own. Oleksandr's mother had told us to call his sister, Anya (ph).

I can get us some coffee.

ANYA BREUS: No, no. Thank you.

MAK: Anya and Oleksandr were very close, and she sat down with us to tell us more about him. Her memories of him were warm - the classic stories of mischievous siblings, like that time she broke the ceiling lamp.

A BREUS: And it broke, and I told him do not say moms. But he says, I will not told her if you will wash dish for two weeks. Yes, it's funny story.

MAK: Oleksandr was a jack of all trades.

A BREUS: He changed his mind very often. Like, today, he wants to be a basketball player, tomorrow he wants to be a photographer, another day he wants to be a manager, and so on, so on.

MAK: He even had a brief stint trying to be a rapper.


OLEKSANDR BREUS: (Rapping in non-English language).

MAK: Oleksandr was also a passionate Ukrainian patriot, she says. He liked to debate Russians about history in online chats about the differences between Ukrainians and Russians.

A BREUS: He always watched videos about Ukrainian history. He told us all the time that Russians are awful people.

MAK: Sasha Hrushko (ph), one of Oleksandr's best friends, remembers Oleksandr was restless in his 20s. He wanted to build something but wasn't sure what. In 2018, he joined the French Foreign Legion.

SASHA HRUSHKO: He was looking for himself. He was looking for the same realization. That's why he just found out himself in the French Legion.

MAK: A career in the military suited Oleksandr well. He thrived in stressful situations. I spoke to another friend of his, Boris (ph), a legionnaire who served with him, with the help of an interpreter.

BORIS: (Through interpreter) So he was a very calm, collected person. He was able to deal very easily with tough situations. He was very level-headed, cool-headed. He didn't have that many friends, but when he had one, he had intense friendships.

MAK: Everyone described Oleksandr as a loyal friend. He was in the Legion for four years. But Boris told us that Oleksandr aggravated an old injury during an obstacle course, and he was forced to work an administrative job. Ultimately, Oleksandr left the French military in late 2021 after getting permanent residency status in France. Boris also told us about Oleksandr's girlfriend, Yulia (ph). We reached out to her, but she was too overwhelmed by grief to speak with us. Yulia and Oleksandr had tried to have a long-distance relationship, but it wasn't easy. She interpreted his application for French permanent residency as a sign he wasn't serious about her, since she lived in Ukraine. But Oleksandr was committed to the relationship.

BORIS: (Through interpreter) So I am sure that he wanted to propose, but I think that he wanted to do things well, and he didn't want to rush things.

MAK: So a month before the war broke out, he decided to head back to his home country and back to Yulia. Boris shared a series of voice recordings between him and Oleksandr talking about it. Here's Oleksandr.


OLEKSANDR BREUS: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: He told Boris he was worried about the relationship, but he wanted to make it work. After he returned to Ukraine, he and Yulia began to reconcile. And Oleksandr began seriously talking to his friends about proposing.


MAK: But on February 24, Russia surprised many Ukrainians by doing what had once been unthinkable.

MARTIN: That's what it sounded like in Kyiv this morning, as Ukrainians faced down the reality of a Russian invasion.


MAK: In the chaos, Oleksandr brought his dog Clifford to his childhood home in Bobrovytsia. He planned to head back to the capital city some two hours away to evacuate his girlfriend and sister. But during the first week of the war, the Ukrainian government instituted a multi-day curfew in Kyiv, preventing him from getting back to them. The uncertain, anxious situation brought him to tears, Anya recalled.

A BREUS: He was disappointed because he want to arrive to Yulia as soon as possible. And he stayed at Bobrovytsia for two days.

MAK: And there was another thing. Russian forces were on the move. A long line of armored vehicles and troops and tanks were rolling down the same highway Oleksandr would eventually take to Kyiv. A Ukrainian official told us that just one village over from Nova Basan, Ukrainian forces had tried to slow Russian progress by blowing up a bridge.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIAL: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: He also told us that as the Russians passed through, their soldiers killed six civilians. Along with an interpreter, we spoke to Olha Yavon. She was the mother of two men who were killed - Ihor and Oleh.

OLHA YAVON: (Through interpreter) On the 27th, he was killed. Ihor was - they cut his throat with a knife and another one was shot. Oleh was killed with a knife stab to the...

MAK: The groin?

YAVON: (Through interpreter) Yeah. And then they shot his head.


MAK: The deaths were part of a chain of violence that continued as Russian forces neared Nova Basan, killing unarmed civilians who were simply passing by at the wrong time. By February 28, four days into the invasion, the Russians had constructed a temporary crossing. When the curfew lifted that morning, Oleksandr began his journey towards Kyiv.


MAK: And so did the Russian forces.


MARTIN: This is UP FIRST Sunday. We'll be right back.

MAK: Oleksandr left his childhood home at around 8 a.m, shortly after the curfew in Kyiv was lifted. His mother saw him off. He was wearing a pair of white Nikes and loose-fitting green pants. While he was driving, his dad called to check in on him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) I called him. I asked, where are you? He said, I'm at a checkpoint and see you call. I told Sasha, please, Sasha, please don't go there. Don't go. Head back. He said, OK, OK, and hung up.

MAK: His father was in eastern Ukraine fighting the Russian advance. It's unclear exactly where Oleksandr was at the time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) That's the only thing we talked about, and that's the last time we spoke.

MAK: Somewhere between 9 and 10 a.m. that morning, a number of people in the village heard a large explosion. Tatyana Barishovitz (ph) works at a local supermarket, which closed early as Russian forces pressed deeper into their village. She decided to make a dash home on her bicycle. And as she rode home, she saw a car on fire. A body was lying next to it in the middle of the road.

TATYANA BARISHOVITZ: (Through interpreter) I stopped. I wanted to check if he was alive, but it was obvious that he wasn't. I didn't see the head, but the hand and legs were twisted unnaturally.

MAK: Oleksandr's green pants were partially burnt off, exposing blackened flesh below the knee. His white Nike sneakers were nowhere to be seen. The fire had burned them off.

BARISHOVITZ: (Through interpreter) I started trembling, thinking, why would they kill a person like that? I started crying. My husband was waiting for me, but I couldn't ride the bicycle anymore.

MAK: That evening, Anya Breus hadn't heard from her brother. It had been hours. She began posting on social media and asking if anyone had seen him.

A BREUS: (Through interpreter) I wrote up a missing person post with a photo of my brother in his car and where he was heading.

MAK: That night, a stranger passed the video of the crime scene to Anya Breus. It had been circulating on social media. After she forwarded it to Oleksandr's best friend Hrushko, he had no doubt it was Oleksandr.

HRUSHKO: Just seeing his body - it's enough. I mean, there is nothing to be discussed. I just - you just feel it.


MAK: And we found more videos. Other people in town had recordings taken shortly after Oleksandr's death.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: All the videos show the same scene - a body with gruesome injuries lying next to a burned-out car. We knew much more about the crime than when we'd first started - who Oleksandr was. We'd met his family, his friends, his dog. We'd even heard his voice. We knew why he was on the road and roughly when he died. But still, we knew almost nothing about the essential question for war crimes prosecutors - how was he killed? For that, we would need an eyewitness.


MAK: Nova Basan local administrator Mykola Dyachenko seriously doubted whether anyone had seen the killing.

MYKOLA DYACHENKO: (Through interpreter) I don't know about eyewitnesses. Probably, there were not any. When the Russians entered our village, people were not coming outside.

MAK: And many locals deleted messages, photos and social media posts as the Russians rumbled into the village, worried their phones would be confiscated by the occupying force. Dyachenko called the owner of the gas station across the street from the killing.

DYACHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: The owner said they switched off the power when the Russians were coming, and the cameras weren't operating. Dyachenko also called the local supermarket on our behalf.

DYACHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: They told him their camera hard drives had been taken by Russian forces. In fact, in many cases, Russian troops destroyed evidence that would show who was there. We canvassed houses in Nova Basan for potential eyewitnesses, but many homes weren't occupied. But then, a breakthrough - a man approached us.

OLEKSANDR HOLLOT: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: "I want to show you what they did to my house," he said. His name was Oleksandr Hollot (ph). We'd knocked on his door before, but he hadn't been home. This time, he invited us in. His place, which stood across the street from the wreckage of Oleksandr's vehicle, was dusty and dark inside - no electronics, no carpeting, and since the war, an empty dwelling. Hollot had something important to tell us. He said he was an eyewitness to the killing and began describing what he saw on the morning of February 28, as the column of Russian armored vehicles descended on his village.

HOLLOT: (Through interpreter) I simply heard the noise, the increasing noise there coming. OK, the first column that I saw - it was five BTRs on the distance from one another.

MAK: As the Russian forces entered the area, he saw soldiers leave armored vehicles, known as BTRs, and spread out throughout the neighborhood. Later, he saw a man's car coming from the direction of Bobrovytsia. It was Oleksandr's car, the same burnt-out car right outside his home. Three BTRs were ahead of Oleksandr on the road, and he pulled up alongside the fourth.

HOLLOT: (Through interpreter) He stopped the car. He exit the car. And he stood, like, in a full scale, and he started to quarrel with them about something. He started to say to them something like, what are you doing here? And why are you doing this?

MAK: As Oleksandr was talking, two soldiers positioned themselves behind him. One of the soldiers had a machine gun and another, an assault rifle. The one with the rifle was tall, Hollot said. And then, without warning, the soldier opened fire on Oleksandr.

HOLLOT: (Through interpreter) So the guy fell on the road, brain splashed and blood. And the BTR, the No. 4 that was standing here, it turned a turret and hit the car.

MAK: That shot from the BTR destroyed the car, and that's what Hollot said happened to Oleksandr. We approached his account with some skepticism. We had some questions about the story he told. For example, Hollot said he saw Oleksandr coming down the road from the central window in his living room and then the killing from a side window. So why was the view obstructed when we looked out now?

HOLLOT: (Through interpreter) He said it was winter. No leaves, no branches. It was winter. Yeah, I saw him.

MAK: Hollot's description also matched the videos we had found, which he says he's never seen.

HOLLOT: (Through interpreter) No, I haven't saw any footage or any videos about the body or the car. The only thing that I saw, I saw it with my own eyes.

MAK: Hollot's phone was not a smartphone, so that's plausible. We asked our security consultant, George Forrest (ph), a firearms expert, whether he thought the shot that hit Oleksandr was possible.

GEORGE FORREST: It is a realistic aimed shot to somebody's head. Yes, it can be achieved with a long arm, such as an AK-47.

MAK: For a rifle, it was not a distant target. Hollot's description of what happened on the morning of February 28 matches the evidence we have, and so it was his testimony that became the centerpiece of our understanding for Oleksandr's death, because it fit with all of the other pieces of evidence we were ultimately able to find, like what happened to Oleksandr's body.

MARTIN: This is UP FIRST Sunday. We'll be right back.

MAK: Two days after he was killed, Tatyana Barishovitz, the woman who bicycled past shortly after his killing, returned to the scene. She couldn't bear the thought of his body lying in the middle of the road, but someone had gotten there first.

BARISHOVITZ: (Through interpreter) On Wednesday, the car was slightly moved here. It was standing right here, and his body was to the right of the car - covered, covered.

MAK: Whoever it was had put a light cloth over the body to shield it from the elements and some bricks to hold the cloth in place. During this period, Russian forces had fully occupied the village of Nova Basan. No Ukrainian forces were nearby at the time, local residents told us, leaving Russian soldiers free to commit atrocities without resistance. It was just too dangerous for Oleksandr's family to get to his body. Here's Anya Breus, his sister.

A BREUS: (Through interpreter) We were told that Russian soldiers did not allow anyone to be buried. My mom told me there was also one 14-year-old boy who was killed. His mother went to them, kneeling, and was asking them for permission, but they were shooting over her head and sending her back.

MAK: But they kept trying.

A BREUS: (Through interpreter) My mom would go to the town council every day and ask if they were allowed to go.

MAK: Oleksandr's body lay in the street for a month as his family desperately tried to retrieve him. But the tide of war was changing. While Ukraine had been taken off-guard by the first days of the invasion, the Russian military had been unable to fully encircle Kyiv. And at the beginning of April, Ukrainian forces made their way into Nova Basan, meaning it was finally possible to retrieve Oleksandr's body.


MAK: Oleksandr Breus was brought to a small cemetery down the road from his childhood home and was buried on April 6.


MAK: We had pieced together what happened to Oleksandr. Finding his killers was going to be more difficult. But the smallest things can lead to a breakthrough. On Facebook, we found one more video taken from Nova Basan. It showed Russian forces moving through the village on the day Oleksandr was killed.


OLANA BONDARENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: So we tracked down the woman who took it. Olana Bondarenko (ph), along with her small dog, welcomed us into the furniture store where she works in Kyiv. After the war started, Bondarenko fled the capital city for the home her family owned in Nova Basan, hoping there would be less fighting in the small village. On the morning of Oleksandr's death, she stood outside in a state of shock as armored vehicles rolled by. And she showed us a second video she took. As vehicles pass by, an armed soldier appears in the frame and aims a rifle at her, causing her to gasp, before firing off shots in her direction. She drops to the floor and her father pulls her away. Later, she noticed something unusual about the vehicles on the video.

BONDARENKO: (Through interpreter) They were new tanks with the letter O. On TV, they were only talking about (non-English language spoken) and (non-English language spoken). I told the Ukrainian military about these vehicles with the letter O. They were totally different. It was a different type of armored vehicle, and they wore a different colored uniform.

MAK: That O marking on the armored vehicle in Olana's video was crucial to understanding which Russian units were on the ground. We reached out to every corner of the Ukrainian government we thought might be able to help us find the units in Nova Basan - intelligence agencies, police, prosecutors - and we showed them what we'd found. They couldn't tell us conclusively which units were in Nova Basan that day, but they told us that the letter O meant that the vehicles were from units in Russia's central military district. In that district, there were some prime suspects - Russian mechanized infantry units known as separate motorized rifle brigades. The specific units were the 15th, the 21st and the 30th.

We needed more help to find out the exact brigades that were in Nova Basan the day Oleksandr was killed. There are people who track military equipment just by scouring all the information that's publicly available, people like Tom Bullock. He's an analyst at Janes, a company that monitors militaries all around the world.

TOM BULLOCK: So part of my work, when I started this, was building out guides for how to identify different Russian military units.

MAK: He said that the damage to Oleksandr's car in the videos matches Hollot's story.

BULLOCK: So something similar to the BTR's cannon could probably do similar damage.

MAK: So it would be reasonable if we had an eyewitness who said the BTR fired on his car, that this is consistent with the damage that you see.


MAK: Next, we showed him Olana Bondarenko's videos of the Russian vehicles. Much like cars, BTRs come in all sorts of models.

BULLOCK: So in this video, you're seeing the rear of a BTR-82A.

MAK: Eighty-two A. We had another clue, and it was a crucial one.

GEORGE BARROS: The fact that we can identify that that's a BTR-82, type A, is significant because there's only two brigades that actually field that equipment, and those are the 15th Brigade and the 30th Brigade.

MAK: George Barros has also been tracking Russian units daily. He works for the Institute for the Study of War. Both of our experts agreed - the armored vehicle's model revealed a lot about what was going on in Nova Basan that day. Russian military doctrine suggests that these BTRs, these brigades, the 15th and the 30th, would have been used for clearing operations.

BARROS: Clearing is a task that militaries do when they're going into a contested area to ensure that it's safe.

MAK: Barros said he sees evidence of that mission in Olana's videos.

BARROS: They're walking down the main stretch of the village, what it looks like, and they're checking, you know, house to house. They're peeking over fences. And what they're probably doing is it's a clearing operation.

MAK: It felt like a breakthrough. We had found the units that were most likely responsible for Oleksandr's death, and inside those units was the person that pulled the trigger. How close could we get to him? The Russian troops in Nova Basan were not wearing insignia or patches that identified who they were or where they came from.

BARROS: I think what's useful to say is the Russian ground force that actually deployed to run Ukraine back in February 2022 was, like, 120,000 people.

MAK: We were trying to find just one of those 120,000 soldiers, but we narrowed our list of suspects to just two units, which had far fewer soldiers.

BARROS: So that means that we can narrow it down to a discrete pool of - we're looking at 1 to 8 battalions, which narrows down the search quite significantly.

MAK: Yeah. So we can narrow it down to about 4,000 people?

BARROS: Roughly, yeah.

MAK: Four thousand soldiers. Somewhere in that group was the person we were looking for. Our eyewitness Hollot said he saw five BTRs in the immediate vicinity when Oleksandr was killed. Each vehicle has a capacity of 10 soldiers. So the killer was among a group of about 50 people who passed through Nova Basan on the morning of February 28. But we'd reached our limit. We couldn't get the actual names of those 50. We could name one person, the military officer who was officially responsible for the units.

BARROS: It's very clear that at that point in time in Nova Basan, we saw significant elements in that area, likely commanded by Russian Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin.

MAK: Aleksandr Lapin - the man in charge of those who killed Oleksandr and blew up his car. If all of the killings and shootings around Nova Basan are compiled, investigators could argue that the atrocities were systematic and widespread and the responsibility of the commander. They could prosecute him for war crimes. And there are other pieces of evidence out there right now. A few months ago, we met with the investigators in charge of Oleksandr's case.

ARTEM DUCHY: (Through interpreter) So at this stage, indeed, we have a group of investigators and prosecutors dealing with this case. Obviously, it's one of the hundreds of cases, thousands of cases. But we are trying to take every civilian death really serious.

MAK: Artem Duchy (ph), one of the investigators, said that they were looking at cellphone records for both his phones and the phones of Russian soldiers who were in the area. Like us, they were having trouble finding people who knew what happened.

DUCHY: (Through interpreter) The problem is that lots of people are not on the spot right now. Some people left the village. Some people hasn't returned yet. So, again, at this stage of investigation, we are still gathering more witnesses.

MAK: And there could be other records of who was at the intersection. Roman Avramenko heads the Ukrainian NGO Truth Hounds, which documents and investigates war crimes.

ROMAN AVRAMENKO: Maybe in a year or in 10 years, Russia will break down and Ukrainian investigators would be obtaining a full list of soldiers being deployed to different areas.

MAK: For now, we couldn't narrow it down any further, even though we had spent months conducting close to a hundred interviews and developing sources. And this was just for one war crime. There are around 50,000 war crimes under investigation in Ukraine. It's an overwhelming task.

AVRAMENKO: Frankly speaking, I think it's not possible to establish justice for all the cases of war crimes committed in the course of full-scale invasion.

MAK: And what about Oleksandr's status as a French permanent resident? We asked a top human rights lawyer if the French government would pursue the case. She told us Oleksandr doesn't qualify because he was not a citizen there. And when I reached out to the French Foreign Legion, they ignored my request to meet and discuss the case, except to say that Oleksandr left the Legion in 2021. And what about the International Criminal Court? International law clearly outlaws killing unarmed civilians.

AVRAMENKO: Normally, they focus on the high-level commanders and functioneers (ph) who issues order, and they focus on the cases with large name of casualties or with mass destructions. So most probably, the ICC would not take this case.

MAK: So it falls to Ukrainian investigators to show that individual war crimes are part of a larger pattern. That's the goal of Ukrainians like Vadim Primachuk (ph), a senior official at the Ukrainian State Bureau of Investigation.

VADIM PRIMACHUK: (Through interpreter) To show systemic war crimes so that when these cases do reach the International Criminal Court, they can be for higher-level officials, that is, the minister of defense of Russia, the president of Russia, the generals in Russia...

MAK: But the Ukrainian system is swamped, and there are signs that Ukraine and the world will fall short, stifled by a lack of resources, the sheer number of cases and the degradation of evidence during war. Oleksandr's story illustrates all of these aspects.


MAK: Four months after Oleksandr was killed, we went with his sister and mother to his grave. There were violets around the dirt mound where his body lay at rest. That day, Oleksandr's mother remembered one more thing about her son.

OKSANA BREUS: (Through interpreter) Last year, when Oleksandr, he was returning home, he was flying through Netherlands. And he knew that I love flowers, so he had some spare time, and he bought me those tulips seeds there. And this year, 10 out of 10, all of them, they bloomed. So they bloomed exactly on the Mother's Day, and they were blooming exactly for 21 days.

MAK: Dutch tulips blooming after his death.


MARTIN: You're listening to UP FIRST Sunday from NPR. With me now is investigative correspondent Tim Mak. Tim, thanks for being here and bringing us this story.

MAK: Really glad to.

MARTIN: It is overwhelming to think about the broader context of this - right? - because Oleksandr's killing is just one of so many. We are 11 months into this war, and Ukrainian officials say there are nearly 50,000 war crimes that have been committed by Russian troops. What are the most likely crimes to be prosecuted at this point? Because war crimes - there's a range of things that that could consist of.

MAK: Well, there are all sorts of things that qualify under war crimes. At this point, the whole world's attention is on Ukraine. So the Ukrainian government's main goal is to prosecute cases that are most ironclad, where they have the most evidence. The thing that's most obvious is the killing of unarmed civilians. There have been a number - a small number of cases where that's been happening. The problem, of course, is that the war is still ongoing.

And what Oleksandr's case shows is that there are serious challenges for investigators. There are just so many cases and not enough people to investigate these cases. Just over the last few weeks, thousands and thousands of new cases were opened. And so they're adding up more quickly than any organization, any group of people in the world could really hope to address in real time. And they're doing this as Ukraine enters a long winter ahead. And there's the prospect of ongoing violence and a lack of power, heat and water due to Russian strikes on infrastructure.

MARTIN: Have any war crime trials gone ahead, and if so, through what judicial body?

MAK: Well, Ukraine domestically has this section in the criminal code that specifically deals with war crimes. It was actually just adopted by the legislature a year before the full-scale invasion. Only a small number of trials have actually taken place so far in Ukraine. And these are a number of low-level soldiers, almost as test cases. The Ukrainian government's bigger goal - broader goal - will be trying in the months and years ahead to show a pattern of war crimes, to show it was widespread and that commanders at a higher level could ultimately be held responsible. Ukrainian officials tell us that their ultimate goal is to show this pattern and ultimately prosecute high-ranking Russian military officials and even government officials, like the minister of defense or the president.

MARTIN: So, I mean, as we've pointed out, Oleksandr's case feels more tragic because he wasn't some big guy in the military, right? He was just this ordinary person, just another civilian caught up in this awful war. What are the chances that of these thousands of crimes, Oleksandr's would actually reach the courts?

MAK: Well, this is part of the tragedy of this whole story - right? - that high-profile cases get more attention from international bodies like the International Criminal Court. And the International Criminal Court focuses on senior officials, like high-ranking generals or presidents, or especially grievous cases of war crimes. Oleksandr's killing was absolutely brutal, and there's no doubt about that. But it happens in the midst of tens of thousands of cases. And his is just one of many, many, many brutal killings that have happened during this war.

MARTIN: Have you been in touch with Oksana and the family?

MAK: Yes. And, you know, one of the interesting things is how perturbed they've been about how interested we are in his specific case. They understand, I think, on a gut level, how hard it will be to get justice for Oleksandr. And they and their friends have wondered aloud several times why we're so interested in his case out of the thousands and thousands and thousands of other cases that exist. And what I sense and what they tell me is that there's so much anger, so much desire for revenge. Oleksandr's sister, Anya, told me that justice to her means that Russians, the perpetrators, feel as badly as they do. And that's a lesson for what happens next in this war and the long-term effects of what this violence has brought to this country.

MARTIN: Tim, thank you.

MAK: Thanks for having me.


MARTIN: This episode was produced by Monika Evstatieva. It was edited by Barrie Hardymon and Bob Little. Original scoring by Dimitri Kaye (ph). Audio engineering by Stu Rushfield. Special thanks to Luka Oleksishin, Ross Peleh, Yevgen Afanasiev (ph), Mark Richkevitch (ph), Julian Hayda, Didi Schanche and Nishant Dahiya. UP FIRST Sunday's senior editor is Jenny Schmidt. Justine Yan is our producer, and Liana Simstrom is our supervising producer. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. I'm Rachel Martin. We will be back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Until then, have a great rest of your Sunday.


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