The latest on the probe into atrocities committed by Russian forces around Kyiv
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Russian forces have stopped bombardment of a steel plant in Mariupol, where about a thousand civilians have been sheltering underground. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to block off the plant and prevent anyone from leaving. Meanwhile, efforts to evacuate civilians from the city through a humanitarian corridor have broken down. NPR's Franco Ordoñez joins us from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Hi, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What is the situation in the east right now?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, it's interesting because Putin is actually claiming victory in the battle for the city, despite the fact that Ukrainians continue to launch attacks against forces there. You know, it's significant that the attacks on the factory have stopped, if that holds. But there is still a lot of uncertainty because those families are now trapped, you know, as are most civilians in Mariupol. Only a handful of buses have been able to get in and out in evacuation efforts. And on top of all that, the mayor said today that they discovered multiple mass graves just outside the city. This was behind a gas station and an old cemetery in one of the villages near Mariupol. There are multiple trenches, some as long as 300 feet, where he says they've been burying people in makeshift mass graves. The mayor says the Russians were using this grave - or are using those graves to try to cover up war crimes.
SHAPIRO: This sounds similar to what was discovered around the capital, Kyiv, after Russian forces withdrew from there. And I know you've been reporting on the investigations into the alleged atrocities that took place in those areas. What is the latest?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, prosecutors and advisers are starting to have their interviews. They're working with outside lawyers, setting up mobile investigative units. I was in a village called Peremoha that Russians occupied. There were blown-up Russian tanks all along the road, Russian meal packs at the school. And investigators have been there speaking with residents and victims. Let me tell you the story about Peremoha.
SASHA ROMANTSOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).
ORDOÑEZ: It would have been easy to climb through one of the two massive holes in the side of his shelled church. But Father Oleksandr Yarmolchyk (ph) opens the locked door anyway. He drags a broken bench away from another door that opens to the demolished nave.
OLEKSANDR YARMOLCHYK: (Through interpreter) You can step on that piece. You can step. Don't step on that piece.
ORDOÑEZ: The investigator, Sasha Romantsova, asks him if the Russians stayed there before firing on it. He tells them yes. They also stayed at his house, many of them, and kept them in his basement. He says they wouldn't even let him leave to care for victims.
ROMANTSOVA: (Through interpreter) So if someone died in the village, they didn't allow you to leave and bury them?
YARMOLCHYK: (Through interpreter) No, no. He said I needed to watch after my kids. I will remember how he said that forever.
ROMANTSOVA: (Through interpreter) It felt like that was a threat?
YARMOLCHYK: (Through interpreter) Yes. I felt like it was a threat. I felt like they might not touch me, but they would hurt my family.
ORDOÑEZ: It was just one of many long and detailed interviews that Romantsova, the executive director of the Center for Civil Liberties, conducted that day in the village of Peremoha. More than a dozen Russian tanks littered the road to the ravaged village outside Kyiv. She heard similar stories about the Russians setting up inside the retirement community, preventing seniors from leaving.
ROMANTSOVA: It's just my theory, which we need to collect evidence. But I think surely it will be war crimes against using civilians like shields.
ORDOÑEZ: Oftentimes, she says, days like this are about talking to as many people as they can, following up on leads, trying to parse out facts from rumors.
NATALIIA DERKACH: (Through interpreter) Honestly, I don't know the meaning of a war crime, but I believe, yes, because they were shooting at civilians who tried to leave.
ORDOÑEZ: Nataliia Derkach (ph) is the elected leader of the town. She told Romantsova that residents are scared. With no police to investigate, they call her.
DERKACH: (Through interpreter) They say the Russians are trying to get into my house. What to do? You're on the end of the line with no gun, with nothing. And what can you tell the person?
ORDOÑEZ: Romantsova also went to the school where soldiers built bunkers and took pictures of the flattened post office to show destroyed critical infrastructure. She records it all, has her experts analyze it and passes off the most valuable to Ukrainian prosecutors for further investigation. Sergiy Yakovenko is a former prosecutor in Ukraine who is working with Romantsova.
SERGIY YAKOVENKO: (Through interpreter) It's really important to record this information now because they might forget. They may want to forget such terrible events or just flee.
ORDOÑEZ: He says the work of civil society organizations is critical when the state's resources are finite and there are a limited number of prosecutors.
WAYNE JORDASH: In an ideal world, you have an effective state prosecutor, you have international experts like myself, and then you have civil society.
ORDOÑEZ: That's Wayne Jordash. He's an international criminal lawyer advising Ukraine's chief prosecutor. He says it's a lot of work and effort to pull together enough evidence that would tie Russian President Vladimir Putin to actions committed by his soldiers on the ground.
JORDASH: Modern political and military leaders do not write down orders to kill and rape innocent people. But it doesn't mean to say that they're not responsible for it.
ORDOÑEZ: But he said, even if they can't convict Putin on the International Criminal Court, documenting the crimes for history and working to counter misinformation coming out of the Kremlin is a worthwhile project. Back at the church, Father Oleksandr looks at all the broken crosses and shattered holy images on the floor. The large, destroyed chandelier lies amid the rubble by the pulpit.
YARMOLCHYK: (Through interpreter) The church is a part of me. And for me, this is a part of my life. I spent 26 years here with this people.
ORDOÑEZ: The city's name, Peremoha, means victory. Father Oleksandr says the people are strong and that the community will be rebuilt. But they'll have to do things differently for a while, including how they celebrate Holy Week, which comes a week later in the Orthodox Church.
YARMOLCHYK: (Through interpreter) We will have to celebrate in the vestibule. People will bring their traditional Easter bread. We will be happy for the resurrection of Christ. This is the holiday of hope.
ORDOÑEZ: He says you cannot take hope away from the people. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Peremoha, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.