French priest renowned for uncovering massacres warns of ‘Buchas everywhere’
Bodies of civilians lie on a street in Bucha, in Kyiv region, Ukraine on April 2, 2022. © Zohra Bensemra, Reuters

Over the past two decades, Father Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest, has been identifying World War II atrocity sites, uncovering evidence of overlooked massacres. After doing similar work with the Yazidi victims of the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria, he is now back in Ukraine, collecting testimonies from the victims of the Russian invasion.

Father Patrick Desbois’ mission to fight the bigotry that causes genocide began 20 years ago in the western Ukrainian city of Rava-Ruska near the Polish border. His grandfather was one of 25,000 French soldiers detained in a notorious Nazi camp in the city during World War II, which prompted the French Catholic priest to make his first trip to Rava-Ruska back in 2002.

The celebrated Holocaust memory-keeper has since worked tirelessly to document the mechanics of mass murder, receiving numerous awards, including the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honor, along the way.

Following the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group, Desbois began working on the Yazidi genocide in northern Iraq’s Sinjar region in 2014.

>> Read more: French priest helps expose IS group’s Yazidi genocide

The 66-year-old Catholic priest is the founder of the Yahad-In Unum, an NGO dedicated to uncovering genocidal practices, and is the author of several books, including “The Holocaust by Bullets” – as the overlooked 1940s massacre by Nazi mobile death squads and local auxiliaries came to be known.

Twenty years after his first trip to a Nazi camp in Ukraine, Desbois is once again focused on Eastern Europe.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the French Catholic priest – who is also the academic director of the Babi Yar Memorial in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv – started collecting testimonies on the conflict.

The horrific images coming in from Bucha and other towns and cities in the Kyiv area has highlighted the need for such work as the international legal community examines ways to seek justice for victims of the latest conflict. FRANCE 24 spoke to Desbois about his latest work recording testimonies via video conferencing platforms.

FRANCE 24: Why did you decide to launch this collection of testimonies on the current war in Ukraine?

Patrick Desbois: When the war in Ukraine broke out, one of my best friends, Ruslan Kavatsiuk, the Babi Yar Memorial deputy director, said this terrible sentence to me: "Patrick, you are going to come back for our mass graves." I really didn't think there would be any. But when we started to see the massacres of civilians without any military motivation, it seemed obvious to me to do this collection work. If I don't do it, who will? We have been working in Ukraine for 20 years. In total, we have interviewed 8,000 people from the former Soviet Union who witnessed the “Holocaust by Bullets”. We know a lot of people, the villages, the topography.

F24: How do you go about collecting these testimonies?

PD: We are a team of four people here in Western Europe and we have a team of a dozen mediators on site. One of them is in Irpin [near Kyiv] and he is looking for witnesses. He knows many people and introduces us to people on the ground. We also feel the urgency to do it since witnesses can quickly disperse.

People are willing to talk openly on Zoom and reveal their true identities. This surprised me. No matter the horrors and damage they have suffered, they want to stay in their country and defend it. In all the investigations I've done over the years, I've never seen that. I recorded the testimony of a woman who was injured and in hospital, for instance. She had lost part of her family while they were in a car. She almost cried during the interview, but when she was done, she said, "As soon as I get better, I'm getting on with my life and going to help people." I couldn't believe it. There's definitely a spirit of resilience.

F24: How has the work you've already done on mass crimes helped you?

PD: In Iraq, we filmed 450 Yazidis who had just emerged from Daesh [IS group] captivity and were trying to identify their rapists or murderers of community members. Without these previous experiences, we couldn't do this work today.

We know how to handle these kinds of interviews. I’m thinking of a woman who was in a car with her three-year-old son on her lap. She told us that she realized right away that a bullet had passed through her child's body. She was asked many details about the colour of the car, whether it could have been mistaken for a military vehicle, and the exact location of the attack. We had to be able to locate it on an interactive map and see if there were any military targets in that area, because it is clear that the Russians will say that it was collateral damage and that there were no attacks on civilians.

This recurrent denial by the Russians is particularly striking. When they bomb a maternity hospital, as they did in Mariupol, they say that it was no longer a maternity hospital and that there were no pregnant women. They deny the crime as soon as it is denounced. For the bodies found in Bucha, they say that they were placed there, that they are not dead and that the corpses are moving.

Historically, I have never seen this. Every time a crime is discovered, they [Russia] deny it the same day in detail. These quick denials are explained by the acceleration due to social media, and by the fact that the war led by [President Vladimir] Putin is supported by unimaginable propaganda. Any loopholes in the propaganda must be closed right away. I also think that after the announcements of the opening of investigations by the International Criminal Court or of trials in France or Germany, the Russians know that legal actions will be taken. They are looking for immediate protection. The testimonies we collect will be evidence for these investigations.

F24: How did you feel when you saw the images of the abuses committed in Bucha?

PD: It made me think of the streets of [the Rwandan capital] Kigali. (I don’t understand: when? why Kigali? He never talked about Rwanda before) We knew that crimes had been committed in Ukraine, but until then, we did not know that the Russians had shot people en masse and that they had used the method of mass graves.

By broadcasting these images, we show the Russian authorities that they are under our watch. We say to them: "We know that you kill civilians, we know that you rape women, we know that you loot apartments. The whole world is watching and you will be judged. Your denials will not hold up." Even so, I fear that the Russians are thinking that they made a mistake in Bucha and are now deciding to make the evidence disappear, as was done a lot during World War II. They know that their victims and their crimes are being exposed and they may decide to give such orders [to destroy evidence].

F24: Are there also similarities with the World War II testimonies you have collected?

PD: People who have been brainwashed by propaganda turn into criminals, who can commit rape, robbery and murder. I saw this several times in villages hit by the Germans. They arrived declaring their supposed "race purity” and said that they were only eliminating a "sub-race". But when you saw them in the field, they were raping women, slaughtering families and looting apartments. There is no such thing as a pure crime. And what you see happening today – someone has been able to launch an ideology that mobilises a population and an army in this way and that this propaganda continues to work – is almost unreal.

People think that humanity has advanced on these issues, but apparently freedom of conscience is very fragile.

It is almost unbelievable that these crimes committed almost in public are happening on the borders of Europe, two-and-a-half hours by plane from Paris. Everyone is revolted by Bucha, but I wonder what it will be like when Mariupol is liberated? We can expect much larger scenes of massacres. There will be Buchas everywhere.

This article has been translated from the original in French