It began with a battered, disorderly column of Russian support vehicles redeploying into a wooded area off a main road, north of Kyiv, for protection. From their hidden position, soldiers could be seen firing indiscriminately at speeding cars of panicked civilians who were trying to flee.
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One local man, who risked his life to check on one of the vehicles afterward, filmed with a cellphone what he found: a family of four, mother, father and two young children so riddled with bullets their lifeless bodies were almost unrecognizable. He was able to notify their relatives by retrieving identification from the crashed car.
By the time Ukrainian forces recaptured the area, many of the cars, bodies and other evidence were gone. It took the police months to compile video and eyewitness accounts; the man who found the family was terrified of Russian retribution and had to be coaxed to share his video. But the material collected included identifiable unit markings on Russian trucks and images of individual soldiers.
The Russian soldiers ended up on a spreadsheet pieced together by Ukrainian investigators, with their names, photographs and biographies harvested from social media accounts.
“They tried to get away with it, but they left too many traces behind,” said a Ukrainian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety.
“One of the biggest problems” in bringing cases against the men, the official added, “is that a lot of the guys who did this have been killed already.”
What makes Ukraine different from previous battlefield investigations is the omnipresence of video, along with other digital evidence from texts, emails, social media accounts and private messaging apps. But using it effectively is another matter.