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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This is the kind of scene that is repeated again and again in Ukraine. One minute, 4-year-old Liza Dmytriyev helps her mother push a stroller in Vinnytsia, far from the front lines of war.

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IRINA DMYTRIYEV: (non-English language spoken).

LIZA DMYTRIYEV: (non-English language spoken).

DMYTRIYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

LIZA: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: The next day, two Russian cruise missiles tear through the neighborhood. According to Ukrainian officials, at least 24 people were killed. Liza Dmytriyev was one of them. Last month it was a mall in Kremenchuk. Ihor Mikhailov (ph) was there to escape the hot summer sun and collect water when a Russian missile crashed. His wife and 20 other people were killed.

IHOR MIKHAILOV: (Through interpreter) When I woke up, I realized that I had lost my arm. There were concrete blocks that had fallen around me. I was lying under them. I realized I had to crawl out of there.

SHAPIRO: There was the airstrike on a building and recreation center near Odessa – 21 dead – and the attack that destroyed a residential building in Chasiv Yar which Ukrainian authorities say killed at least 47 civilians. In each case, Russia says it was targeting military targets.

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UZRA ZEYA: Attacks on schools, hospitals, playgrounds, apartment buildings, grain silos – these are not the acts of rogue units. They correspond to a clear pattern in all parts of Ukraine affected by Russian forces.

SHAPIRO: This is Uzra Zeya from the US State Department making a statement on behalf of Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a conference in The Hague last week. Forty-five countries, including the United States, have agreed to coordinate their investigations into Russian war crimes. The allegations go beyond airstrikes on civilians.

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ZEYA: Every day, war crimes increase – rape, torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, forced deportations.

SHAPIRO: Russia has denied any criminal behavior by its forces and even awarded medals to some of the units that served in places like Bucha, where there is strong evidence of atrocities. And he launched his own war crimes tribunal, claiming that Ukraine had committed crimes against humanity. The Kremlin threatened to put on trial all the fighters they captured, including the Americans and the British. To oversee the US investigation, Attorney General Merrick Garland has established a new War Crimes Accountability Team.

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MERRICK GARLAND: The United States sends an unequivocal message. There is no place to hide. We and our partners will pursue all means available to ensure that those responsible for these atrocities are held accountable.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS – the Justice Department turned to a veteran Nazi war crimes prosecutor to lead its investigation into the atrocities in Ukraine. We will talk with him about the upcoming challenge.

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SHAPIRO: From NPR, I’m Ari Shapiro. Today is Tuesday July 19.

This is CONSIDERING THIS FROM NPR. Eli Rosenbaum, the man in charge of the US Department of Justice’s investigation into atrocities in Ukraine, has built a career prosecuting criminals from another war. Long after World War II ended, he tracked down Nazis who had arrived in the United States, prosecuted them, and had them deported. He tells a story that explains what he calls surprising and harrowing parallels between these two conflicts.

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ELI ROSENBAUM: I’m thinking specifically of a man named Boris Romanchenko, who until recently lived in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: During World War II, Romanchenko was a Nazi prisoner held in four different concentration camps.

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ROSENBAUM: Miraculously, Mr. Romanchenko survived the torments of his Nazi captivity and returned home to Kharkiv.

SHAPIRO: Romanchenko became an officer of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Survivors Organization.

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ROSENBAUM: In a ceremony in 2015, he recited in Russian what is called the Buchenwald oath. It’s very short. That is, building a new world of peace and freedom is our ideal.

SHAPIRO: But Romanchenko, who survived one war in Europe, lost his life in another.

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ROSENBAUM: When a Russian missile hit his building in Kharkiv and he was killed at the age of 96. This is madness, and it must stop.

SHAPIRO: Rosenbaum was close to retirement when the attorney general asked him to lead the new war crimes accountability team. Immediately told him yes. His team’s reach will be limited. The United States has jurisdiction only in cases involving victims or perpetrators who are US nationals. This is a small fraction of the many alleged war crimes in Ukraine so far. When I spoke to Rosenbaum, he told me these investigations would be difficult, but war crimes prosecutors are used to them.

ROSENBAUM: We are ready. The work we have done over many years has prepared us well for this urgent mission. What we probably won’t have much of is the kind of evidence we had in Nazi cases, which was mostly captured Nazi documents, mostly because nothing is reduced to writing on paper anymore. On the other hand, there are electronic communications, and the various governments have advanced capabilities to intercept and analyze these communications. And there are advanced investigative techniques that could not be deployed in Nazi cases, such as DNA analysis and geofencing, etc. So we will have good cases, I’m sure.

SHAPIRO: Just to give us a clear idea of ​​how it works, you take a place like Bucha where Ukrainians returned after the Russian retreat to find what appeared to be horrific crimes committed against civilians. What would your team do in this context to try to gather evidence for a war crimes prosecution?

ROSENBAUM: Well, if we were to investigate that scenario – and I should note that under current war crimes law, US jurisdiction is limited. So these will be a limited number of cases that we investigate for our own potential use in prosecution. But, of course, you would like to speak with witnesses. You would like to see what communications could have been intercepted. You would like to establish the order of battle for this time and place, which units on the Russian side were present, to whom they reported. And of course there would be forensic analysis of the remains and reconstruction of the crime scene, potentially.

SHAPIRO: When you were gathering evidence to prosecute the Nazis, you were looking at crimes that had been committed decades ago. These are crimes that were committed in a place that is still an active war zone. How much harder is it to gather evidence and prosecute these cases as the war continues to unfold?

ROSENBAUM: The fact that the war is still going on obviously brings new challenges to the work, but that does not prevent us from carrying out competent investigations. So in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the offenses continue and the crime scenes, in some cases, will be difficult to reach or even impossible for a while. Also in the affairs of World War II, the Nazi government of Germany was replaced by a responsible German government that recognized Germany’s responsibility for war crimes, including the genocide of European Jews. This post-war government has provided our agency with invaluable investigative assistance over the past 40(ph) years, including facilitating access to documents and witnesses. Will the Russian government soon provide investigative assistance? I would say the question pretty much answers itself.

SHAPIRO: If the perpetrators of these cases are often Russian troops who have returned to Russia, what is the likelihood that someone will actually be held accountable, that the victims will get real justice?

ROSENBAUM: I’m optimistic that justice will be served. It doesn’t always happen right away. There are countless cases of perpetrators of atrocity crimes, even leading government figures like Milosevic, being brought to justice. It takes time, like Charles Taylor and others. But I’m optimistic that what Attorney General Garland said when we were with DOJ colleagues and State Department colleagues in Ukraine last month holds true in these cases. And he said, in quotes, “there is no hiding place for war criminals.”

SHAPIRO: What are the particular challenges of prosecuting war crimes as opposed to a typical criminal trial?

ROSENBAUM: Well, you know, usually war crimes are committed in such a way as to physically eliminate people who, had they survived, would normally have been inclined to cooperate with a government investigation. Victims’ witnesses are hard to find. Some people just can’t bear to reopen those psychological wounds while their physical wounds mend, if ever, we’ve had that experience in the cases of World War II. Not all Holocaust survivors are willing to speak publicly about their victimization. This sometimes leaves you with cohort witnesses, comrades, so to speak, authors as your best witnesses. And of course, they are extremely reluctant to testify for fear of incriminating themselves.

SHAPIRO: As someone who has spent much of your career prosecuting Nazi war crimes, what is your reaction when you hear Vladimir Putin say that this invasion of Ukraine is an effort to denazify that country?

ROSENBAUM: When I hear that, for me, it’s like a thousand nails on a blackboard. It’s cruel. It’s wrong. It’s not a Nazi government by any stretch of the imagination. I think after almost 40 years of investigating and prosecuting Nazi perpetrators, I know a Nazi when I see one. This is yet another outrage from the Kremlin.

SHAPIRO: Eli Rosenbaum, the War Crimes Accountability Advisor at the US Department of Justice.

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SHAPIRO: This is CONSIDERING THIS from NPR. I am Ari Shapiro.

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Jon J. Epps