ADC Memorial’s speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair on the importance of protecting minority rights in times of war

ADC Memorial took part in the discussion “Guilt, Justice and Fairness: How and Why to Document War Crimes”. The discussion, organized by members of Memorial International Associations, took place at the 75th Frankfurt Book Fair at the Fritz Bauer Institute. The topic of Stefania Kulaeva’s presentation was “On the Importance of Monitoring Minority Rights Violations in Times of War”.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk here about the work on protection of minorities, it is a great honor for me to speak here. The protection of the rights of vulnerable groups, vulnerable to discrimination, to human rights violations, often does not seem important enough, especially during the war. It is not so obvious and mainstream issue, as forced kidnapping or torture, that’s why it’s sometimes quite difficult to prove that our work is also important to do.

We protect the rights of minorities and other vulnerable groups. Children also belong to vulnerable groups – they have special rights, there is a Convention on the Rights of the Child and other documents. When we began to deal with children’s rights during the previous phase of the war started in 2014, we tried to convince many colleagues in different countries that it was very important to pay attention to the problem of returning children who were taken abroad, for example, to Russia and Belarus taken abroad in general and who, let’s say, lost contact with their parents, for one reason or another. That time it was not such a massive phenomenon, but to some extent it was already happening. Many people have told me: well, what kind of children are you talking about? About some dozens of children? This is not a big issue.

As an example, I everywhere told the story of a boy Maxim from the town of Prelestnoye (Donetsk region), who at the age of 7 found himself in Belarus with his grandmother. His mother gave birth to him very young, she left to Belarus where her mother lived, because there were terrible shelling and fighting in Prelestnoye, and then disappeared. The Ukrainian mother disappeared; the boy stayed with his grandmother. Everything would have been fine if not the draconian Belarusian laws, because the grandmother was not recognised a legal representative of the boy. The boy was taken away, placed in an orphanage and put in the process of returning to Ukraine as a child left without parental care abroad. Such children are returned under the Chisinau agreement – this is such a very post-Soviet, terrible way of returning children through the police services. They were returned “at zero” zone, under the barking of dogs, on no man’s land. Thus, I told everyone the Maxim’s story, and it didn’t make a very big impression that time. But now – the whole world hears and reads such stories. For example, the story of a boy, also 7-year-old, who is just now being returned to his grandmother through the mediation of Qatar. This topic now is being discussed in all major media. I think this is a very important issue, and its time has come. We continue to do it. This summer we released several reports on children displaced from Ukraine. One of them concerns children forcibly taken to Russia and Belarus, and the other two relate to other destinations where Ukrainian children appeared, there are a huge number, as we know, and they were forced to leave their homes for a long time.

Now let’s talk about minorities. My organization is called Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial, and we have been operating in Brussels since 2013. We will soon be 10 years old, as we liquidated in St. Petersburg in October 2013 and opened in Brussels. And already in 2014, we documented what was happening on the fronts and in the occupation zone, where the Roma population of Ukraine was suffering very much at that time. I don’t say “Roma and Sinti”, I say “Roma”, as most people from this community in our region call themselves this way. In 2015, we published a report “Roma and war”. Here it is in English – if anyone is interested, I have it with me to share. This report still makes sense, because the events of 2014-2015 are also important now. Then there were real pogroms in the town of Slavyansk (Donetsk region), where local criminal authorities seized power for several months, with the support of Russian troops, who carried out pogroms of the Roma districts of Slavyansk. It was important to fix it, it was important to tell about it. I think we were literally the first who highlighted these events to talk about this in a human rights format.

Collecting information, we travelled both along one border and on the other, from the Russian side and from the Ukrainian side, looked at what was happening, talked to people who fled from the disaster zone. Dealing with the rights of minorities, we, of course, learn other circumstances of what is happening. For example, already in 2014, we learned that the so-called volunteers who were traveling with a huge amount of weapons from Russia to Ukraine, received a lot of money, received them directly at the military enlistment offices. Actually, it was the salary paid by the military enlistment office. Of course, they were not volunteers, and we published this when it was not yet known.

We collaborated with the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, documenting together some events. We collaborated with Maxim Butkevich, who is now in Russian captivity convicted, and whom we would very much like to see here. That time he heroically went to Mariupol, where one Roma family was stuck, without documents at all. There was no way they could leave when everyone had already run away, and Maxim took this family out.

We distributed the report “Roma and War” in three languages, Ukrainian, English and Russian. After a while, in 2017, we made a follow-up report. There were no such stormy battles in the Donbas, but it was still very difficult and bad to live. It’s called “For today, they don’t seem to be shooting…” Here is this report, I also have a few more pieces with me. It is made in the form of a photo story. These are the photos: a woman goes to a shelter, Roma children are in a partly destroyed house. The example of these photos tells the story of how this frontline region lived. Now, unfortunately, this is also an occupation zone. The last information we received from there was in 2022, already in the terrible catastrophic phase of the war, which became total aggression against Ukraine. We collected the material already in March 2022, and by April 8, 2022 (International Roma Day), the report “Romani Voices from Hell: Discrimination, Epidemic, War” was published. And the same people whose stories were included in the previous report told us about their situation. The Kharkiv Human Rights Group works in a similar way. We called people we knew, people we had talked to before. They told stories they know or collected information for us. We did not use the usual human rights format, retelling the words of our witnesses, somehow framing them, but simply actually gave these heartbreaking monologues from Mariupol, the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv regions.

In April 2023, we released the next report, which is called “Roma from Ukraine: A Year of War and Flight”. Basically, these are testimonies of former Roma residents of Ukraine who have already found themselves somewhere in other countries, mainly in the European Union. It is also quite difficult to read about how they survived this year, because they faced discrimination in many countries. The report includs, for example, a story of a Roma boy Artur from Mariupol (while his mother’s monologue was included in our first report – she told how they fled from Mariupol and how they were interrogated and insulted very harshly at checkpoints). Based on Arthur’s story, we produced a documentary animation.

We have made several documentary animation projects with refugee children who tell their stories with their voices. The film about Arthur is called “The Way of the Roma boy from Mariupol”. In the film “We Have Left”, many different children tell dramatically how they left Ukraine in the spring of 2022. And the last film – it is very important to say about it – is an animated documentary evidence of a teenager, a 17-year-old boy who left the occupied part of the Luhansk region. He left Donbas alone, his large family could not go with him, but his parents realized that otherwise he could simply be forcibly sent to the front by the occupying army. By the way, an interview with this boy allowed us to find out some other things, including about adults. The boy went across the border of the occupied region to Russia, and immediately they had to enter back into Ukraine, to the Sumy region. But a Russian checkpoint was waiting for them on the way, the bay was interrogated at gunpoint for a day, and talking about it, he was shaking even many months later. This movie is called “How I traveled to my sister”. The older sister of this boy was already in Belgium, and in the end he also ended up there.

The situation of Roma was not the only issue for our reports. For example, we worked with the Center for Civil Liberties on a report on the violation of LGBTI+ rights in Donbas and Crimea. Answering the question of why do we do this at all: just a couple of weeks ago, we were contacted by the UN Human Rights monitoring office located in Kyiv and Chisinau, which is now documenting war crimes. They showed us our report in Zoom and said that this is their desktop book, that they are constantly working with this information, but need a new one by 2022-23. We know better the situation in Crimea, but it is difficult to find such information, especially from other occupied parts of Ukraine. And again, not everyone at that moment understood why we were preparing this report on LGBTI+, why we were describing this topic, although, of course, many in Ukraine supported us very much, and if it weren’t for this help from colleagues dealing with LGBTI rights, we probably wouldn’t have been able to collect information. Fortunately, the report is in high demand, it serves as evidence, including in the UN investigation, of war crimes and, probably, crimes against humanity.

The last our report is in a form of a digest “A year of war: the situation of minorities and migrants”. We carried out our monitoring for a whole year, from the beginning of the massive aggression in February 2022 to February 2023. Every few days, news came out about what was happening at this terrible moment with Roma residents of Ukraine, with Crimean Tatar residents, with activists, with some other minorities and migrants, including quite a lot of Ukrainian migrants who were in Russia at that moment. Their destinies also turned out to be mostly quite dramatic. We made a publication online, and now we have released it on paper for this event.

I know that there is very little time left, so I’m wrapping up and I want to share with you such a memory. When the International Memorial was created in 1992, I remember how my friend and I, very young, were sitting there in the office, everyone else had gone somewhere, it was late in the evening. Suddenly a man entered, he said that his name was Zurab and he was from Georgia. He had come to talk about the violation of the rights of Meskhetian Turks (he called them “Meskhi Turks”). And I remember his words, somehow they were very memorable. He said: It is very important. No one in Georgia understands how important it is not to expel these traumatised people who were repressed under Stalin, expelled from Georgia to Central Asia, who were massacred in Uzbekistan. (There were pogroms in Ferghana at that moment, and they fled back to Georgia, but Georgia did not accept them.) He continued: “This is a touchstone.” He kept repeating that phrase. “If Georgia acts humanly with this group of people, then this is the right country. If the Meskhetian Turks are expelled from Georgia again, nothing good will happen in this country”. “As a patriot of Georgia,” he said, “not being from this people myself, I want to protect the rights of this minority for the sake of our country. And for the sake of general justice in general.”

I always remember those words. Yes, Roma are not the largest group of Ukrainians, LGBTI+ rights, the rights of the Crimean Tatar people are often underestimated by many people. Children’s rights – sometimes we are talking only about dozens of children who end up in children’s institutions due to the fact that there is an incorrect system for returning children not through social services, but through the cooperation of the Ministries of Internal Affairs, which during the war cannot cooperate. All this may seem like something not essential and not main, especially in the situation where tens or even hundreds of thousands of people are dying. But this is also an important topic and probably such a touchstone, as that man from Georgia said in 1992.

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