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As bombs rain down, a N.H. professor coaches Ukrainians on how to document war crimes

Residents sheltered in a Metro station as Russia launched another missile attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday.Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

A week before Thanksgiving, James Waller was up before the sun fielding frantic messages from partners on the ground in Ukraine, where he was slated to co-lead a virtual workshop on how to document war crimes, atrocities, and crimes of genocide during an active conflict.

It was the second of a two-day workshop Waller organized through his work at the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities, where he serves as the director of academic programs, and in partnership with the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group and Crimea Human Rights Group.

The program was slated to begin at 6 a.m. New Hampshire time, but a rapid-fire series of strikes on Kyiv left participants — including journalists, members of humanitarian groups, and civil servants all living and working in the war-ravaged country — uncertain if they would be able to attend safely.

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“People weren’t sure they could make it to the hotel where the seminar was being held,” Waller said. “‘An hour ago we had five bombs in five minutes, we’re not sure if we can meet in person,’” he recalled participants telling him.

The workshop ran as planned, but anxieties still loomed.

The training also brought forth Waller’s expertise as the Cohen Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, in New Hampshire, which offers one of the few — and the first, launched in 2009 — dedicated majors in Holocaust and genocide studies in the country. It was also an example of how the war in Ukraine brought up real-life applications of the lessons Keene State students learned from history in this specialized program.

Waller, who has been with the Keene State program since its start, instructed Ukrainians on how to document and leverage “open-source information” — from public speeches to social media posts to graffiti — and emphasized “the value of that information in terms of establishing criminal accountability.”

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Waller said participants were encouraged to save as many details as possible when collecting data, recording screenshots and timestamps, and verifying the source whenever possible. Lessons included explanations of the legal definitions of genocide and mass atrocities, testimonies by survivors from Burundi and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and practice analyzing “genocidal messages,” according to the workshop schedule.

“It’s really more helping people understand what they’re looking for,” he said. “So if you’re trying to prove that there’s incitement to commit genocide, what type of language are you looking for that is relevant to that particular accusation?”

In Kyiv, that means looking for language that singles out the Ukrainian nation as a target, rather than as the country as a political opponent, and clear statements of intent to destroy Ukraine. Waller said participants are unlikely to be directly involved in prosecution themselves, but the more evidence those on the ground can collect now, the easier it will be for prosecutors to bring charges down the line.

Waller said the Auschwitz Institute usually deals with genocide prevention in times of relative peace, so new considerations had to be made to maintain attendees’ safety and privacy.

The meeting site — an undisclosed hotel in Kyiv — was chosen for its proximity to a bomb shelter. The conference had to conclude by 8 p.m. in Ukraine to ensure participants could make it to shelter before the city’s 9 p.m. curfew took effect.

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“I haven’t even seen an official roster, and I think that was by design,” Waller said. “We operate under the Chatham House rules, which just means that whatever is said in the seminar stays there, and that no attributions can be made to other people.”

In the weeks since, Waller said he has heard little from participants, but he imagines they are more focused on survival than providing updates, as Russian aggression continues unchanged.

But despite radio-silence, he said the situation in Ukraine continues to rear its head in his lessons at Keene State College. “It’s impossible, unfortunately, to teach a course on Holocaust and genocide studies without current events forcing their way into it every year,” Waller said.

Earlier that week, Keene’s Department of Holocaust and Genocide Studies hosted a panel with NPR’s Jason Beaubien, who video-called from the front lines to discuss with students what it means to chronical a conflict in real time.

The Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the school's Department of Holocaust and Genocide Studies has emphasized the importance of tracking atrocities as they occur.Will Wrobel/Keene State College

“Seeing what it’s like from a journalist, seeing what his job is like, it’s completely insane,” said Allison Newey, a senior in the department and a longtime student of Waller’s. “He’s going right into the belly of the beast, he’s not fleeing in the other direction.”

Newey was studying abroad in Germany when the Russian invasion broke out, and she helped the influx of refugees navigate the country’s rail system. Waller said it is nearly impossible to teach about genocide without touching on the situation in Ukraine.

“It definitely feels a little scary at times, reading about historical events and realizing ‘Oh my god, this is what’s happening right now,’” she said.

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Months earlier, when the invasion began, Waller said, Keene’s Department of Holocaust and Genocide Studies organized a four-person panel breaking down the moment and its historical context for students.

“This new round of suffering was beginning again, having skipped only a generation or two,” Waller said. “At that point we held out the hope that we wouldn’t see things that perhaps verged on genocide, but I don’t think we can hold out that hope any longer, unfortunately.”

He said genocide, unlike indiscriminate war crimes or crimes against humanity, requires intent, which Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be displaying. He argued that Putin is simultaneously trying to destroy the nation of Ukraine and denying that it legitimately exists.

“I do think we’ve crossed that threshold, and countless human rights groups around the world agree,” Waller said.


Daniel Kool can be reached at daniel.kool@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dekool01.