Xenia Hell, the ICC: “There’s no time for waiting in case with children”

Xenia Hell was born in East Germany, studied in Moscow, and currently works at The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. We have discussed with her Putin’s arrest warrant, her life in Russia, and how she came to work for ICC.Why has the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin on the grounds of the deportation of children rather than any other war crimes? How is evidence of war crimes collected? And what is the procedure for issuing an arrest warrant for a country leader? Holod has asked all these questions to an ICC Office of the Prosecutor employee Xenia Hell.

Why has the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin on the grounds of the deportation of children rather than any other war crimes? How is evidence of war crimes collected? And what is the procedure for issuing an arrest warrant for a country leader? Holod has asked all these questions to an ICC Office of the Prosecutor employee Xenia Hell.

This interview is an adapted text version of Holod’s Kavachay podcast’s episode. Kavachay is a podcast about the war in Ukraine hosted by Ukrainian journalist Anna Filimonova and Holod’s Podcast Editor Alexey Ponomarev.

Alexey Ponomarev: Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova have been issued arrest warrants for the unlawful deportation of children, while other war crimes have been put aside. Why so?

— The court issued the arrest warrant after the chief prosecutor personally traveled to Ukraine, to the Kherson region. There he visited those orphanages and children’s camps from which the children had been taken. And that’s when he understood—and this is public information, his statement is on the court website—that we’re dealing with such a case of deportation with which the court had not dealt previously.

Before that, cases related to the deportation and reeducation of children concerned Native Americans and Australians: children were taken away, reeducated in European-type schools, they were taught English language, and they forgot who they were and what their origins were.

Here we are dealing with a totally different phenomenon, because if a Ukrainian child is brought up speaking Russian it is impossible to reverse this knowledge anymore. Hence, if that many children are taken away and they are integrated on such a scale, it really is an irreversible process. If nothing else, children of indigenous peoples looked different from Europeans. As for a complete integration of Ukrainian children, it is actually possible.

Given the scale of these deportations, immediately after his trip the prosecutor general said that not a single day should be lost. First of all, because the deportation is still ongoing. The court cannot counteract that physically, but by issuing the warrants it now informs and sends a clear message to everyone engaged in these deportations: this is not just an evacuation. There are people directly involved in this system, they sincerely believe that this way the children are rescued from shelled areas, so they were evacuated and are now being accommodated in Russia. For them  these warrants are at the very least a reason to give it a second thought.

Those who are perfectly aware of what they’re doing but are still doing it, are now also informed that they are war criminals. This may get them thinking and deter them from interfering when parents come to take their children back, deter them from keeping those parents at some checkpoint. It may prompt them to turn a blind eye to the already deported children being taken back out of Russia via circuitous routes to Europe or Turkey. Even if the effects will be limited to that, that’s also some sort of a result, because it does matter in each of these kids’ specific case.

A second investigation has begun, too. Details of the investigation are not disclosed but it’s already public knowledge that there are two cases: one is related to the children, and the other to all other war crimes.

It’s possible to save the children and reverse this integration right now. There’s no way of bringing back to life the people killed in Ukraine, or returning the property destroyed there. So, there’s no need to rush things on those matters. However, there’s no time for waiting in case with children.

A meeting between Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova. February 16, 2023 — the ICC issued an arrest warrant for them
A meeting between Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova. February 16, 2023. Photo: kremlin.ru
Anna Filimonova: And, by the way, since the arrest warrant for Putin and Lvova-Belova was issued, they have started to return the children. Just recently another group of children has returned to Ukraine. I think these kids were those very ones who had been taken from Kherson region to the so-called camps.

— Yes, a month after the arrest warrant was issued, it’s clear that our prosecutor was right. Waiting would indeed have been wrong, and this has really changed the occupation authorities’ policies on children and the way this whole mechanism for which Maria Lvova-Belova is responsible functions. By the way, she gave a speech for the UN recently. It was a press conference at the Foreign Ministry, which was eventually shown at the UN. […] She was reading from the notes and what she was reading was complete nonsense. […] It was awful bureaucratic speak, which is casually used in Russia to cover up all the most dreadful things one can think of. 

This warrant has reached its goal, it’s changed her behavior. Despite her public statements in which she says she doesn’t know what all this is even about, there is some change in behavior.

Anna Filimonova: You told the Helpdesk Media that the Ukrainian case paralyzed the court because it is full of things difficult to process, emotionally as well.

— When you find torture chambers or mass burials, it is very difficult to prove that there has been a war crime, to follow the chain all the way through and to find the responsible. At a certain moment, we felt like giving up. It seemed like everything we were doing was pointless. I am describing an event, and each word is supported by a whole database of evidence, but what is the point? For one thing, the war is still going on, and, secondly, it is already clear that it’s a certain pattern of behavior, that mass graves and torture rooms will be found everywhere. Who knows what they will find after liberating Crimea and Donetsk and Luhansk regions?

Alexey Ponomarev: Right, there is the  huge Izolyatsia detention camp there. There must be something…

— Yes, and they had an enormous amount of time to conceal the material evidence. As soon as you let these thoughts in your head, you feel like giving up.

On the court premises, we have the quiet rooms where one can just lie down in silence without doing anything. When there’s no one in there, people often scream with all their might and swear with all the most dreadful and strongest words. Those who wear uniform or a judge’s robe are so willing to shake all that off themselves that they enter this room where nobody asks any questions and just take off all their clothes, because they want to get out of that clothing and that feeling. That helps, too.

And the court building is surrounded by a moat, which is no secret, but still, for some reason, it astonishes everyone. You can just go and dip your toes in the water. Sounds totally childish but sometimes even such things help.

Some people get medication prescribed—in certain cases that is really necessary. Some are put on a mandatory leave of absence and are only allowed to resume work after they have worked with a therapist.

Alexey Ponomarev: Is there any rotation of the court employees? It must be really hard to let so much horror pass through yourself.

— Even if an employee shows no signs of burnout, the term is four months for common cases. After four months all employees are put on a mandatory leave of absence, at least one month long. And getting back to work from the leave requires evaluation by a psychologist and the medical examination as well. Because the reason for burning out often lies in the simple fact that humans just physically cannot work round the clock for days. I would usually be allowed back right after my leave. But last year in September, after the Kharkiv region was liberated, we had to work with the Izyum mass graves, and I got horribly triggered—I was only able to get back to work two months later. When I asked for permission to get back to my duties after just one month, I spoke to the psychologist and was told that I cannot be allowed to resume work.

Anna Filimonova: What really triggered me recently was the sledgehammer episode. Even though the murdered one was a PMC guy, I was so horrified by the fact that people do such things at all that I probably needed a leave from work.

— You know, the prosecutor returned this video’s translation to translators, because he thought they had probably misunderstood something.

Anna Filimonova: The prosecutor did not believe that the words spoken on the video actually meant what they meant?

— Yes, they said, “this just cannot be, you must have misunderstood something.” So they bring the translation to me and I say: “No, the translators understood everything correctly.” [Still, they went], “that cannot be, they cannot be saying such things openly!” Of course they can.

Karim Khan, the ICC's chief prosecutor, and Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova at a mass burial site in Bucha near Kyiv, Ukraine
Karim Khan, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, and Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova at a mass burial site in Bucha near Kyiv, Ukraine. April 13, 2022. Photo: Volodymyr Petrov / Reuters / Scanpix
Anna Filimonova: We had a French journalist on Kavachay who told us that the French don’t have the slightest idea about what kind of things Russian propagandists say in their broadcasts. And only when Anton Krasovsky said on his show that Ukrainian children should be killed and drowned in rivers, and the video went viral on Twitter, the broader European audience learned what the propagandists actually say. So, what you’re saying reminds me of that: you sort of understand the scale of this hell, while the people in Europe have no clue about it, they don’t believe that such things are being uttered on TV, that such crimes are possible. Apparently, they’re under strong influence of Russia’s outward image, which does not match its real face.
Alexey Ponomarev: How do people even come to work for the International Criminal Court? That seems to be an offbeat career choice. How did that happen in your case?

— I am neither from Russia nor from Ukraine, but I studied in Moscow for six years. In 2014, when the war started, I was at the last term of the last year at the Institute of Asian and African Studies of the Moscow State University and I took to my heels, fleeing to Berlin in horror without finishing my course.

Although I have a Slavic name, I am actually from Germany. My parents are East German revanchists. When Germany reunited, they mourned over the German Democratic Republic, which they considered to be an excellent state… This is comparable to the way the Russian elderly mourn over the USSR. Now it feels like an ugly abscess.

At school I studied Russian instead of English, because my parents insisted. Besides, all the best teachers were busy, and any foreign language was better than none.

Me studying in Moscow was also my parents’ dream. Throughout the first three years… I wouldn’t say that I was bullied, but I heard a lot of jokes about “the fascist language,” or “how are you doing in your Hitler Youth?” I asked not to make that kind of jokes time and again. I many times told my mates, who were overall not bad people, and even my teachers that I didn’t find it funny, that I considered such jokes offensive.

Alexey Ponomarev: And even that didn’t help?

— They did not react. They would say that Germans lack sense of humor and go on doing that. That was how I first experienced that Russia is a fascist state and that fascist sentiments do exist there. It is common knowledge today, but back then I understood it from everyday interaction with my classmates. They would mock me for my accent. I wouldn’t say that they did it very meanly, but it annoyed me a lot, and it took me three years to get rid of the accent.

I would record myself and ask total strangers what it was in my intonation or in certain words that gives me away. Some would explain it to me, others would just tell me to leave them alone because [the accent] is obvious and that’s that. Anyway, I got rid of the accent, but things didn’t get better. In 2014, I was sent to the Sochi Olympics as a “volunteer” to work as an attendant. I tried to refuse, but the institute’s director told me: “Look, if you don’t go, you won’t graduate.” And that was it.

So it was not a volunteer work, it was forced labor. I many times  thought about how I could bring the charges against the institute. That’s difficult, because in the official archive of the Olympics organizing committee and in the institute’s official archive, there is an application with my signature stating that I am willing to volunteer. Now, when I deal with such documents that were supposedly signed willingly, I understand that there is always a story behind them. I now have this intuitive feeling that real volunteers going to the frontline never have such neat personal files or standard applications signed timely and personally.

Alexey Ponomarev: Well, the Olympics were not the worst moment of 2014…

— As I came back after the Olympics, our social philosophy professor started the first lecture by saying that his wife is from Crimea and that he was happy it all finally happened. He asked the audience: “Whose is Crimea?” And they cheered in reply: “Crimea is ours!”

It's not that it left some terrible impression on me, I am not that sensitive. It’s just that it was already clear to me that it was the beginning of, if not of a war, of something frightening. When I came back to Berlin, nobody believed me. They would say that I exaggerate, that that’s not possible, that Moscow is a beautiful city, and Russia is a modern country. Yes, what “they” are doing in Ukraine is “strange,” but no more than that. I remember that the word “strange” was repeated very frequently, but then again “not a drop of blood was shed,” “everything was done in a civilized fashion.” Some crazy fanatics running around Moscow’s top university? No way. You should visit a shrink. How did you get on with your classmates? What was your academic performance? And so on.

It was not just disheartening, it was a gut punch that I probably have not forgiven Germany for up to this day. And had that been just the generation of my parents obsessed with the socialist past, I would have been willing to accept it. But that was what my peers were saying.

While in Berlin, I asked to be transferred to a German university so that my MSU credits would be recognized there. However, the university’s inquiries were simply ignored. When I called there myself, I was told: “You shouldn’t have run away. Come, we’ll talk like normal people and sort the situation out.” I know this rude manner of talking firsthand, and I recognize it all now when I see the testimonies of Ukrainian parents who sent their children to some summer camps, say, from the occupied Kherson to Crimea, just so the children wouldn’t be under attacks, wouldn’t constantly be in danger; and then they were unable to return the children. These are recurring stories, and I understand that they’re true simply because Russian bureaucrats really always act that way.

Alexey Ponomarev: And you never managed to transfer your MSU credits?

— I had to start my studies all over again, but I moved from Germany to Austria. I changed my citizenship and graduated from university with a goal of working at the International Criminal Court because of the feeling that some things must be mended, and it would be wrong to go on living in this world if we don’t. I truly believe that the court is an agent of change. When someone says now that Adolf Hitler is a war criminal, nobody doubts it. When someone says that Mao Zedong or Joseph Stalin is a war criminal, that is a disputable issue at best. The difference between these statements is the Nuremberg trials. So, when we deal with a war, I am sure that the final public verdict can only be pronounced at an open and just trial.

Alexey Ponomarev: So, the Nuremberg trials are more than just a symbol?

— This is not a staged trial. Even in the Nuremberg and the Tokyo trials some people were acquitted. This is not a show trial, as it is often portrayed in Russian sources. The prosecution may lose due to the lack of proof, and this is exactly why I understood I want to work specifically at the prosecutor’s office.

I know what they’re dealing with, and due to that I understand how I can help them prove the crimes committed in Russia. Throughout my graduate studies I purposefully picked the subjects that would help me get this internship. They approve about just one application out of 700: you must be really eager to get there and you must really have something to say and something to help with. The Office of the Prosecutor, the Registry, the court Presidency all admit interns and always read their CVs  very carefully, even if they have some naïve ideas like “I want to restore the trampled justice, so that the whole world would live in peace.”

The key question is how do you do that? If your ideas are naïve but applicable, that is a resource that the court is very interested in.

Working for the court helped me cope with the traumatic experience. It’s not that I want to settle the old scores, it’s just that I feel so aggrieved that I want to restore the balance. I feel that I can do something about what I saw in Moscow in 2014 and, among other things, forgive my fellow Germans who did not believe me in 2014 that things were really as bad as I told them.

Now I see that they start getting it. It takes time, it is difficult, but they are really getting it. And I understand that back then there was no way I could [make them understand].

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