Scenes From Hell

A disturbing video out of Ukraine evokes similar scenes from Srebrenica.

di-Giovanni-Janine-foreign-policy-columnist7
di-Giovanni-Janine-foreign-policy-columnist7
Janine di Giovanni
By , an FP columnist and director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies.
A woman watches a video that shows the execution of Bosnia Muslims from Srebrenica by Serbian paramilitaries in 1995.
A woman watches a video that shows the execution of Bosnia Muslims from Srebrenica by Serbian paramilitaries in 1995.
A woman in Belgrade watches a video on television on June 2, 2005, showing Serbian paramilitaries executing six Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica in 1995. KOCA SULEJMANOVIC/AFP via Getty Images

In July 1995, 12-year-old Senada Ibrahamovic leaned out the window of her house in Srebrenica, a former mining town in eastern Bosnia, and caught a fleeting glance of her father, Smail. A defender of the embattled city, he was running into the forest.

He turned around and waved goodbye to his daughter. He was wearing his favorite blue jean jacket. When I spoke to her in 2005, Senada remembered this detail and also that she was angry with her father for leaving as the town’s warning sirens went off. But he had kissed her and told her he would see her in a few days: that the family would be reunited.

Within hours, Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces, and Senada’s father, along with some 8,000 other men and boys, would never return home. Srebrenica was Europe’s first genocide since World War II. It was also a victory for ethnic cleansing.

In July 1995, 12-year-old Senada Ibrahamovic leaned out the window of her house in Srebrenica, a former mining town in eastern Bosnia, and caught a fleeting glance of her father, Smail. A defender of the embattled city, he was running into the forest.

He turned around and waved goodbye to his daughter. He was wearing his favorite blue jean jacket. When I spoke to her in 2005, Senada remembered this detail and also that she was angry with her father for leaving as the town’s warning sirens went off. But he had kissed her and told her he would see her in a few days: that the family would be reunited.

Within hours, Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces, and Senada’s father, along with some 8,000 other men and boys, would never return home. Srebrenica was Europe’s first genocide since World War II. It was also a victory for ethnic cleansing.

Later, we would find out gruesome details of what happened when the Serbs overran the so-called United Nations “safe area.”

The men were lined up in the fields, holding each other and whispering, “Are they going to kill us? They can’t kill us,” before they were mowed down and covered in red rivers of blood. Fouad Riad, one of the judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, would later describe the atrocities at Srebrenica as “truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.”

Years passed. The Bosnian war ended. The family was displaced. Senada never saw Smail again. But she believed—like many survivors who do not find the remains of their loved ones who disappeared—that he might still be alive somewhere.

In 2005, Senada was watching television in her new home in Tuzla, outside Srebrenica, when she unexpectedly saw a video aired on Bosnian state TV. She was unprepared for what came next. It showed six Bosnian Muslim prisoners of war being marched into the woods, made to dig their own graves, and shot as their killers jeered at them.

Senada recognized Smail almost immediately: He was wearing the same blue jean jacket as when she had seen him last. He was begging for his life and, more painfully, begging for water before he died.

The video, filmed by a Bosnian Serb paramilitary group known as the Scorpions, had been tracked down by a relentless and courageous Serbian human rights defender named Natasa Kandic. It was later used as evidence in The Hague. At the time—pre-social media—no one could understand why the killers would record the murders, other than as a sadistic trophy: a kind of “snuff” film, a genre in which a murder or suicide is circulated for gruesome entertainment.

But the Scorpions also made the video as a symbol of power and defiance—that they were above laws, ethics, or mores. That they could and would do anything they wanted to conquer.

A similarly sickening video recently appeared on pro-Russian Telegram channels and instantly went viral. As the Washington Post and others have reported, it shows a man dressed in military fatigues adorned with pro-Russian symbols and a ribbon associated with Russian forces using a box cutter to castrate a bound, gagged, and moaning Ukrainian prisoner of war dressed in military fatigues with Ukrainian military insignia.

We can only hope the prisoner—who moans and twitches as he lies in a pool of blood—was not conscious when such a barbaric act occurred. A second video allegedly shows him being shot in the head with his testicles in his mouth and dragged to a grave.

Although it’s unclear who initially shared the video, the level of cruelty of the act suggests it was almost certainly calculated precisely to flatten the morale of the Ukrainian troops. It came in the aftermath of the killing of dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war at a Russian-run prison in Olenivka, a Russian-occupied region of eastern Ukraine, on July 29. Some of the POWs were defenders of the southeastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which had become a symbol of the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people and an irritant to the Russian military, which needed it to fall for strategic and psychological advantage.

In May, more than 2,400 fighters from the Azov regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard and other units surrendered after holding out inside a steel plant against a bitter and punishing assault for weeks. At the time, Russia said it would treat the men “consistent with the respective international laws,” though some Russian officials have called for the Ukrainian fighters to face trial as war criminals or even to be executed. The Russian Embassy in Britain went even further to incite hatred, posting on Twitter that the Azov soldiers deserved a “humiliating death” by hanging.


As the director of The Reckoning Project, a war crimes initiative in Ukraine funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, I forced myself to watch the castration video to see if I could identify any details from the perpetrator’s uniform or chevrons. But I could not finish it. Once viewed, it cannot be unseen.

All I could think of was that the Ukrainian prisoner had family who, like Senada, would one day see this. And I wondered about how this video would fuel the cycle of this war through reprisals and vengeance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office shot back on Twitter: “World has to realize: [Russia]—a country of cannibals who enjoy torture and murder. But the fog of war will not help to avoid punishment for the executioners. We will identify and get to each of you.” Inna Sovsun, a Ukrainian member of parliament, tweeted out the video and wrote, “Russia has to pay for it!”

Such flagrant criminality and abuse of the laws of war speak to the massive weakness in international law and its conventions. Where are the Geneva Conventions when a soldier castrates a bound prisoner of war? Dmytro Koval, an expert on international law with the Kyiv-based NGO Truth Hounds, said this is the most obvious example of a war crime. POWs are protected under the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which replaced an outdated version from 1929.

Both Russia and Ukraine are signatories to the Geneva Conventions—meaning they have promised to respect the rules and fight fairly. In October 2019, before the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin revoked an additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions related to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts. In a letter to the Russian parliament at the time, according to Reuters, Putin claimed that an international commission set up to investigate war crimes had “effectively failed to carry out its functions since 1991.” He added: “In the current international environment, the risks of the commission’s power abuse by the states, which are acting in bad faith, are increasing significantly.”

Russia is still a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Despite this, Russia has been accused by human rights groups and U.N. officials of massive atrocities in Ukraine, as well as of killing civilians in Syria and during Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008.

Russia consistently complains it is not represented fairly at the United Nations, but ask any frustrated U.N. official about how many times Russia stalled humanitarian processes during the worst of the Syrian war (which it joined in 2015 to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad): Over and over, Russia vetoed resolutions that would bring some aid to suffering civilians there.

Most worrying for me is the motive behind filming the video and releasing it widely on social media channels. One could argue that the Russian soldier is a lone sadistic madman, but members of his unit stood by and watched and clearly did nothing to stop him. Was there a chain of command? Were his military superiors told, officially or unofficially, to instruct soldiers to instill fear in the Ukrainian population by showing what lengths they will go to?

My guess is the abuser in the castration video probably did not get direct orders from a commander to perform castration—and it will be hard for us and other investigators to establish a chain of command. But the level of horror inflicted in this war is not a coincidence. It is part of Putin’s overall playbook that he carried out in past wars in Chechnya and Syria. In Chechnya, the Russian army twice invaded and twice flattened cities and villages as a way of imposing control and forcing people into submission. In Syria, they destroyed East Aleppo.

This would fall into the patterns of other war crimes my team and I are documenting in Ukraine, which are largely crimes against civilians in Russian-occupied territories and areas where the Russians pulled out after weeks or months of occupation. The acts of extreme cruelty we have recorded since the Feb. 24 invasion include extrajudicial killing, enforced detention, and deliberate targeting of civilians. I’ve talked to women whose husbands were pulled out of shelters in front of them and shot and to mothers whose sons’ eyes were gouged out.

My team and I work on issues of bringing justice to victims. But in Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv, Mariupol, Chernihiv, Bucha, Irpin—the list goes on—the people I speak to have no faith in justice or the law or the world to find these men and bring them to court. It’s hard to live in a world where you feel humanitarian rules do not actually apply, especially in times of war.


We can only hope there will be no more of these snuff videos, because the trauma they inflict in the aftermath is massive. After the Scorpions video was released in 2005, I traveled to Bosnia, where I had worked for many years, to talk to the families of the men and boys in the video. It was one of the most disturbing assignments I have ever had.

In a village outside Sarajevo, I met Nurijaja Alispahic. Her two sons and husband were killed in Srebrenica. Her youngest son was only 16 at the time. He was shown in the video being tortured and killed by the Scorpions.

There were hours of tears and memories of her lost family. When I left, Nurijaja told me she will only have peace when she is dead.

I wrote in my notebook at the time: “If women as gentle as Senada or Nurijaja want to rip the throats off of the men who killed their beloved men, how can these people ever live together again?”

Ukraine is a long way from any kind of reconciliation or healing or even the notion of negotiations. With every crime committed—some 21,000 alleged war crimes were being investigated as of July—there will be more blows to any kind of future forgiveness.

There are meant to be laws of civility and institutions that prevent the barbarism of the Scorpions and the castration video. But in this war, neither are respected. Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian commissioner for human rights, said that so far Russia has not yet allowed representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to access the Olenivka prison camp where the Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed last month. Lubinets also said his requests for U.N. intervention have thus far been ignored.

The writer Ernest Hemingway was only 18 when he first saw the misery of war. He later wrote: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

Janine di Giovanni is an FP columnist and director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies. Twitter: @janinedigi

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