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‘Method to the violence’: Dogged investigation and groundbreaking visuals document Bucha ‘cleansing’

In this image from March 4, 2022, surveillance video provided by the Ukrainian government, Russian troops lead nine men at gunpoint to their headquarters at 144 Yablunska St. in Bucha, Ukraine, in a March 4, 2022 image from surveillance video provided by the Ukrainian government. The men would be tortured and executed as part of what the Russians called “zachistka” – cleansing. The Russian occupiers hunted people on lists prepared by their intelligence services and went door to door to identify and neutralize potential threats. (Ukrainian government via AP)

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AP Brussels-based investigative reporter Erika Kinetz spent months investigating Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and worked to unearth details of the atrocities in Bucha. Her breakthrough came when a source agreed to give her a hard drive loaded with terabytes of surveillance video from the streets of the Kyiv suburb. Shortly after that, she also obtained thousands of audio files of Russian soldiers calling friends and relatives back home, in which they admitted to “zachistka” — cleansing — killing civilians under orders from their leaders.

Video journalist Adam Pemble, who was on assignment in Ukraine, hand carried the hard drive to Prague, rented a temporary office with a strong internet connection and uploaded 80,000 video files. AP digital partner SITU Research, a New York-based visual investigations firm, indexed the files, then Pemble, multiformat journalist Allen Breed and other AP colleagues began the painstaking process of reviewing all the footage, which often showed nothing but driving rain or stray dogs — but also included evidence of Russian war crimes.

Using geolocation techniques, Washington-based investigative journalist Michael Biesecker analyzed some of the key images and was able to pin down the location of the cameras. He also added the newly documented deaths to AP’s War Crimes Watch Ukraine web fixture. Kinetz,meanwhile,directed several translators who transcribed the intercepted Russian phone calls. The Dossier Center,a London-based investigative group funded by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky,verified the identity of soldiers whose phone calls were intercepted by the Ukrainian government.

The evidence collected,combined with interviews,videos and photos assembled over months by Kinetz,video journalist Oleksandr “Sasha” Stashevskyi and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko,told the chilling tale of the fall of Bucha and how,over the month that followed,Russian occupiers terrorized the local population with raids, torture and summary executions.

Senior video producer Jeannie Ohm collaborated with SITU — which created a 3D digital model of Bucha drawn from data collected by drones flown over Bucha this spring — producing a video that layers AP footage,surveillance video and intercepted phone calls into an immersive experience narrated by Kinetz,taking readers into the city,witness to the horrors on the ground.

Digital storytelling producer Dario Lopez wove all the elements — text,photos, video and audio — into a riveting presentation.

No other news organization has conducted such a deep and revealing analysis of the atrocities in Bucha. The package resonated: The story had more than 120,000 pageviews and the top score for reader engagement on AP News,while the YouTube video has had more than 200,000 views.

For their meticulous,innovative work and their collaboration across formats and continents,the team of Kinetz,Stepanenko,Stashevskyi,Pemble,Breed,Biesecker, Ohm and Lopez is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

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