From the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Ivano-Frankivsk, the hometown of the 27-years-old lawyer and PhD law student Mykola Ostapiak, became a transit hub for thousands of Ukrainians who were fleeing the war. Exhausted, disoriented and terrified, these people needed every help available, from clothing and shelter to assistance with restoring lost documents. Many of them witnessed shocking war crimes committed by Russian soldiers, and their testimonies were important to restore justice and fight Russian propaganda.
By that time, Mykola had already been working for four years at the Law Clinic of the Educational Scientific Law Institute of Precarpathian National University where he provided free legal assistance to citizens, so he immediately jumped into action
And the European Union’s EaP Civil Society Fellowship programme gave him the opportunity to carry out these activities on a new level. Mykola realized that every testimony was incredibly important, both for the Ukrainian investigators, prosecutors and security service, as well as for historians. He needed to act quickly as majority of internally displaced people (IDPs) stayed in Ivano-Frankivsk only for a short period of time, before going further, and memories become less detailed over time. To meet the time challenge, Mykola mobilized and trained a group of legal professionals – his co-workers from the university and the legal clinic, law students and paralegals from Postupovyy Gurt Frankivtsiv CSO – who worked with him on collecting the testimonies and providing legal assistance to IDPs.
During his 8-months Fellowship project Mykola’s team collected 221 testimonies of IDPs, including evidence of 195 attacks and damage of civil infrastructure, 47 war crimes of killing or wounding civilians, 9 instances of starvation of the civilian population, 12 cases of kidnapping, 4 instances of torture, and 88 crimes involving the seizure of property.
But they did continue. Their professionalism combined with compassion drove dozens of IDPs based in Ivano-Frankivsk to the legal clinic to seek help and testify the injustice and war crimes they had witnessed. Together with his team, Mykola travelled to remote cities and villages in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, to speak and help those who could not make it to town.
Mykola’s passion for his profession is rooted in his natural desire to help others. He says that people’s emotions and gratitude for help and advice is a constant reminder he is doing the right thing. Within his Fellowship project, his team also provided legal assistance to 85 IDPs, consulting them on social benefits and financial assistance, border crossing, recovery of documents, etc., and distributed 1,300 copies of the informational booklet explaining their rights as IDPs. “We had a case when a local entrepreneur was reluctant to hire an IDP. After one consultation on the state support to those employing IDPs, he not only hired the person, but was open to employ more people in the same situation”, remembers Mykola.
Despite the fact that his Fellowship project formally ended in April 2023, Mykola and his team continue their work on a volunteering basis. They joined the Ukraine 5 AM Coalition of Ukrainian and international human rights organisations aimed at protecting victims of armed Russian aggression in Ukraine and later at bringing to justice Russia’s top leadership and the perpetrators of war crimes. As of early August 2023, Mykola’s group has collected over 700 testimonies about war crimes. Most of those testimonies have been converted into formal war crimes protocols and entered into the Investigation Documentation System (I-DOC), a specially designed tool to help investigators analyse and verify testimonies and evidence to gather all the required information concerning committed war crimes and help Ukraine’s law enforcement launch trials. But some, like the story of an elderly couple from Mariupol, Oleksandr and Vira, were turned into media stories, to help counteract Russian disinformation and propaganda.
According to Mykola, the OSCE has already used some testimonies in its report, and Mykola proudly mentions the Russian government entered the 5 AM Coalition – and the Postupovyy Gurt Frankivtsiv as the coalition member – into its notorious list of ‘undesirable organisations’.
Mykola Ostapiak is one of the Fellows of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Fellowship programme funded by the European Union. Its main objective is to support civil society activists or civically minded people from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine who demonstrate a deep commitment to leading positive social change in their communities. The Eastern Partnership Civil Society Fellowship programme has been running since 2017 and today the Fellowship alumni has 147 Fellows from across the six countries of the Eastern Partnership. Details about the Fellows and their Fellowship projects can be found here.