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Bosnian and Croatian prisoners of war at the prison camp in Manjaca, Bosnia, in 1992. All sides of the Bosnian conflict ran prison camps, where many people were killed, and several commanders were later indicted for war crimes. Image: Courtesy of Ron Haviv / VII

Editor’s Note: This chapter contains some graphic details about wartime sexual violence and other atrocities.

About a decade ago, I conducted the most difficult interview of my life while working on a documentary series about wartime sexual violence. My role was to find former soldiers who had been sexually abused in detention during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I had spent weeks researching detention sites in the archives of war crime trials to find torture victims to interview. I finally found one.

At the start of the war, this person was part of a village guard when Serb volunteers arrested him. He was put in a local detention site in northwest Bosnia. Members of the Yellow Wasps paramilitary unit would frequently enter these sites and abuse prisoners. These paramilitaries first shot at his feet. Then he was forced to perform oral sex on another inmate. Finally, one of the paramilitary soldiers broke off a leg of a chair and used it to sexually assault one of the prisoners.

I recall the interview vividly. The man was around 50 years old. Well built, but slouching, as if he was carrying some invisible weight. I had already conducted dozens of interviews with trauma survivors, but this was the first time I was unsure how far I could go with my questions to avoid doing further harm to him. I asked almost no questions about the details of the incident and focused mostly on ensuring I correctly understood his full back story and that all the dates matched.

At the end of the interview we talked for a long time about his present life — I wanted to make sure I was leaving him in the “present” rather than trapped in his memories. I called him a lot during the weeks that followed. In truth, I think I needed those conversations as well. When we published the documentary, I sent it to him. He replied after a few days to thank me, explaining that he was glad somebody had taken the time to find so many people who had lived through the same ordeal. He, like many other torture victims, had felt abandoned.

Who Is — and Isn’t — a Combatant?

Although war crimes are often thought of as acts committed against civilians, certain war crimes can also be committed against battlefield combatants, including prisoners of war. These war crimes — both against combatants and civilians — stem from the most serious violations of international humanitarian law, and are most clearly set out in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Under international humanitarian law, which is spelled out in treaties such as the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, combatants are persons authorized to use force within a conflict, which usually means members of armed forces, and occasionally can include other official organized groups — such as police units. “Combatant status” can be used to refer to the principle of distinction (combatants can lawfully be targeted), but is also important for determining who is entitled to prisoner of war status. There is a distinction under international humanitarian law related to combatants within an international and non-international conflict, which is important as it regulates whether certain groups are strictly legally seen as combatants or civilians taking part in hostilities. Within an international armed conflict, combatants are defined as meeting one of the three following criteria:

  • Members of the armed forces, except medical or religious officers.
  • Members of volunteer, paramilitary, and other militias who have a command structure, clear insignia, carry weapons openly, and adhere to laws and customs of war.
  • Persons who take up arms spontaneously and members of armed forces who are under the command of a structure not recognized by the other party in conflict.

In an internal armed conflict or civil war, international humanitarian law does not typically confer combatant status to persons who are not part of the official armed forces. Combatants captured during international armed conflict are usually entitled to prisoner of war status, and are therefore entitled to certain protections detailed in the Geneva Conventions. There is no prisoner of war status in non-international armed conflicts, but all persons deprived of their liberty must be treated humanely in all circumstances.

It is important to note these criteria because some groups or individuals who do actively take part in conflict — for instance mercenaries — do not qualify for combatant status and prisoner of war protections under international humanitarian law. So-called terrorist fighters, who do not openly wear arms or insignia, also do not qualify for combatant status, a controversial issue which, in the case of the US, has been used to justify alleged torture in Guantanamo Bay prison for years. Nevertheless, all those in the custody of state forces are always entitled to certain minimum protections, including the prohibition of torture and cruel, humiliating, and degrading treatment, as well as certain fair trial guarantees.

war crimes combatant hostile

An armed Serbian husband, alongside his wife, defends their home against Croatian forces in Okucani, Croatia, 1991. More than 10,000 people were killed and tens of thousands more became refugees in six months during Croatia’s war of independence. Image: Courtesy of Ron Haviv, VII

In conflict, both internal or non-international, and international, combatants are a legitimate military target, so war crimes against them are usually committed only after they are taken prisoner, or if they are otherwise “hors de combat” (e.g. when wounded or after they have surrendered). The use of certain methods of warfare (e.g. some types of prohibited weapons or acts of perfidy like willful deception or failing to honor surrender) can also constitute war crimes, even against combatants.

In order to report on war crimes against combatants taken prisoner, journalists should understand that for a prosecutor to prove a war crime against prisoners of war they need to establish that there was an armed conflict within which a perpetrator committed one of the following crimes:

  • Killing
  • Torture or inhumane treatment
  • Biological experiments
  • Serious abuse
  • Forced conscription
  • Denial of fair trial

Reporting on Potential War Crimes Against Combatants or Prisoners of War

Gathering evidence and reporting about war crimes against prisoners of war is often a difficult task, regardless of whether a journalist is investigating possible atrocities contemporaneously, in the immediate aftermath, or many years later. Since crimes against prisoners of war are indeed punishable, the reality is that the perpetrators have a strong incentive to cover them up — which may, in turn, require a creative approach to reporting.

Accumulate as much testimony from survivors as possible, both to research potential war crimes and to corroborate facts. In live conflicts, you can use social media as one avenue, but be wary about accounts from official sources, such as government ministries and armed forces, as they often push propaganda and unverified claims. Building journalistic investigations about war crimes means gathering multiple statements, so make sure to create a filing system. The best way is to save transcripts by names, dates, and locations (for example: Denis.Dzidic.1.2.2023.Sarajevo.docx) and then to color code or key word code important parts that speak to locations, crimes, individuals, units.

Journalistic, and even criminal, investigations related to crimes against prisoners of war almost always rely on first-hand testimony and eyewitness accounts. This means that finding survivors and interviewing them are among the most effective ways to build an investigation. When interviewing former prisoner of war (POW) camp detainees bear in mind that they are often traumatized individuals, and treat them as such. In interviews, make sure to adhere to the following.

  • Conduct the interview in a location where they feel safe.
  • Always do a preparatory interview (or several).
  • Take care not to re-traumatize the survivor.
  • Explain the role of the interview in your larger investigation.
  • Make eye contact and be attentive during the conversation.
  • Stay calm if they lose emotional or physical control.

When researching these topics, one effective outreach strategy could be to build rapport with associations of veterans and former camp detainees (or if it is a live or recent conflict with unions of soldiers). These groups are often created to get relevant authorities to grant them certain rights and benefits, like pensions, medical and psychological support. Because of this, they will frequently be motivated to assist reporters who want to tell their stories.

war crimes Russian prisoner of war

In 2022, men said to be Russian prisoners of war appeared at a Ukrainian government press conference. They said they were there of their own free will — and the Geneva Convention states clearly that POWs must be treated humanely in all circumstances. Image: Courtesy of Ron Haviv, VII

Soldiers can be invaluable sources of information about potential crimes, both those who were victims as prisoners of war, but also members of the armed forces who might have witnessed, joined, or been forced to participate in committing atrocities. There have been several investigations published following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine that are based on testimonies of insiders, who have spoken out about war crimes committed by their comrades. It is important to offer these former insiders the opportunity to speak anonymously — while verifying their claims through multiple sources — but also to be careful about how you interview them as they too can be traumatized.

Journalists should also bear in mind that they can have certain responsibilities under international humanitarian law, including protecting the honor and dignity of prisoners of war, and not exposing them to insults, humiliation, or public spectacle.

In addition to speaking with direct survivors, also consider reaching out to different humanitarian organizations, such as Médecins Sans Frontières. Note that some organizations choose not to share evidence even if they have unique access or information. Most prominent among these is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), that asserts it has a privilege of non-disclosure recognized in jurisprudence, which is why it did not provide confidential information to the Rwanda tribunal, the former Yugoslavia tribunal, or indirectly in the Sierra Leone tribunal and other war crimes proceedings. These organizations are independent and their testimony can provide invaluable information about conditions, prisoner identities, and other key details. They can be used as either a source or a means to verify the information given by survivors.

The United Nations also compiles reports on detention sites they are allowed to access, as do independent organizations — a phenomenon already taking place in Ukraine. This documentation cannot replace personal testimony, but it can provide a lot of supporting information that facilitates investigations.

Although crimes against prisoners of war can be individual incidents and do not require proving systemic misconduct (as in genocide and crimes against humanity), it’s important to consider that most of these crimes take place within detention sites, prisons, or concentration camps. Typically, there is some kind of administrative system in place, which means a paper trail exists that can be used to gather evidence. As a result, there is likely a larger circle of people than you might think who you can use as sources in your investigations.

For example, if there is a camp, that means that there is or was a roster listing the guards and wardens. Since prisoners need water and food, so too will there be cooks and sanitation workers. Prisoners are often allowed to see military or outside doctors periodically as well. In wartime, prisoners of war are often used for forced labor, so there are probably drivers and civilian witnesses who have seen prisoners working. If you manage to sit down with a survivor, make sure to take the time for the interview and ask about all these other threads that you might use later to verify facts or gather information.

When investigating crimes against prisoners of war, official indictments, war crime trial transcripts, and verdicts can be vital sources of information. Most high-ranking officials are charged with systemic crimes, where you often have a group of camps and a range of crimes. It is important to scour court-determined facts to find other names of individuals who might have been involved but never been prosecuted or general information about various sites where atrocities were committed.

Trial monitoring and understanding international humanitarian law and jurisdictions have been vital for reporting on conflicts in the past, such as in the former Yugoslavia or Syria – and more recently in Ukraine with proposals within Europe for creating a specialized tribunal on Russian aggression. In the genocide and crimes against humanity section you can find detailed resources valuable for learning about trials and how they can be used to develop investigations.

war crimes Darfur child soldiers

Young Sudanese Liberation Army soldiers pictured in North Darfur, Sudan, 2005. Image: Courtesy of Ron Haviv, VII

Child Soldiers

The act of recruiting and using children under the age of 15 in armed conflict is a war crime, although once they become members of the armed forces, such child soldiers are legally considered “combatants” for the purposes of distinction and prisoner of war status. Unfortunately, the use of child soldiers is still prevalent, but it has successfully been prosecuted as a war crime at the International Criminal Court. Even in Europe in the 1990s in the Bosnian conflict an estimated 2,000 children fought alongside veteran soldiers.

The Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict is the (non-binding) international document that addresses the recruitment and use of children in war. Reporting about child soldiers and crimes committed by and against them is a sensitive topic, both in terms of their trauma, but also because of issues related to their reintegration into society. However, it is vital to expose how violent organizations, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province are currently using child soldiers in battle and to commit atrocities. Before investigating these topics, it is important to review available literature and the latest trends by the ICRC, United Nations, Unicef, and Amnesty International. This ICRC short guide provides a brief overview of both legislation and issues related to human rights and children in detention.

Case Studies

Russian Military in Ukraine

One of the best investigations published during the first year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was done by the BBC, titled Russian Army Officer Admits: Our Troops Tortured Ukrainians. This exposé is an excellent example of some of the key lessons in reporting about war crimes, specifically, how to use individual testimony and corroborate it using official sources (in this case military documents), testimony of locals to verify sites and times, and open source reporting work to geolocate locations of detention sites in Ukraine.

Also, The New York Times visual investigation Caught on Camera, Traced by Phone: The Russian Military Unit That Killed Dozens in Bucha is an amazing modern investigation that was awarded the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Using open source techniques, videos, and intercepted phone calls, the Times tells the story of the Russian unit responsible for the killings of prisoners of war (and civilians) in Bucha after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Bosnian Prisoner Abuse

This Detector article represents a powerful combination of using trial testimony, documents from final verdicts, and interviews with survivors and former guards. All of this builds an investigation revealing who was responsible for abuse of prisoners in the Bosnian town of Zenica — and who escaped justice. The journalist provided so much evidence and testimony to one of the suspects mentioned in the interviews that the man admitted on the record that he was involved in beatings. Well-researched and written by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it even allows readers to download the evidence and peruse it with the addition of the video.

Bandit Warlords of Zamfara

This BBC Africa Eye deep dive focuses on the deadly gangs in northeast Nigeria that raid villages, attack drivers, abduct schoolchildren, and kill anyone who resists. The documentary reveals the causes and drivers of extremism, and the individuals recruiting and using child soldiers. The investigation is based on interviews with multiple sources, and shows how you can verify information using various sources.

How ISIS Recruits Children, Then Kills Them

The use of children in war, specifically to commit war crimes, also took place in the former Yugoslavia in the 90s, and more recently in the Middle East. This great CNN investigation using open sources scoured ISIS propaganda videos and social media was published in 2016. It also used data visualization to show the nationality of the most underage soldiers and the way they were killed.

Additional Resources

Reporter’s Guide to Investigating War Crimes: Collecting and Archiving Evidence

Reporter’s Guide to Investigating War Crimes: Open Source Research

Reporter’s Guide to Investigating War Crimes: Attacks on Civilians

Denis Džidić is the executive director and editor of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIRN BiH), an outlet that won the 2020 European Press Prize special award for its reporting about the Bosnian war. A journalist since 2006, he has worked for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Sarajevo and The Hague investigating transitional justice issues and covering war crimes trials related to the 1992-1995 conflict in BiH.

Ron Haviv, VII FoundationRon Haviv is a director and co-founder of The VII Foundation and co-founder of VII Photo Agency. In the last three decades, Haviv has covered more than 25 conflicts and worked in over 100 countries. His work, which has won numerous awards, is featured in museums and galleries worldwide.

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