2023 Excellence in Visual Digital Storytelling, Medium Newsroom winner

The Banality of Brutality: 33 days under siege in Block 17, Bucha, Ukraine

About the Project

This story is based on Telegram chat logs from 88 residents of an apartment block that sat across the street from a glass factory that Russian soldiers used as a military base during their occupation in March and April 2022.

As residents grappled with the indignities of war — being shot at in the streets and in their homes, having to scrounge for firewood and fresh water — they sent thousands of text and voice messages to each other, along with photos, memes, and videos, creating a unique snapshot of life under siege.

The chat logs are messier than other wartime narratives. The view from Block 17 could be parochial, scattered, confused, and occasionally profane, as residents desperately tried to piece together an understanding of what was happening around them. Bombings, gunfire, and constant fear were interspersed with panic, grinding boredom, and neighborly bickering, but also cooperation and commiseration.

OCCRP film director Matt Sarnecki and deputy editor in chief Julia Wallace saw how the chat log was a real-time snapshot of life during war — perhaps a modern version of a wartime letter. We framed the story as a glimpse of endurance and everyday life during this moment in time in this one building.

OCCRP’s tech team translated the enormous volume of messages into English. We created a folder with key screenshots on every topic (such as “Christmas lights episode,” “building on fire,” and “ Jack the cat”) and made a list of all the people who were involved in this chat.

Then we worked to identify the people and events behind the snippets, keeping in mind OCCRP’s notoriously difficult fact-checking process.

In May, reporter Yana Korniychuk went to knock on doors to try to match the people with the messages and verify the content. Some people used nicknames and some had been communicating in the chat from outside the city. We had no idea if people would even want to talk to us at all.

Yana found residents who were afraid and some asked not to have their names used. But she gained their trust and found many people who wanted their story told.

Like some neighborhood chats, there were rumors and falsehoods swirling around, made more difficult because the residents were essentially cut off from outside news and information during this time.

Everyone who worked on this story can attest that creating this feature was in many ways more challenging than publishing an investigation when it can be easier to discern concrete facts.

Next, we pulled in OCCRP’s design and web teams to strategize about how we would tell this story. We landed on the scrollable format, using four elements: the log of the chat, the resident’s testimony after the fact, the context behind the events, and the visuals — photos and video.

After we published the piece, we sent it the people in Block 17, who then posted it on the group chat.

Judges Comments

Captivating storytelling and a unique use of source material make this piece stand out.