10 yrs ago, the photoreporter Rocchelli was killed in Ukraine. His mother still seeks justice

Elisa Signori, mother of the Italian photojournalist killed in 2014 in the Donbass by the Ukrainian army. 'My son photographed to the last to tell the truth, his death is a war crime'

Marco Panzarella

Marco PanzarellaRedattore lavialibera

14 giugno 2024

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Ten years have passed since the death of Andrea Rocchelli, the Pavia-based photojournalist killed in 2014 in the Donbass by a mortar shell exploded by the Ukrainian army, but it seems that today only a few want to remember this story. There has been a trial, a conviction and an acquittal; imaginative reconstructions have been proposed, inappropriate words used and, above all, a complex story that deserved more attention has been simplified.

On 24 May 2014, together with Rocchelli, the human rights activist Andrej Mironov lost his life, while the French photojournalist William Roguelon and the driver who had accompanied the group were injured .

Most of the media fed the public a distorted account of the trial, where the defendant Vitalij Markiv - at the time of the events a private soldier who later became deputy commander of the Ukrainian National Guard - in July 2019 was sentenced to 24 years by the Pavia Assize Court for conspiracy to murder Rocchelli. A year later, in the second-degree trial held in Milan, Markiv was acquitted, a decision confirmed in December 2021 by the Court of Cassation.

'The media passed this acquittal off as a remedied miscarriage of justice,' Elisa Signori, Andrea Rocchelli's mother, explains to lavialibera , 'but in reality, the motivations of the second-degree verdict reaffirmed that it was a war crime and confirmed the responsibility of the Ukrainian army and national guard. Although few people talk about it, Markiv was exonerated due to a procedural defect that emerged at the appeal trial. After all, we are in a rule of law that provides many guarantees pro reo: in this case they worked to send the militiaman home'.

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His son has been gone for ten years. Has he found some justice?

"Andrea and Mironov were not killed by crossfire, nor by a sniper. It was an attack that lasted about 40 minutes"Elisa Signori - Andrea Rocchelli's mother

Andrea and Mironov were not killed by crossfire, nor by a sniper. It was an attack that lasted about 40 minutes, monitored from above so as to adjust the shot and not miss the target. Ten years later, we have no convictions and the crime has gone unpunished even though Ukraine's culpability has been established. Unfortunately, there has never been a real will on the part of Italy to demand truth and justice from a country we consider a friend.

After Andrea's death many things were said and written, for example that he was a 'friend' of the Russians.

In 2014, my son decided to go to the Donbass because he sensed that it was not just a skirmish going on, but the prologue to the war that broke out two years ago. He was not taking sides, his commitment was to photograph civilians, the plight of ordinary people. And he was certainly not pro-Russia, so much so that in Kiev he had worked on crowfunding for an Italian NGO, Soleterre, which looked after children with cancer.

The names and faces of Andrea and Mironov still appear on the Ukrainian website Myrotvorec' - a database against supporters of the pro-Russian separatist cause - accompanied by the red writing 'liquidated'.

Many people end up on that blacklist, including some journalists who worked in Ukraine. My son and Mironov were listed as terrorists.

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Do you think it was a premeditated attack?

I cannot say, there are many hypotheses, other journalists in Ukraine were also shot. For sure it was a precise and dogged attack. The chronicle of those days can help to understand the context in which the murder took place. A large part of the Donbass was in the hands of pro-Russian separatist forces and the Ukrainian army was engaged in an action to reconquer the territory. My son was killed the day before the elections, at that juncture no one was sparing a bullet, it was crucial for the Ukrainians to retake Donetsk as soon as possible.

The first instance trial opened in Pavia in 2018, did you feel the closeness of Italian institutions?

"I would have expected Italy to take a clear position on the killing of one of its defenceless citizens"

Politics remained outside the trial, as it should be. But then, once the judicial process was over, I would have expected Italy to take a clear position on the killing of one of its defenceless citizens. The friendship that our government confirms on every occasion to Ukraine, including through economic aid, would require a firm attitude in demanding justice for what the Italian judiciary itself has defined as a war crime. The government, however, does not seem to have taken notice.

What has changed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Andrea's story ended up in a cone of shadow. Today it is uncomfortable to say that it was the Ukrainian army that killed him.

In 2014 Andrea understood that the conflict in Donbass was only the beginning of a story that continues. What do you think about the 'new' war?

In Ukraine, among other things, a massacre of the young male population is taking place. Both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers are being sent to slaughter in their respective armies. It is a great bonfire where human resources are being burnt.

Two years after her son's death, a memory card was found that holds Andrea's last shots. What did you feel when you saw those photographs?

It happened when the friends of the Cesura collective decided to make a shrine to keep his camera. I saw the pictures and got confirmation of how strong my son's vocation was for using the language of photography. We parents realised it little by little, more than a profession for Andrea it was an existential choice. And these exceptional photographs, taken shortly before he and his companions were shot in the ditch in which they had taken refuge, are proof of that. Perhaps it was a morgue nurse who removed the card from the camera and placed it in a hidden cavity of the case, I want to think compassionately. She could have destroyed it but she didn't. Andrea photographed to the last, he knew he was going to die but he never stopped telling the truth.

This article was translated by our partner Kompreno with the support of DeepL.

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