Patrick Desbois, a pastor on a quest who has “a prayer to rebuild himself”
“For me, faith is a struggle. Seeing him wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest, it was hard to prove him wrong. Patrick Desbois began his commando mission nearly twenty years ago. Always in the same posture: as a hunter. And, though the scale of the camouflage uniform sometimes hides his Roman collar, the churchman doesn’t pull the trigger. There are no rifles or missiles, the weapons are different. Since 2004 and the founding of his association Yahad-in Unum, the imam has been tracking mass crimes. Starting with “Shoah by bullets”, the killing during the Second World War of more than one and a half million Jews in Eastern Europe by the Nazis.
Gathering evidence, interviewing victims, cross-checking testimony, etc. For two decades, the author of the book Holocaust by bullets cross over Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Poland, etc.) by multiplying the interviews. The goal: to document the horror. So when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Pastor Desbois didn’t hesitate to get involved. Last March, he told AFP he wanted to “collect as many testimonies as possible from people who either witnessed the crimes being committed, or were victims”.
“He is demanding, picky (…) he also works on instinct”
The desire to immerse oneself in a recent conflict, which does not surprise fellow travelers. “He doesn’t stand still. He wants to discover new things. He wants to move forward, to give the maximum”, confided Andrej Umansky, lawyer and historian, who knew Patrick Desbois from the beginning of his adventure, in 2004. “He was demanding, choose -choose, and at the same time he also works on instinct.His experience makes it easy to understand human behavior”, analyzes Michal Chojak, PhD in history and director of the research center set up by the association.
After ten months of conflict, the association now has nearly 200 video testimonies, collected on site or remotely. “It seems natural for us to do so. We don’t know if the Ukrainians agreed to talk, but they did,” said Father Desbois, annoyed 20 minutes during his all-too-rare vacation. Rest taken overseas in a place the believer prefers to keep secret. And the priest continues by entrusting the stories of the victims to us. “I remember a woman from Mariupol who needed to talk for several hours without anyone asking. He detailed the violence he suffered, the torture, the ferocity of the interrogation before he was sent to the screening camp. Another woman, one of our first witnesses, was driving her car with her husband and child in it when she felt a bullet penetrate her baby’s body. This testimony is painful to hear. Sometimes, we are so shocked by the violence of the facts that are presented that we don’t know what else to ask. »
In Kherson and Mykolaiv, from December 17 to 19, during one of his four trips to Ukraine since the start of the war, Father Patrick, as he is sometimes called, was even able to access the former detention center where the torture sessions were carried out. on civilians. And Andrej Umansky, who is on his way to Kherson to provide his expertise and send information to the German court, to confide in: “We like long interviews, and we ask for as many details as possible from those interviewed. Living conditions, food, exact description of the place of residence. It’s hard to make a definitive analysis at this point, the conflict is ongoing. But crimes, not only in Boutcha, but in many occupied Russian towns and villages.”
A personal story closely related to Ukraine
To authenticate this testimony, the pastor and his team used the “topography” of the place and examined certain material elements. “There are things that you can only understand on the spot. If we are told that a missile hit the 8th floor and the house is a pavilion, there is a problem,” the 67-year-old priest said.
Another important filter: the team ensures that attacks target civilians, and not military targets. This rigorous work interested Ukrainian justice and a certain German investigator, who was in contact with the father, aware that “only one piece of the puzzle” as he stated to Figaro in April 2022.
The windfall stories from Ukraine that have been made in recent months have been made possible thanks to the work of “mediators”, locals busy rounding up and contacting victims on social networks, ahead of any possible physical encounters.
“We have made 73 research trips to Ukraine about the Holocaust with bullets over the last twenty years. This legacy is also what opens the door for us to investigate what is going on. This gives us credibility. Local authorities know us, ”explains Michal Chojak, who specially investigated with the clergy about the Holocaust with bullets in Poland.
Investigations into Daesh and Yazidis
“I know Ukraine better than France thanks to research on the Holocaust with bullets. People also know me. The fact of being appointed director of the Babi Yar academic council in Kyiv (in 2021) played out. It allowed me to get to know Zelensky’s relatives before the war”, said Father Patrick, contacted by 20 minutes. A native of Chalon-sur-Saône, whose family history is closely linked to this country. In 1942, his grandfather was deported to the Swamp-Ruska camp. A survivor of the camps,he has never been able to share his story with his family. This is part of what motivates pastors to live a life of inquiry.
After teaching mathematics in Burkina Faso, this polyglot (English, Bambara, Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese) from a humble family was ordained a priest in the 1980s, before starting his work documenting mass crimes. . Described as “bold” and “intuitive” by his team, the sixty something was not limited to Nazi abuse. In 2015, he went to investigate crimes committed by Daesh against the Yazidi population. A work praised in 2017 by President Emmanuel Macron.
Today, when he returns to Saint-Ouen (Seine-Saint-Denis), the city where he lives and is the headquarters of his association, his father assures us that his faith supports him greatly. “When I’m working on a killing spree, I control my days, but not necessarily my nights. I pray to rebuild myself. Because, sometimes, we don’t wake up in top shape. »
As of August 2022, nearly 29,000 war crimes were reported to Ukrainian courts, while the International Criminal Court opened an investigation in the country.