lena Protsenko remembers exactly where she was on Feb. 23, 2022, when she heard that the unthinkable had become Ukraine’s reality. She was putting her 8-month-old son to bed in her Charlottesville apartment while her husband watched the evening news. He came into the room and whispered into her ear that Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared a “special military operation” in their homeland.

It was already 5 a.m. on the 24th in Ukraine. “I called my aunt and told her that the war had started,” Protsenko said.

“I can hear it,” her aunt replied, through tears.

A year later, Protsenko is waging her own battle, working as a staff attorney through the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law and marshaling the efforts of students to hold Russia accountable for possible war crimes.

A Human Rights Lawyer Abroad

As Russia shut off electricity and gas supplies across the country in the first weeks of the war, the news and social media became Protsenko’s only connection to her family, who spent a solid month huddling in the dark, cold and damp basement of their apartment building in the Donbas region near the city of Mariupol, since destroyed by Russia.

“The Russians were trying to advance from the north, from the south, from the east, so the entire territory of Ukraine was randomly bombed,” Protsenko recalled. “You couldn’t really understand, ‘Is your family in danger or should they stay there?’ Is it safer to try evacuating under the fire or wait where they are? What if they are attacked when trying to evacuate? Should they try to go to Europe? What do you do?”

In the invasion’s first few weeks, Protsenko remained fixated on news out of her homeland. She forgot to eat, and lost weight. Her husband took up smoking. She gathered enormous collections of donated goods and clothing, not realizing that shipping companies were overloaded with humanitarian aid.

Then, two weeks after the war started, she realized she could do something – maybe something that could have a significant impact.

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