Interview with Ms Ewa Hofmańska, PhD Project Manager at Project Sunflowers, lawyer and philanthropist
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: You are a coordinator of a unique project Sunflowers initiated by international lawyers. When was it initiated and what is the purpose of it?
Project Sunflowers that I’m leading is a unique one, indeed. It is an international initiative of lawyers that was created ad hoc just a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine started in February last year. Millions of people were following news from Ukraine, just as we did. We listened to the stories they told when reached the Ukrainian border. Of course, based on our professional knowledge and experience, we knew that among those fleeing from Ukraine are potential witnesses of war crimes and at the same time victims of this war. And we also knew that no justice system can cope with such a huge amount of information available to these people. Past experience of international and national prosecutions of international crimes indicates that only a few witnesses to armed conflicts and few victims of such crimes will testify before investigators and even fewer will testify before the courts. However, it is important to start collecting as much information as possible about the evidence of these crimes and their victims. Our idea is to collect information about evidence of crimes committed in Ukraine and about victims of these crimes. All these information will create a database that will be then passed on to competent authorities. This is the way the Project is intended to complement the activities of national authorities and international tribunals established to prosecute and adjudicate war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide, crimes of aggression or other serious human rights violations related to the Russian’s invasion of Ukraine. Uniqueness of Project Sunflowers is also reflected by the fact that it supports international and national authorities that will be involved in reparations programmes in the future. By supporting in this way all these authorities, Project Sunflowers contributes to bringing justice to the victims of the war in Ukraine and reinforcing the belief that the perpetrators of these crimes will not avoid accountability.
Where does the name of the Project stem from?
Name of the Project is not accidentally. Sunflowers have been a beloved symbol of Ukrainian national identity. It has appeared in Ukrainian folklore and culture, including legends, literature and painting for many years. In the past, the sunflower grew in practically every garden, and huge fields of sunflowers could be seen on the skyline, strongly referring to Ukraine’s flag in yellow and blue. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine started last year, Sunflowers were a key component of the Ukrainian economy, with Ukraine and Russia contributing upward of 70-80 % of global sunflower oil exports. Now, due to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine since 24 February 2022, this flower is seen by many as a ‘global symbol of resistance, unity and hope’. It owes its revived fame above all to a brave Ukrainian woman from the town of Henychesk who, seeing Russian soldiers, approached them, telling them that they were occupiers, fascists and enemies. She then wanted to give them sunflower seeds, telling them to put them in their pockets, so that at least something pretty would grow out of them when they all lay down (were defeated/died).
Project Sunflowers cooperates with a network of international volunteers. What countries do they operate in and what is their role?
To make the mission of the Project happens, we have established a network in volunteers in countries where Ukrainian refugees have found a safety shelter. So far, Sunflowers volunteers are in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Netherlands, Slovakia, Czechia, Spain, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and the United States. We are still looking for more volunteers, especially in countries where we don’t have any yet and we know that more and more refugees move to these countries. A good example is Canada, where there is already 170 thousand of Ukrainian refugees. Having volunteers in so many countries, allows us to say that the Project is definitely universal also in a territorial sense. Our volunteers are individuals, mostly lawyers, who are involved in supporting refugees individually, but also those, who work at NGOs that organise material, psychological, medical and/or social support to them. The role of our volunteers is to spread a word about the Project among Ukrainians and encourage them to share information with us they have about incidents they have seen during the war and about scope of harm they have suffered as a result of these incidents. Our volunteers have already started the trainings to learn how to speak with survivors to not traumatise them. For the initiators of the Project, respecting the rule “do no harm” is the priority. They also will be training how to assist potential witnesses and victims of the war with filling in a form that has been created for the purpose of the Project.
What technical tools do you apply to collect information about the crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine? And where are your findings available?
All these information will be collected online via a special application that has been created for this purpose. The application is currently undergoing security testing. After any necessary improvements, we will present it later in May. The information collected will be stored in a secure database. The Foundation Sunflowers, which is responsible for the implementation of the Project, will make this database available to the competent authorities upon request. For no other purpose the information collected in our database will be analysed or in any way processed by authorities other than those appointed to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of international crimes or involved in reparation proceedings.
On May 19 Project Sunflower organizes an international seminar. Can you elaborate on it?
Project Sunflowers together with the UE Pravo-Justice Project and the Polish and the Ukrainian national groups of the International Association of Penal Law (AIDP) organise an international seminar this Friday, 19 of May, on “Bringing Justice for Ukraine. Crimes of Aggression, war crimes, crimes against Humanity, Crimes of Genocide”. The aim of the conference is to have a discussion between eminent lawyers and international criminal law experts on the legal and practical aspects of bringing perpetrators of crimes committed in Ukraine to justice. I invite everyone to take part in this unique event. The seminar will take place on the Zoom platform between 9:00 and 15:00 CET. The link to register is available here.
How can we support your actions?
Everyone can support the Project activities. There are many ways to do that. For example, as I mentioned, we are looking for volunteers, who will do their work on the ground. If anyone is in contact with Ukrainian refugees in its country and would like to be involved in this international Project, please contact us to get more details how to become the Sunflowers volunteer. If someone cannot – for some reason – become our volunteer, then maybe can recommend NGOs or individuals who might be interested of it. To make the Project accomplished we need a financial support. The main cost of the Project is the IT cost, which is expensive. And although, everything what the Project Team has done so far has been based on our pro bono work, we must not spare money on data security. So, everyone can make a donation via a recognizable crowdfunding platform pomagam.pl or can make a donation direct on our bank account. There is also other way to support our efforts: by spreading a word about the Project.
Project Sunflowers raises awareness about injustice in a broader context.
The Project indeed raises awareness about international war crimes, crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression, as well as humanitarian law, migration law, human rights and reparations for victims of armed conflict. To make this happen we organize open webinars, inviting prominent experts at these fields. I also encourage everyone to listen to them. This might also help to understand mechanism of bringing justice everywhere where injustice happens.
More information and important links
Project Sunflowers (its mission uniqueness team achievements)
IHL conference 19-05-2023
Press Release conference
Social media profiles:
Making a donation via:
or via a direct bank transfer to:
Bank’s name: Santander Bank Polska S.A.
Address: al. Jana Pawła II 17, 00-854 Warszawa
image: Ewa Hofmańska, private collection.