Tasked with a complex and international investigation in 2020, an RCMP team changed course and went overseas to interview witnesses face to face.
The primary role of investigators with the Extraterritorial and Sensitive Investigation Team is to conduct criminal investigations of modern era war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.
In this case, the investigation is looking into allegations that Myanmar's military committed atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.
Originally, remote interviews were planned between RCMP investigators in Ottawa and the Bangladesh-based witnesses of the alleged genocide. With the 10-hour time difference, officers interviewed witnesses by video link at night from Ottawa.
Investigators would go in at 10 p.m. and do the interviews overnight," says Cpl. David Proulx, a member of the team, which is part of the RCMP's Sensitive and International Investigations (SII) unit at National Division in Ottawa. "
Interviews via video link were the second best option because of COVID, but with this type of work, you really want to have that connection with the person so you can see their reaction."
Power outages in Bangledesh and the challenges of working through interpreters meant that the interviews — expected to take four or five hours — could take many nights to complete.
As well, lawyers for the Government of Gambia, which filed the application before the International Court of Justice alleging the atrocities, needed the witness testimony before their filing could proceed.
We had interviews to complete and the decision was made to do them on the ground," says Sgt. Yves Gravelle, SII team leader. "
From a planning standpoint, the trip was challenging."
Change of course
A team of five investigators was quickly assembled and travel arrangements were made so they could interview witnesses in person near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.
Did I want to go during COVID? It wasn't at the top of my list of things to do, but I knew they needed help," says Sgt/Maj. Elaine Maisonneuve, who at the time worked with RCMP International Peace Operations in Ottawa and joined the team for the Rohingya trip.
The officers arrived on Sept. 21.
Investigators worked every day for three weeks in hot, humid conditions, wearing masks and physical distancing in a small two-room house to interview witnesses and deliver their signed statements to the lawyers.
Their work focused on the survivors of the Tula Toli massacre, a mass killing of Rohingya allegedly carried out in August 2017 by Myanmar soldiers.
One older gentleman witness sat there and told us of his 27-year-old son who was shot and fell to the ground beside him," says SII investigator, Cpl. François Cormier. "
The father held a picture of his son in his hands with tears coming down his eyes and continued to provide us his statement so their story could be recorded for the world to know what happened in Myanmar."
Each day, investigators heard similar stories of the brutal deaths of men, women and children, rapes and people running for their lives.
They were describing moments they couldn't believe were happening to them," adds Cormier. "
They broke down telling stories about ultimately how their own country did not want them."
The investigators mentally prepared themselves for the difficult stories they would hear.
One way to think of it is, these are like historical homicide cases we're investigating," says Gravelle. "
You have to have a certain amount of detachment and listen to what you're hearing."
It was impossible to anticipate everything.
One man told me how he didn't have time to release his cattle," says Maisonneuve. "
He assumed they had been killed, unable to escape. I'm an animal lover and that hit me because I could also see how important they were to him. They were everything he had."
After the interviews, investigators drafted a formal written statement of facts, which was then read back to the witnesses to ensure accuracy.
The team finished its work on Oct. 8, in time for Gambian lawyers to make their Oct. 23 submission to the International Court of Justice.
We have a responsibility to help them," says Maisonneuve. "
We have so many advantages of living in Canada that we owe it to them to help build a more secure world. And they were grateful that we came and that someone was listening and recording their stories."
Team members returned home on Oct. 10 and self-isolated for 14 days.