Many crimes related to sexual violence have been committed during Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine. These despicable acts are not only by the Russian military, but also by marauders. Women and girls aren’t the only victims - men and the elderly have also been the victims of these horrific violations.
NV journalist Oleksandra Horchynska looked into the scale of such crimes, how they’re recorded, and where survivors or witnesses of sexual violence can get help or provide testimony.
Women are being raped in front of their children
"In Mariupol, Russian invaders had raped a woman one by one for several days in front of her 6-year-old son. She later died from her injuries. Her little son's hair turned gray. This is not a horror movie. Rape, violence, murders – that's what the 'Russian world' means."
This tweet from Ukraine's Defense Ministry published on March 30, 2022 was spread all over social networks, as well as pages of Ukrainian and foreign media.
Volunteer Yulia Smyrnova later wrote on Facebook that the boy had been taken to a hospital – he had stopped talking and was in a state of shock. The boy’s relative - a cousin of the deceased - was found in Prague, and stated her willingness to take the boy in.
Next: An article in UK daily newspaper The Times told the story of 33-year-old Natalia, a resident of the city of Brovary, outside the capital city of Kyiv. The Russian invaders entered the courtyard of a private house, shot Natalia's husband, killed their dog and smashed their car. And then they raped the woman three times in front of her 4-year-old son, who was hiding in the boiler room. Natalia and her son managed to escape when the invaders got drunk and passed out.
The woman told the media that one of the invaders who had entered her house and violated her told her his name: he introduced himself as Mikhail Romanov.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova confirmed the fact of this crime, noting that the invader had been put on a wanted list. Later it became known that the rapist had probably already been killed by the Ukrainian military, according to a report by Deputy Interior Ministry Kateryna Pavlichenko.
"The police of Kyiv Oblast identified the rapist,” she wrote.
“According to operational information, the bastard was killed by the Ukrainian military. However, we must make sure that this freak will not escape responsibility if he's still alive. The rapist has now been charged in absentia with violating the laws and customs of war. The scoundrel will be put on the interstate wanted list through Interpol. If the monster is still alive, he will be handed over to Ukrainian justice and will be punished for what he has done – he faces life imprisonment.”
There is still no exact data that would allow assessing the scale of sexual crimes committed by Russian military, Venediktova wrote on Facebook.
"Journalists are constantly interested in the statistics of such crimes, the number of cases,” she noted.
“These figures change daily, but they do not reflect the situation. Those who have experienced such terrible violence, for the most part, do not want to be statistics. Law enforcement officers often learn about cases from open sources or from third parties, rather than from direct victims. These rumors are not always confirmed.”
Both the press service of the Interior Ministry and La Strada – an international human rights organization – confirmed the absence of exact figures, in a comment to NV.
"It's impossible to collect such statistics at the stage when active hostilities are underway, as the victims are trying to provide for their basic needs and save their own lives, and only after that report or document the corresponding case," the organization said, adding that they expect to assess the real scale after the end of active phase of hostilities, when the victims will be more inclined to report such cases.
The Interior Ministry's press service also reports that it is very difficult to document such cases and collect evidence, especially when it comes to temporarily occupied territories. Therefore, the cruel deeds committed by the Russian invaders during the attack on Ukrainian cities and villages are evidenced by individual stories that appear in social networks and the media.
Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, also tweeted about two women raped and killed by the Russian invaders.
"My friends, two young girls were captured, tortured, raped, and killed. One of them was a brilliant doctor, another one was a scientist and had a Ph.D.," she tweeted.
One of the cases occurred in Kharkiv – a city that was seriously damaged as a result of enemy shelling. Facebook user Vira Khvust wrote a post detailing the story of her friend, a 29-year-old woman named Lyuba. She lived with her mother, who had been bedridden for the past three years.
"When the war began, Liuba didn't run to evacuate, because no one agreed to help take her mother out,” Khvust wrote.
“A few days later, when there was already a hole in the entrance to their home, three bastards entered their apartment.”
“The invaders stole Lyuba's food. One of them stayed behind and raped the woman for over a week, and then he began to confess his great love for her, and said that he wanted to send her away from the war."
When Lyuba refused, saying she could not leave her bedridden mother behind, he shot the mother right in front of Lyuba’s eyes.
A female resident of the village of Mala Rohan, also in Kharkiv Oblast, recorded a video message in which she spoke about how a Russian invader had taken her son away, and later looked for scrap with which he was going to "smash the shops open,” presumably to loot them. Later he returned with her son, left him, and took her daughter instead.
"It was about half past midnight,” the woman recalled, in a video message posted to the Kharkiv.Life Telegram messenger channel.
"She returned at about 0700. I didn't sleep all night, I was worried that he had killed her. He dragged her to a classroom on the second floor, raped her all night. He injected her with drugs and said she wouldn't feel anything. He cut her cheek and neck. He raped her, poked her with a gun everywhere, wanted to kill her. He cut her hair with a knife.”
This crime was recorded by the Human Rights Watch organization, who stated that the victim was a 31-year-old woman. She told human rights activists that the rapist was 20. The invader told her that she reminded him of a girl he went to school with.
Human Rights Watch also reported that they had received three other allegations of sexual violence committed by Russian soldiers from villages in Chernihiv Oblast, and in the port city of Mariupol.
There are also allegations of rape in Kherson Oblast: for example, Ukrainian citizen Svitlana Zorina told the U.S.-based CNN television channel about one such case, involving the rape of a 17-year-old girl.
In early April, after the Armed Forces of Ukraine had liberated Kyiv Oblast from Russian invaders and could enter the bombed-out town of Bucha, information began to emerge about the brutal rapes, violence, and torture that had been committed against local residents. In particular, numerous stories were published about raped and murdered women – the naked bodies of some of them were found discarded along the highway. Even underage girls were reported to have been subject to these atrocities.
Rape as a weapon
Despite the fact that Russia officially denies their war crimes against civilians – in the case of the genocide in Bucha and the shelling of a maternity ward in Mariupol, intercepted conversations between the invaders by Ukrainian intelligence indicate the opposite.
One such conversation, published by the SBU Security Service of Ukraine, reveals how a Russian invader told a young girl that other soldiers had raped a woman and a 16-year-old girl, adding: "People are running wild."
The rape of this 16-year-old girl is also mentioned in another intercepted conversation, where one Russian soldier tells another that, together with other soldiers, they "ate an Alabai (dog breed) dog," since they were already tired of the "dry rations" provided by the Russian army.
Politicians and diplomats are already discussing sexual violence: Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was one of the first to draw attention to these crimes being committed by the Russian army.
"When bombs fall on your cities, when soldiers rape women in occupied cities, and we, unfortunately, have non-isolated cases when Russian soldiers rape women in Ukrainian cities, then it is difficult, of course, to talk about the effectiveness of international law," the Ukrayinska Pravda online newspaper quoted him as saying.
The Office of the Ukrainian Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights is another Ukrainian body working to document cases of sexual violence against Ukrainian civilians.
The UK’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, has commented on this publicly, calling the rapes committed by the invaders "part of the Russian arsenal."
"Rape is a weapon of war,” she tweeted on April 3.
“Though we don't yet know the full extent of its use in Ukraine, it's already clear that it was part of the Russian arsenal. Women are raped in front of their kids, girls in front of their families, as a deliberate act of subjugation. Rape is a war crime.”
”Sexual violence should become a taboo – it should be a mandatory requirement that must be enshrined both in ceasefire agreements and negotiations on green corridors. As well as other requirements related to this: monitoring of cases of sexual violence, access of victims to medicine and treatment for all those who have suffered from this crime," writer and lawyer Larysa Denysenko told NV.
"But you see how difficult it is to bring water and bread, how evacuation buses are being shelled. It's impossible to negotiate in accordance with international law with a side that uses sexual violence as a weapon. However, it's necessary to emphasize this, to discuss this with international humanitarian missions, because keeping silent in this case is also evil.”
Violence is not just rape
The La Strada Ukraine chapter states that the risks of sexual violence increase significantly during the war, both from the military and militarized groups, and other persons involved.
Other NV sources reported that violent actions against Ukrainian men and Ukrainian women have been committed not only by the Russian military.
One Ukrainian psychotherapist, who works with women who have suffered from sexual violence, has confirmed cases of rape not by Russian soldiers, but looters – they come to rob houses, kill their owners, and rape women in front of children. However, the victims are not yet ready to speak publicly about such offenses.
The monopoly on sexual violence does not belong to the invaders, Denysenko added.
Men can also become victims of rape. Anyone can be abused by looters, or others who have weapons or power and the desire to inflict harm on their fellow humans.
"These crimes can follow the standard procedure of criminal investigation, because in such cases, access to legal and medical assistance, as well as the opportunity to tell the police about it is obviously greater than when you are under the total control of brutal invaders who have unspoken or overt orders from the Russian command to resort to sexual abuse,” Denysenko pointed out.
The levels of sexual violence tends to grow during war, because law enforcement has curtailed resources in such times. Other assignments take priority as well, such as the protection and defense of the state, La Strada-Ukraine pointed out.
As a result, law enforcement becomes less responsive to victim reports of rape, allowing a growing sense of impunity among those who commit such crimes.
Denysenko also emphasizes that there is a lack of an institutional and systemic solution to these issues in Ukraine in general, though volunteer initiatives can be very helpful in working with these cases, as well as caring doctors and psychologists. However, training for law enforcement, and others, on this topic is currently not a priority – though she believes that this work needs to already begin.
Why victims keep silent
One of the most common reasons why victims of sexual violence do not seek help and do not talk about their experiences to strangers is fear for themselves or for their families, such as children, the National Psychological Association notes.
Cases can also be hushed up because of shame, and an unwillingness to disclose intimate details of what is happening to other
La Strada-Ukraine stressed that public stigma and stereotypes are also an obstacle to filing a complaint, as well as the lack of specialists to work with this category of victims.
"We know that in at least one case, the victims tried to contact the police, but could not, because they were on the uncontrolled territory at that time, namely, in Kherson Oblast,” the organization said, noting that even filing a report about such a crime may be impossible in occupied territory.
La Strada-Ukraine specialists also stated that they had received appeals from formerly occupied territories where active hostilities had been taking place, namely, from Kyiv and Kherson Oblasts. Two or even three victims were mentioned at once in some appeals.
"This raises suspicions that such cases can be quite common and planned by the Russian military,” the organization said.
“But any conclusions can only be drawn afters one time, when the rule of law is restored, and victims will be able to freely report such cases, making the picture clearer.”
Another point: such crimes are often reported late, when the victim managed to get to a safe place. The National Psychological Association claims that this factor, namely being safe, is important for working through the experience. After all, re-experiencing a traumatic experience can be dangerous for a person who, experiencing such memories, is still in a place where there is a threat to their life and health.
However, even if the victims of sexual violence during the war talk about it in a few years, the perpetrators of these acts can still be punished – according to international law, war crimes have no statute of limitations. They are also not subject to amnesty, Denysenko says.
"Investigation is not a top priority. For war crimes, and sexual violence is a war crime, it's a priority, which is not subject to amnesty. There is no statute of limitations, so an investigation can take place under any conditions, when the surviving woman, girl, man, guy finds the strength to talk about it, or the investigation will be built on other evidence and facts."
Who and how should a victim document evidence
The National Psychological Association says that people who have experienced wartime sexual violence need help on multiple levels. This includes a medical examination, first psychological aid, and other psychological interventions, for example, long-term sessions with a psychotherapist.
The crimes must be also be reported and documented. Ukrainian law enforcement agencies, including the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, are currently working on such measure. The agency has created a special website in this regard – https://warcrimes.gov.ua.
The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission is also documenting these crimes. Both victims and witnesses can report war crimes to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at firstname.lastname@example.org.