Kherson, Ukraine – On her eighth or ninth day in Russian custody, 26-year-old Olha from Ukraine was tied to a table, naked from the waist down. For 15 minutes, his interrogator shouted obscenities at him, then threw a jacket over him and let seven other men into the room.
“It was intimidating,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what would happen next.”
Weeks later, sitting in Olha’s cramped kitchen in Kherson, southern Ukraine, Anna Sosonska, an investigator for the prosecutor general’s office, listened to her ordeal—an account of forced nudity, prosecutors say, added to a Accumulating evidence that the Russian military used sex crimes as a weapon of war in the places they once ruled.
Ms. Sosonska, 33, said: “We are seeing this problem of sexual violence everywhere Russia is occupied.”
After months of bureaucratic and political delays, Ukrainian officials are speeding up the documentation of sex crimes, which are prevalent and devastating in times of war but often remain hidden under layers of shame, stigma and fear.
Ms. Sosonska said “we found all kinds of war crimes: rape, forced nudity, sexual assault” committed on men, women and children. He said a pattern of crimes is emerging. “We now see that there is a line of war crimes between the Russian military and the Russian commanders.”
Despite the extensive evidence and accounts gathered by Ukrainian and international investigators, Russian authorities have repeatedly denied allegations of human rights abuses. A spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, recently dismissed a report by the United Nations Human Rights Commission as nothing more than baseless evidence and “rumors and gossip”.
Russia backs down from an independent international commission after it probes some areas reported to the United Nations in October that “a series of war crimes committed in Ukraine” included cases of sexual violence against women and girls.
The victims ranged in age from over 80 years old to a 4-year-old girl who was forced to perform oral sex on a soldier, which amounts to rape, the report said. It details more than a dozen cases of gang rape, family members being forced to watch a relative being sexually assaulted and sexual violence against detainees.
Irina Didenko, who heads the prosecutor’s department investigating such crimes, has already opened 154 cases of conflict-related sexual violence. The actual number is “much, much higher”, she said.
In a former occupied village in the Kyiv region, psychologists found that one in nine women had experienced sexual violence, she said. He said hundreds faced sexual violence and torture in Russian custody.
The trauma is raw and blocky. Viktoria, a 42-year-old woman from the Kyiv region, shivers when she describes how in early March Russian soldiers shot her neighbor and then dragged her and his neighbor’s wife away to rape them.
“The fear is still there,” she said. “Sometimes when the power goes out, I get scared and I think they might come back on.”
Victoria was one of the few survivors willing to speak publicly. She asked that only her first name be used and that her face not be photographed, as many other women did, for fear of retaliation by the Russian military.
But the stigma and judgment of neighbors and acquaintances was also an abiding pain, she said.
“They gossip about me, and I stay home most of the time,” she said.
Such was the grief that her neighbor Natalia, who had also been raped and whose husband had been murdered, was granted asylum abroad. Ms Didenko said her 15-year-old son had committed suicide in the weeks following the attack.
Ms. Didenko, a psychologist and lawyer, met Natalia when she visited their village after Russian troops retreated. Before the war, her department handled domestic violence crimes, and she was well aware of the difficulties women faced reporting crimes, she said.
Much of this has to do with the stigma of rape in a conservative religious society, but also a deep distrust of the authorities in the post-Soviet system, which rarely focused on the needs of victims and often blamed them instead. Is.
“From our own experience with domestic violence, we realized that victims don’t talk about it in principle,” Ms. Didenko said. He said it was even more difficult in war when he could be accused of being friends with the enemy.
“Nobody would come running to us to apply,” she said. “So we decided we had to go to him.”
Activists say there is a great need to help survivors of sexual violence in Ukraine. Some of the country’s women’s shelters have begun to house war victims. aid organizations such as Women for Women International and Andreev Foundation began providing mobile gynecological clinics and counseling sessions.
Of the more than 800 women and girls the Foundation has counseled since the start of the invasion, 22 have acknowledged experiencing sexual violence in the war. Eight were under 18.
Some survivors have expressed suicidal thoughts, said Anna Orrell, an assistant project manager at the foundation. “One girl said she wanted to cut off her own skin,” he said. “She couldn’t stand the smell of men’s perfume.”
Others were afraid of military uniforms, even of Ukrainian soldiers and men in general.
“Many of them don’t want to live,” Ms. Orrell said. “It’s so important to have someone professional to hold their hand and go through this with them.”
Officials said there was evidence from those who came forward that Russian commanders knew about or even encouraged the rape. Wayne Jordash, a British lawyer advising Ukrainian prosecutors, said he had seen signs of consent by commanders in 30 cases he had reviewed.
Ms. Didenko said there was a clear pattern of behavior when Russian troops occupied an area: “The ground forces come in, and the rapes start on the second or third day.”
Eyewitnesses reported that commanders ordered rape or instructed that they condoned it, such as telling the soldiers to get some rest.
In one case Ms. Didenko described, a commander told his men, “Okay, go,” while he waited outside a house. A soldier was heard saying of a woman, “We’ll beat her now,” and “We’ll rape her.”
In another case, eight Russian soldiers raped and assaulted a man stopped at a checkpoint.
“These are not isolated cases,” Ms. Didenko said.
There is an even more pronounced pattern of organized sexual abuse in detention facilities run by Russian soldiers, police officers and security forces.
Investigators have found at least four large detention facilities in the city of Kherson with graphic evidence of systemic torture under the Russian occupiers.
In the basement of a business center, the captives slept in complete darkness on pieces of cardboard with carvings counting down the days and messages on the wall. “Oh Lord, give strength,” one read.
“It was a torture chamber,” said Yaroslav Manko, 30, a prosecutor in the area. Police found a rubber truncheon, metal handcuffs and an electric grill that Mr. Manco said was used to burn prisoners’ fingers. They also found a list containing the names of Russian officers working there.
Prosecutors and city officials said widespread sexual abuse occurred at the detention centers, including rape with batons and electric shocks to the genitals.
Kherson woman Olha said that during the 14 days she was in custody she was threatened with rape, and was punched and kicked in the head and chest, breaking a rib. The Russians, she said, placed clamps on her legs, arms and ears to send an electric current through her body, and put her overboard to worsen the shock.
His interrogators knew that he had worked with volunteers bringing aid from Ukrainian-held territory to civilians in Kherson. They demanded that he film a propaganda video and distribute supplies in the name of United Russia, the governing political party of President Vladimir V. Putin.
Another worker, Andrey, 35, was held for five days in August. The Russian occupiers accused him of helping underground partisans and demanded that he give up his friends and acquaintances.
“They give you electric shocks, then you’re put to rest,” he said. “When you recover, they beat you with sticks or fists.” He said the scars on his back were in the shape of a Z, a symbol of Russian fighters in Ukraine. The electric shocks in his ears rendered him unconscious. Four months later, the tremors of his genitals still cause pain.
The similarity of evidence and accounts across cities describing torture methods, interrogations and officers from Russia’s main intelligence agency, the FSB, has convinced Ukrainian prosecutors that the abuses can be traced to the Russian leadership.
Didenko said, “It cannot be that a soldier did this without orders.” The FSB “came in efficiently, knowing their job, tortured everyone on the genitals” he said. “It’s definitely a system.”
Many Ukrainians and their supporters say they believe Russia aims to crush Ukraine’s spirit of resistance and destroy its society.
“It’s part of a genocide,” Ms Didenko said, “but for us to prove it, we need time.”
Kateryna Lachina contributed reporting from Kherson, Ukraine and Alexander Chubko From Kyiv, Ukraine.
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