Warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual violence.
IVANO-FRANKIVSK, Ukraine—Early in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, two Russian soldiers entered a home near Kyiv, raped a 22-year-old woman several times, sexually assaulted her husband and forced the couple to have intercourse in their presence, according to a United Nations report. One of the soldiers then forced their young daughter to perform a sex act.
This is one of the stories of rape that has emerged from Ukraine as Russian-occupied towns have been liberated and investigations have begun. Though sexual assault is a war crime, many of these investigations indicate deliberate Russian use of rape as a military tactic to express power and undermine Ukrainian morale. Tragically, it may be much more common than has been reported.
The United Nations has documented about 100 cases of rape, mostly of women and children, during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That figure is but a small indication of the extent of the issue, Pramila Patten, special representative of the UN secretary-general, told reporters. Many possible victims declined to be interviewed, the report said, while others considered suicide.
“Humankind does not know how to cope with this trauma,” said Susanna Anhelova, a senior trauma therapist for female survivors of Russian violence in Ukraine. “We do not have words in our language to describe this.”
Rape as a genocidal weapon is as old as war itself. But it was not until 1998 that rape was successfully prosecuted as a war crime. That year, Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of a Rwandan town, became the first person to be found guilty of committing crimes against humanity for the rape of Tutsi minority women in the genocide there four years earlier.
But the fact that rape is now widely recognized as a war crime does not appear to deter Russian policy. Many professional therapists and human rights activists see a systematic use of rape and other war crimes as part of Russia’s strategy to defeat Ukraine.
Anhelova, who has overseen rehabilitation treatment for more than 1,000 women, said it is clear to her that Russia has a policy to dehumanize women and their families. Anhelova and her team see Russia’s sexual aggression as part of a larger objective: genocide of the Ukrainian people.
“When you see the patterns … it is clearly a strategy,” Anhelova said.
Masha Efrosinina, an honorary UN ambassador whose foundation provides psychological support to Ukrainian victims of violence, said “this is not about sex, but about domination. This is about showing that they are not losers on the field of war.
“They want to wipe out the Ukrainian people by mentally destroying us.”
International legal scholars agree. A report by three teams of experts assembled by the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights cited “a widespread and systematic pattern, including gang rape, rape in homes or shelters, rape of parents in front of children and vice versa,” as part of a genocide targeting Ukrainians, in violation of the United Nations Genocide Convention.
Russian troops often do not hide sexual violence against Ukrainians. In one intercepted call made public by the Security Service of Ukraine in April, the wife of one Russian soldier is heard giving permission for her husband to assault women.
“You go there, rape Ukrainian women and don’t tell me anything. Understood?” the woman tells her husband in the phone call.
“Yes, I allow it,” she says. “Just wear protection.”
In another intercepted phone call in November, a group of Russian soldiers discuss the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl by 10 servicemen in the Luhansk region.
But the scarcity of direct reports of rape cases, which may number in the thousands according to experts, makes it hard for investigators to fully prove what appears to be Russian policy. Ukraine’s first trial of a Russian soldier charged in absentia with raping a Ukrainian woman only began in June and is still going on. The suspect, Mikhail Romanov, 32, is accused of breaking into a house in a village outside Kyiv, murdering a man and then repeatedly raping his wife while threatening her child.
Even now, nearly a year after the first reports of military rape began to surface, it is still difficult to find out how many crimes have been committed. Many female survivors of occupied Ukraine interviewed by the Star told stories of others having been raped by Russians, but all denied being raped themselves.
There are many reasons for this reluctance, including the hideously personal nature of the crime, but also including a policy of silence from some Ukrainian officials.
Like rape survivors anywhere, victims often do not want to talk about their experience. Sexualized violence “seems to be the one remaining form of violence in which the victim is blamed or even said to have invited it,” Gloria Steinem, the feminist activist, famously said in 2012.
In Ukraine, some victims are so traumatized that their minds block memories of attacks. One recently released prisoner of war held in Lenivka, Taganrog and Veronezh prisons over six months just cried when asked about her experience, according to psychologists. She could only clearly remember events before her captivity.
Others actively try to forget the attacks, telling themselves that their attackers have already been killed on the battlefield, so the trauma of making an accusation would not be necessary to achieve justice.
“The people who come forward to talk about rape are a tiny minority,” said Kateryna Cherepaha, president of La Strada Ukraine, a human rights organization that runs hotlines for gender discrimination and violence, in a video interview. And when victims do speak about rape, it is often unintentional, she said. “A women might call with a benign question and only after many conversations will she reveal that she survived a Russian assault.”
“No one wants to talk about sexual violence because every time they talk it has to be experienced again,” said Anastasia Chornenka, a soldier in Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade who spent five months as a prisoner of war in Russia’s Olenivka prison.
Many victims are forced by their mothers to reach out for help but then throw away their phones or refuse follow-up contact, said Efrosinina. “These women are in a very, very bad situation,” she said.
“They are in the army, in the war. Literally in the war. They lost their relatives, their friends, their sisters. They saw that death.”
But requests from at least one senior government official have also kept some women from making reports. Those requests are designed, ironically, to prevent more rapes.
Tania Muratkina, CEO of Efrosinina’s foundation, told the Star that she was instructed to prohibit victims from speaking publicly about rape by Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk. The Ukrainian government worries, Muratkina said, that reports of rape would encourage Russians to rape more women. Vereshchuk did not respond to the Star’s requests for clarification of this concern.
Fear of reprisals from their Russian aggressors also deters survivors from reporting sexual violence or seeking help. Just before the Star’s interviews of released Russian prisoners of war, one observer heard the former PoWs agreeing not to share stories of rape and torture. They feared their comrades still in prison might be punished for their disclosures.
“They said that if I went back to Ukraine and told the truth (about what happened at the prison) they would hunt down my loved ones,” said another former prisoner, Yulia Goroshanska, a Ukrainian officer held captive for five months after defending the besieged city of Mariupol.
Efrosinina appeals to rape victims among her two million followers on social media to come forward and supports them emotionally while they make their testimonies to police.
“I have never heard such horrors in my life,” she said. “The women are destroyed.
“The enemy allowed them to continue living, but the enemy’s weapon ruined their lives.”
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