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Russia’s ‘most hidden crime’ in Ukraine war: Rape of women, girls, men and boys

Ukrainian authorities believe cases of sexual assault by Russian occupiers are vastly underreported. Shame and many factors underlie survivors’ unwillingness to report rapes.

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Your friend is lying on the floor, raped and naked and dead, the Russian soldier jeered at her.

Ukrainian author and government employee S., in her early 60s, froze at his words. Russian soldiers had occupied the small town of Makariv, located about 30 miles west of the capital Kyiv, within days of the Feb. 24 invasion, drawn in part by the bold, dark-haired widow Tetiana, who was then 37 years old.

Still distraught and shaken from the terrifying events five months earlier, S. said, “She would defy them.” This was before the late winter chill gave way to spring, and then high summer. “She’d tell them, ‘I’m not afraid of you,'” the story goes.

Once peaceful suburbs and satellite towns were occupied by Russian forces for about a month before they abandoned an attempt to seize the capital in early April, and it would be weeks before the world learned of the horrors that occurred on their streets, in their basements, and in their backyards.

Those in the towns who did not manage to escape were subjected to the first wave of what Western governments and Ukrainian officials later described as a systematic campaign of atrocities by Russian forces against civilians, including torture, execution-style killings, and starvation.

Furthermore, rape.

Month by month, investigators have built the foundation for what are now over 25,000 open cases of suspected war crimes.

Investigators piece together narratives from various sources, including testimony from eyewitnesses, forensic analysis of mutilated bodies that continue to turn up (one was recently discovered stuffed beneath a manhole cover outside Kyiv), intercepted communications by Russian soldiers describing their own acts, and surveillance cameras that monitored traffic and deterred shoplifting prior to the war.

However, as we approach the six-month mark of the war, sexual assault cases are proving especially difficult to document.

The Russian military is facing “several dozen” criminal proceedings for sexual violence, according to the office of the prosecutor general. Counselors, prosecutors, and police all agree that the real number is much higher, in part because victims are reluctant to report sexual assault.

“Sexual violence in this war is the most hidden crime,” Natalia Karbowska, a Ukrainian civil-society activist, told the United Nations Security Council in June.

There’s been radio silence for what seems like forever, and there’s a whole web of reasons for it. Others, like Tetiana, didn’t make it out alive. In an unprecedented exodus, some citizens of Ukraine have disappeared without a trace, and the government has not been able to reach them. Some people are humiliated because they insist on clinging to the idea that they could have avoided their misfortune. Or the sexual assault could have occurred in the midst of other, more devastating wartime losses, such as the destruction of one’s home or the death of a loved one.

The daily bombing of civilian areas, the apparent mass execution of dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war by Russian forces last month, and reports of torture, detention, and abductions in currently occupied areas are just a few examples of the near-industrial scale atrocities that some people use to justify the quiet resolution of their own private agonies.

Nadiia Volchenska, a 32-year-old psychologist in Kyiv who helped found a network that links victims of sexual assault with counselors, said, “They think others suffered more.” People who have been sexually assaulted or abused during this conflict, she said, are often reluctant to speak even in confidence with a therapist, let alone go to police or other investigators and provide a detailed account. Most victims are women and girls, but many are men and boys.

“Quite often,” she said, “people will simply vanish” after making initial contact with us.

The use of sexual violence as a tactic in conflict dates back to the beginning of human conflict. The objective, say those who deal with such cases, is to humiliate and degrade, to break the spirit of defenders, to shatter families and communities, to instill a sense of hopelessness and despair. Most of the time, the damage is too extensive to be fixed.

Natalya Zaretska, a military psychologist and current volunteer with the Territorial Defense Forces helping those in the formerly occupied territories of the Kyiv oblast, or province, said, “Of course it is not about sexual gratification.” “Rap is used as a tool to subjugate people,” the author writes.

Instead of being the work of rogue troops, Ukrainian officials believe a Russian campaign of terrorism against civilians was approved at the highest levels. For Ukraine, gathering evidence and proceeding with prosecutions is essential, even if such a reckoning could take many years, given that the Kremlin has dismissed well-documented atrocities in occupied areas as a fabrication.

Andriy Nebytov, head of police in the Kyiv area, said, “Evil must be punished or it will spread.”

The prosecutor general’s office responded to written questions from the Los Angeles Times with a statement in which they were circumspect about the specifics of sexual assault cases under investigation.

A Russian unit commander threatened to kill the girl’s family if she rejected his sexual advances, and he also subjected her to “physical and psychological violence” in the northern Ukrainian town of Chernihiv. A soldier was indicted in absentia for the serial rape of the wife of a murdered civilian in Brovary, located east of Kyiv. Additionally, in the same area, soldiers assaulted one woman while herding the others into a basement. According to Ukrainian authorities, another woman was raped in the presence of her young child.

The prosecutor’s office stated, in carefully worded language, the difficulties investigators face, such as the need to protect the privacy of minors and the desire to avoid re-traumatizing survivors. However, the overwhelming factor was said to be the social stigma.

As the statement put it, “women who have been raped do not want to spread such information about themselves.”

Those who lived under Russian occupation earlier in the war describe a nauseating sense of constant fear.

S., who did not want even her full first name used because some of the troops who occupied Makariv back in March are still in Ukraine, is working with the authorities to try to identify those involved in Tetiana’s assault and death. This was helped along by the fact that some of the occupiers used each other’s names and/or nicknames.

On her smartphone, S. showed photos of individual soldiers sent to her by prosecutors, who for months have tracked the unit’s activities and obtained images of the suspects from social media and elsewhere. She recognized several of them, including frequent visitors who would rob, party, and threaten at both her and Tetiana’s modest brick home. One Chechen in particular struck fear in her because of his seemingly drug-induced erratic behavior.

S. was taking care of her frail, 90-year-old mother when the Russians first arrived; the latter refused to leave the house despite S.’s repeated urgings. But the soldiers’ violence and unpredictability in the following weeks convinced her that they needed to seize any opportunity to flee.

A neighbor man was shot by soldiers, eventually dying of his wounds, and S. was told his wife had been sexually assaulted. (She refused to talk to reporters about what happened.) S. was at home when a young soldier showed up and tried to convince her to go upstairs with him. Fearing he intended to rape her, she tried to dissuade him by noting the 30-year disparity in their ages.

In the midst of this, other soldiers came to the house, telling the would-be assailant he was needed elsewhere, and he eventually left with them. S. felt a rush of terrified relief.

On the day that she, her mother, Tetiana and a home health aide had been promised a ride to safety with a neighbor, her friend was nowhere to be found. Soldiers barged into S.’s home once more, this time with one acting strangely and demanding a bandage for an injury. After downing a shot of vodka, he blurted out news of her friend’s fate.

Soldiers wouldn’t let her see Tetiana’s body, S. said. Eventually, a serviceman she believed to be an ethnic Buryat from Siberia offered to let her speak to someone he said knew the full story. That soldier told S. that Tetiana had been raped by several others, and that the Chechen was the one to stab and kill her. The soldier told S. that upon receiving orders to bury the body, they first covered it with a blanket.

Months later, on a sweltering summer afternoon, while making tea for guests and keeping an eye on her snoring mother, she reflected, “I felt shame that she is dead and I am still alive.” In other words, “I feel guilty about that.”

Counselors for victims of rape say that many of those who were assaulted during the war’s early stages may now be emotionally stable enough to discuss what happened to them.

“Sometimes we see this around six months later,” said Volchenska, the therapist in Kyiv. The southern city of Kherson was captured by Russian forces early in the invasion, and Ukrainian forces hope to retake it.

“The problem is that you need to feel safe to talk,” she said. “There is literally no safe place to travel in the United States.”

S. often reflects on Tetiana in Makariv, remembering her wit, eccentricities, and doggedness. She spends a lot of time visualizing her friend when she was young and beautiful as she stares out the window of the now-abandoned house. During the terrifying occupation, she heard Tetiana tell her about a dream she’d had.

“She was flying on a cloud,” S. said. “It was so peaceful. It was fantastic.

This piece was first published in the Los Angeles Times.