SEXUALLY ASSAULTED BY RUSSIAN TROOPS, SURVIVORS IN UKRAINE BEGIN TO SEEK JUSTICE
As hundreds share their stories, investigators work to determine if soldiers are using sexual violence strategically, which could open the door to prosecuting senior-level Russian officials
Janice Dickson and Kateryna Hatsenko
December 12, 2023
The Globe and Mail
After her village outside of Kyiv was liberated in early 2022, a young Ukrainian’s family was visited by authorities investigating what harms had been done to them by the invading Russians. But when her father spoke with them, there was one thing he didn’t know: she’d been raped.
The 32-year-old was living in the village only after fleeing Kyiv with her boyfriend as the full-scale invasion began. The couple thought it would be safer outside the capital, but not long after they fled, Russian soldiers arrived and occupied the village. First, the family heard that a neighbour and his son had been killed. Then, troops arrived at their house, and rounded up the entire family into the yard.
When the commander ordered the young woman to leave with him, her father begged the Russian soldier to take him instead. Trying to defuse the situation, the woman told her father that everything would be okay. “Of course, I didn’t know if I would be back,” she says now.
She was taken into another house nearby and, with a winter hat pulled over her face, was raped by the commander. The same thing happened again the next day. Both times, when she was returned to her family, she kept what had happened a secret from them, worrying that, if her father knew, he would confront the soldiers and be killed.
Later, after the ordeal was over, she still didn’t tell her father – or the Ukrainian authorities – about what happened, because she didn’t want him to feel guilty for not being able to protect her. Only now is she ready to report the rapes to investigators at Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office, after she learned more about the process, including that she can do so confidentially.
The prosecutor’s office created a unit last September dedicated to investigating sexual crimes perpetrated by Russian troops. So far, the unit has opened 257 cases, which involve 161 women – 13 of them girls – and 96 men, including one boy.
Investigators have uncovered not only rapes, but all types of sexual assaults and gender-based violence, including mutilation or violence to genitals, threats of rape, forced nudity, and forcing Ukrainians to witness these actions being done to others.
Although cases continue to be recorded, the number uncovered so far likely pales in comparison to the real total, in part because it is incredibly difficult for survivors to talk about what happened. Fear, stigma, or the belief that there won’t be any justice prevent many from coming forward.
To understand the effects of these war crimes, The Globe and Mail spoke to prosecutors, organizations that support survivors, as well as with several women who have survived conflict-related sexual violence. (The Globe is not identifying survivors because it could put them at risk.)
As Ukrainians share their stories with investigators and support organizations, confirmed cases can be prosecuted, and lawyers are hopeful that eventually victims will be compensated. But also, investigators are working to determine if soldiers are using sexual violence systematically and strategically, which could enable either the Ukrainian court or the International Criminal Court to prosecute senior-level Russian officials.
One of the major obstacles to supporting and seeking justice for survivors is that they are reluctant to talk about what they’ve been through. Iryna Didenko, who leads the Conflict-Related Sexual Violence department at Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office, said some survivors don’t want to share their experience because they think what happened to them was in isolation. In one case, Ms. Didenko recalled, it was only after survivors learned that many others on the same street had been sexually assaulted that they decided to share their story as well. Confidentiality is also critically important. The 32-year-old woman who was raped in a neighbour’s house with a winter hat over her head is now back in Kyiv, and is ready to speak with Ms. Didenko’s office – and would have done so sooner if she knew she didn’t have to be identified.
Another Ukrainian, who The Globe met in Zaporizhzhia, was also hesitant to speak with officials, in part because of the way they questioned her. Last year, the 34-year-old woman, who was living in a village occupied by Russian troops outside of the southeastern city of Melitopol, was accused by Russian soldiers of supporting the Ukrainian army. Russian soldiers dragged her away from her husband and children, beat her, and brought her to a village away from her own.
There, she was held in a house that had been taken from a Ukrainian family. The woman said she remembers seeing a painting on the wall that said, “Crimea is Ukraine,” as well as the belongings of people who had lived there.
The Russian soldier’s name was Oleksandr, she said. He was muscular and wore a belt with religious symbols on it. She spent three days trapped inside that house, where she was raped multiple times before Russians allowed a Ukrainian volunteer to bring her to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia. There, she was eventually reunited with her family.
In Zaporizhzhia, she says authorities asked her to share information about what happened under occupation, but she felt they dismissed what she was saying, so she withheld that she was raped.
Later, she received letters from Ukrainian officials in Zaporizhzhia region, ordering her to speak with them about being raped. She didn’t like the way they had treated her, so she continued to keep the information to herself. In September, she was connected to a lawyer she felt comfortable with, and the lawyer has taken on her case. “I would like to see punishment of the person who did it to me,” the woman said. While these two women are examples of survivors who eventually felt ready to speak to investigators, many will never report what happened to them.
A 35-year-old woman who fled Kherson told the Globe she won’t report her sexual assaults because she wants to leave the ordeal in the past. After three failed attempts to escape Kherson, she and her children finally succeeded in reaching Ukrainian-held territory in April, 2022. Months later, she was able to return for her mother and husband to bring them out as well. She and her mom were on a bus for women, while her husband was on another. As they travelled back to safety, the woman says the bus stopped at 39 Russian-manned checkpoints – and at each one everyone was ordered off to be searched. Russian soldiers touched every part of their bodies, she said. When women screamed, they were beaten. “You’re not a person, not a girl to them, you’re only a thing.” When asked if she will share her story with investigators, she says it’s unlikely she ever will. She figures the soldiers at the checkpoints have been killed by now. And although she wants justice, even more than that she wants to move on.
Organizations that work with survivors say that, in addition to stigma and fear, Ukrainians may not report sexual violence because they don’t realize they are a victim, or they blame themselves for what happened.
The Ukraine office of La Strada – an international human rights organization that receives some of its funding from Canada – runs an emergency toll-free hotline for survivors of sexual violence. Kateryna Cherepakha, the president of La Strada Ukraine, says the hotline received calls concerning 72 survivors, and has contributed to their support and assistance. Most calls came from women, but a few have involved men, as well as one underaged boy. “We do have cases when sexual violence was committed against, for example, the mother, but family members were present, or in some cases, they were in the next room,” she said.
Ms. Cherepakha said many survivors don’t realize that the threat of sexual violence, or being forced to witness it, is itself a form of sexual violence. And if that’s not understood by the individual, it can also be missed by officials. It’s yet another reason she believes that the number of cases that have been recorded do not reflect how many people have experienced sexual violence across the country. “Even if we combined the statistics of the general prosecutor’s office, figures from our organization and others, it still would not be the total of what is happening,” she said. “This is not something that people talk about very openly or very quickly.” Often, she says, their stories of sexual violence come out only after seeking help for something else first.
Halyna Skipalska, the Country Director of Health Right International in Ukraine – which runs an online platform to provide support to survivors – has found the same thing. “Only when our psychologists or social workers help them with some basic needs, then they can address some issues related to sexual violence,” she said, explaining those needs include help with housing, evacuation, access to food, or mental-health support. Her organization is currently assisting 96 women who are survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, and she says none of them are reflected in the statistics provided by the prosecutor’s office. “We think that when Ukraine has liberated more areas, there will be more calls for help.”
Ms. Skipalska said people in occupied territories are forced into having sex to survive. For example, she said, a Russian soldier approached one woman and told her he would live in her
house, and if she refuses him, then she will have to live with three Russian soldiers instead. She said there are other cases like this one. In situations like this, victims might not understand that it constitutes rape, but in the view of the court, it is because it involved coercion. Ms. Skipalska said these experiences leave people psychologically harmed.
She said that survivors who seek counselling exhibit a range of symptoms from the trauma, including anxiety, nightmares, intrusive thoughts about death, feeling socially isolated or worthless, excessive crying, fearful of going outside, feeling guilt, shame, and suicidal thoughts. But most of them, she said, are unaware – or even deny – that these symptoms are a result of having experienced conflict-related sexual violence. “All of them have fears that community members will learn about their traumatic events or, even worse, their perpetrators from Russian troops will find them,” she said. The same thing occurs to those assaulted in captivity.
Liudmyla Huseinova, 61, spent three years in Russian detention after she was arrested in Donetsk in 2019. She was finally freed in a prisoner swap in 2022 after surviving horrifying conditions. After she was freed, Ms. Huseinova joined an organization called SEMA, which supports survivors of sexual violence and women who survived Russian captivity. In prison, she was in an isolated cell. “You can’t see anything because there’s a bag on your head, but you can hear it. And even when someone took off my clothes, I didn’t know who it was because I didn’t see him,” she said. She remembers hearing a woman being told by a Russian captor that if she had sex with one of them, they would let her see her child, so she agreed. In cases like this one, Ms. Huseinova said, often the woman who was sexually assaulted does not want to share her story because she fears she will be blamed because of a perception that she agreed to it.
She said SEMA is supporting more than 40 women and, although it’s initially difficult for them to speak with prosecutors, after they attend SEMA events and hear other women’s experiences, they feel more comfortable opening up. And, Ms. Huseinova added, even though many women would prefer to never speak of their experiences again, they will in order to help others. “We do it for the world to know what is going on in Ukraine, because sometimes even people in Ukraine don’t know what’s going on in temporary occupied territories, or in captivity.” Survivors, says Ms. Huseinova, don’t want perpetrators to be tortured like they were – they just want them in jail. And they don’t want women in occupied territories to be forgotten. “You should tell the world about women who are now in temporary occupied territories and in Russia,” she said. “They’re still alive and they need our help.”
Ukraine’s legal community is supporting survivors and are hopeful that, eventually, money from seized Russian assets can help compensate their clients.
Hrystyna Kit, the head of JurFem – a law firm based in Lviv – is one of the lawyers seeking justice for survivors. Her firm is supporting the woman in Zaporizhzhia. As well as overseeing cases of conflict-related sexual violence, Ms. Kit’s organization is working on initiatives to help survivors navigate the legal system – including obtaining assurances of confidentiality – and crafting legislation that would see survivors receive reparations, an effort supported by Global Affairs Canada. “It must be Russian money, not Ukrainian,” says Ms. Kit. “But we must have a
special fund to collect this money for survivors … this depends not only on Ukraine, but on other countries who have Russian property and money and how to confiscate this.”
Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, said the same heinous crimes Russian troops committed while occupying Kyiv region were later uncovered in Kharkiv region and Kherson, which he says suggests that sexual violence is being used as a systematic weapon of war. “It shows that it’s a policy of persecution. It’s a policy of terrorizing the civilian population during the occupation,” he said. “So, we are investigating this pattern and we hope to reach enough evidence to show that this was a policy which was incited, initiated and supported by Russian military and political leadership.”
When asked about the civilian accounts of rape and sexual assault described to the Globe, the press office for the Russian embassy in Ottawa said that such statements are politically motivated and that the Russian Armed Forces operate under strict ethical rules and discipline standards. The embassy said it is aware of the Ukraine government’s accusations and called them groundless.
Mark Kersten, a consultant at Wayamo Foundation, a non-profit that promotes justice for international and transnational crimes, said rape and sexual violence are often wrongly perceived as only the result of the “excesses of war” – something done by undisciplined, low-ranking soldiers, rather than a purposeful feature of war.
Proving there is a pattern makes it easier for prosecutors to attribute responsibility to commanders, because it becomes harder for the accused to claim they didn’t know about it.
Even if conflict-related sexual violence is not found to be occurring systematically, someone higher up the chain of command could still be held accountable, although it can be more difficult to prove because it requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual turned a blind eye to what was happening, or ordered it to happen.
If the International Criminal Court prosecutes these crimes as crimes against humanity, and has a successful conviction, that would also show that it is widespread or systematic. “Crimes against humanity are intended to be crimes so grave that they are offences not only against the direct victim, but against all of us, as members of humanity,” says Mr. Kersten, who is also an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Fraser Valley.
The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, which is documenting cases of conflict-related sexual violence, told The Globe in November that it cannot yet conclude that sexual violence is being perpetrated by Russian soldiers as part of a policy or systematically, but a significant number of prisoners of war and civilian detainees have been subjected to these war crimes.
Danielle Bell, the head of the UN’s monitoring mission in Ukraine, said it is making every effort “to bring to light patterns and trends of conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine, so that targeted measures can be taken to address it, prevent it, and hold perpetrators accountable.”
The monitoring mission also refers survivors to Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Office’s Conflict-Related Sexual Violence department, so that the unit led by Ms. Didenko can further investigate.
Once a survivor is willing to share their story, investigators ask them to identify photos of suspects, and they conduct DNA tests on material they uncover. But, Ms. Didenko said, when it comes to identifying perpetrators for the purposes of convicting them, the testimony of survivors is key. She said the highest number of cases of sexual violence have been recorded in Kherson region followed by Kyiv region, Donetsk region, Kharkiv region, Zaporizhzhia region, with cases also recorded in the regions of Chernihiv, Luhansk, Mykolaiv and Sumy. Through their work, they have had success identifying perpetrators – and have confirmed the identity of 68 of them so far, Ms. Didenko said.
Indictments against 22 Russians were sent to court, she said, and two have so far been sentenced to 12 and 10 years in prison, respectively. Although those two men are out of reach, in occupied territories or in Russia, the sentences are a promise to all survivors that Ukraine will seek justice.
Although progress is slow, Ms. Didenko is committed to bringing the entirety of what was done to Ukrainians during the invasion to light. And she says if she can show the sexual violence was systematic, she’ll be able to prove that it was not only a series of individual war crimes: “It’s genocide of Ukrainian people.”
The trip to Ukraine was partly funded by Bigger than Our Borders, an NGO-supported initiative urging the Canadian government to increase foreign-aid programs. They did not direct, review or approve the article.
Janice Dickson is a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau. Previously, Janice was a reporter with The Canadian Press and before that she was a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics. Janice has also co-authored pieces for Newsweek and The Independent. While Janice’s coverage in Ottawa has focused on politics, she has also reported from Europe and the Middle East on the plight of refugees.
Katya Hatsenko is a fellow for Current Time Digital. Current Time is the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.