“The soldiers arrived at the basement where there were mostly women and girls. They told those present to choose two of them to be raped,” says Alona Krivuliak, 32, who has spent weeks listening to the horror of victims of sexual abuse as a worker for the organization La Strada. The scene occurred in Bucha, on the outskirts of kyiv, during the month in which this town remained in the hands of Russian troops. Complaints of sexual violence as a weapon of war, one of the horrors of the conflict in Ukraine, are increasing, according to the UN.
The weight of stigma and taboo are, however, a wall that researchers have to overcome to move forward without the victims remembering the ordeal they suffered. Some are unable to speak, others are pregnant, and some are dead. The withdrawal from the outskirts of kyiv of the Russian military in early April uncovered hundreds of murders, torture and rape that are being documented to draw the map of the war crimes of the Russian Army in Ukraine. But the fact that 20% of the Ukrainian territory is under Moscow’s control makes it impossible to know the true dimension of what happened and what is happening. There are already 80 cases open, according to the attorney general, Irina Venediktova.
“It’s a complicated matter because the victims don’t want to talk,” acknowledges Deputy Interior Minister Katerina Pavlichenko, referring to sexual abuse. Since mid-April there have been mobile groups of agents combing the areas liberated from Russian occupation together with psychologists to try to collect testimonies and evidence. The Police have received fifty complaints of sexual violence and 16 criminal investigations have already been opened for abuses committed by the Russian military, Pavlichenko explained last Friday during an appearance in the capital.
As of June 3, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had received reports of 124 alleged sexual abuses in Ukraine related to the conflict. Three Russian soldiers are detained and accused of these crimes in the kyiv and Chernihiv regions, according to the Ukrainian deputy minister. To this is added the denunciation made by the kyiv authorities of the attempt to eliminate evidence by the Russian Army, even burning the corpses of the victims. This was warned by Pavlichenko and recalled by Ukraine’s representative to the UN, Serhii Kislitsia, this Monday during a meeting of the Security Council.
Nineteen of the 20 cases in the hands of the La Strada organization are gang rapes and two of the victims are minors, details Alona Krivuliak, national manager of the NGO’s hotline. She believes that these twenty cases are just the tip of the iceberg of a reality that continues to take place in areas under Russian rule. Only in one of the cases was the victim of abuse a man, but it is a “very hard” case that should not be lost sight of, he warns. He cannot leave the country because martial law prevents men between the ages of 18 and 60. “He is a young boy who lost his girlfriend and his parents (during the occupation) and was repeatedly raped afterwards. It is very difficult for him to receive help or find comfort. His is a greater taboo than women’s. People soon think of the LGTBI stereotype and may even point it out as the culprit, ”she points out.
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Krivuliak has been listening to victims of sexist violence for a decade. His profile and experience have had to adapt quickly and quickly to support not only criminal investigations, but also all victims. Among them are also relatives, neighbors and all those who witnessed these abuses, including a three-year-old boy.
The attacks used to be committed in the basements, where the population took refuge. In the Bucha referral, it was finally the invading military who chose the two women they raped. All the others, as well as the minors, witnessed the scene. Two of them ended up naked, about to be raped as well, says Krivuliak.
The consumption of alcohol and drugs by Russian soldiers emerges in the testimonies of the victims with whom the La Strada specialist maintains contact, who speaks of soldiers of all ages and ranks. The pattern, she explains, is usually a scene in which there is, on the one hand, one or several direct victims surrounded by witnesses and, on the other, direct or indirect participants in the violation. They can give orders, allow it to happen, insult, point their weapons or take photos and videos. “The commanders participated, consented or were witnesses without preventing it. We understand that it is one more weapon of the invasion along with torture or murder. (…) We have no evidence that there was an order to rape, but at least there was a green light from above for this to happen, ”he says.
The body of a woman shot in the head, naked and only covered by a coat, was found in a house in Bucha, on the outskirts of kyiv, surrounded by condoms. Of the 20 cases he has been carrying, almost all of them have had localities in the kyiv region that were occupied during the first weeks of the invasion that began on February 24: Bucha (5), Irpin (4), Hostomel (3), Borodianka (3) and Marariv (1). The other three come from Kherson (2) and Mariupol (1), both in Russian hands. 20% of Ukraine is in the hands of the enemy, according to the president, Volodymyr Zelensky. It is the great black hole in which the authorities fear that violations will continue to be committed, says Deputy Minister Pavlichenko.
There are cases that help to understand the way some Russian soldiers act. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) published the testimony of the brutal rape suffered by a 31-year-old woman in Kharkov when she was sheltered in a school with her family. But speaking offering excessive details on such sensitive matters seems to have cost Ukraine’s Ombudsman, Liudmila Denisova, her job on May 31, who was interviewed by EL PAÍS in April. To Krivuliak, whose organization, La Strada, collaborates with the Prosecutor’s Office, it does not seem bad that they have separated her from it.
“Sexual violence in this war is the most hidden crime,” Natalia Karbowska of the Ukrainian Women’s Foundation told the UN on Monday. “Both minors and the elderly are victims of sexual crimes committed by Russian troops and the bodies of those tortured or raped are burned to hide evidence,” the Ukrainian representative denounced. The Russian, Vassili Nebenzia, criticized kyiv and Western members of the council, saying that pointing out sexual abuse is “his favorite tactic since the start of his country’s special military operation.” “Russian soldiers were accused of sexual violence without evidence,” he added. The representative of the United States, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, pointed out that “it is up to Russia to stop the rape, violence and atrocities from within its ranks”, while the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, assured that these “atrocities” They will be “punished”. “That’s why we’re helping collect the evidence,” he added.
Krivuliak sometimes receives calls in the wee hours of the morning from victims seeking comfort and help. Without falling into “retraumatization”, they try to make their testimonies useful to advance investigations of war crimes.
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