RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Autor)
KYIV -- When soldiers from Russia threatened to rape a young girl in Ukraine, her mother tried to persuade them to take her instead, psychologist Vasylisa Levchenko said, recounting the story of an alleged rape victim.
"One of them agreed," she said.
The woman's account was just one of dozens that have been documented by officials, aid workers, and human rights monitors as Russian troops have retreated from areas around the capital, Kyiv, and other parts of the country they invaded on February 24.
"It is impossible to count how many victims there are now," Ukrainian rights ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, "because so many people have been brutally killed…. But it is a different story when our women, children, and their parents are now telling us about the violence that was committed against them."
Denisova added that some of the purported rape victims claimed that the soldiers said things like: "We will make sure that you never want to be with a man again so that you won't have any more children."
"According to preliminary information, there have been a lot of rapes -- an awful lot," said Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova. "All the cases will be investigated as territory is liberated."
In a report published on April 3, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the first reported rape allegations. A 31-year-old woman, who asked not to be identified, from the village of Malaya Rohan, near the eastern city of Kharkiv, said a Russian soldier broke into the basement of a local school where a group of women and children were sheltering on the night of March 13-14. She said the soldier took her to a classroom on the second floor and forced her at gunpoint to undress and perform oral sex on him.
"The whole time, he held a gun near my temple or put it into my face," she was quoted as saying. "Twice he shot at the ceiling and said it was to give me more 'motivation.'"
The soldier then raped her twice, she said. He cut her face and neck with a knife, then let her go.
The next day, she and her family walked to Kharkiv, where she was given help.
"I am lucky to be alive," she said.
The same day, British Ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons posted on Twitter that rape is "a weapon of war."
"Though we don't yet know the full extent of its use in Ukraine, it's already clear it was part of Russia's arsenal," Simmons wrote. "Women raped in front of their kids, girls in front of their families, as a deliberate act of subjugation."
Russia has not responded to allegations about rape specifically. Russian officials have denied that Russian forces in Ukraine have targeted civilians or committed war crimes, but have provided little evidence to support those denials.
Shortly after the initial HRW report, HRW researcher in Ukraine Yulia Gorbunova told RFE/RL she had investigated two other cases of sexual violence by Russian troops in the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Brovary.
"Gathering information about such cases can take a long time," Gorbunova said on April 8. "In some conflicts, it took months or even years before the true scale of the crimes became known."
In the wake of such initial reports, a flood of similar stories of sexual violence -- and allegations of many other atrocities -- began to be documented following the Russian withdrawals at the beginning of this month.
Andriy Nyebytov, the head of the Kyiv regional police, told Current Time about a case of alleged rape in the village of Bohdanivka.
"The woman went home with her toddler son and tried to hide” from the Russian soldiers who had killed her husband, Nyebytov said, but two of them showed up that evening, drunk. “And they raped her after threatening to shoot her son.”
“They left, but then came back three more times, raping her each time,” he said. “Finally, she managed to get loose and escape.”
At a press briefing on April 7, Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the Ukrainian military administration in Kryviy Rih in the southern Kherson region charged that Russian soldiers had raped a 78-year-old woman.
In a Facebook post on April 8, ombudswoman Denisova reported the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl by five soldiers in Bucha, adding that the victim had been impregnated. Denisova also reported that a woman in Bucha had been tied to a table and forced to watch as Russian soldiers raped her 11-year-old son, and that a 20-year-old woman in the Kyiv region town of Irpin had been raped by three soldiers simultaneously.
"The level of brutality of this army of terrorists and executioners of the Russian Federation knows no bounds," Denisova wrote, calling on the United Nations to investigate the alleged atrocities.
Psychologist Levchenko said that the number of rapes is probably far greater than the number that has been reported so far.
"It is not that women don't want to talk about it, " Levchenko said. "They can't. The shock prevents the formation of thoughts…. Such a person often cannot even report exactly what happened."
She added that new cases are emerging among Ukrainians who have fled to Poland and are now telling their stories to aid workers there.
Others, aid workers say, decline to speak out for fear of retribution as Russia's war against Ukraine continues in its second month.
"There is one woman who said directly that she does not want us to share her story with anyone," said Maryna Lehenka, vice president of the European NGO La Strada, a platform against human trafficking. "Because she is afraid she will be found and killed. That's what they told her."
In an April 7 interview, psychologist and aid worker Kateryna Galyant, who created a Telegram channel where mental-health professionals can be connected with people who need help, described three purported gang rapes involving groups of three to five Russian soldiers in Bucha.
She said the victims told her that the perpetrators were drawn to residences and shelters with signs indicating that women or children were hiding within.
"Rape is now an instrument of war," Galyant said. "A way of demonstrating strength, of terrorizing people, and breaking them psychologically and physically."
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Venediktova told Current Time that her office has created a working group to gather information about the alleged rapes and transmit it to the International Criminal Court.
"There they have opened a case against the Russian Federation," she said. "Against the aggressor country. This enables us to use this evidence not just personally against individual soldiers. If we are able to identify soldiers, great. But if we can't identify them, we can still use this information and evidence to confirm instances of crimes committed by the Russian Army on the territory of Ukraine."
Copyright (c) 2010-2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.