Officials, Activists Document Allegations Of War Crimes In Occupied Parts Of Ukraine

After Russian forces withdrew from occupied positions in northern Ukraine at the end of last month, allegations of rapes and other war crimes mounted in their wake, prompting calls for investigations and, possibly, international tribunals.

Now, although fighting remains intense in southern and eastern Ukraine as Russian forces regroup and push for new objectives in those parts of the country, similar allegations are emerging there.

Oleksiy Danylyak, first deputy prosecutor of the southern Kherson region, which has been occupied by Russian troops for most of the 2-month-old war, told RFE/RL his office had opened more than 1,000 cases into alleged violations during the occupation, including murder, kidnapping, deportation or forcible relocation, torture, and sexual crimes.

Even in areas under Ukrainian government control, documenting cases of possible war crimes is difficult work. In areas still occupied by the Russian military and where fighting continues unabated, the difficulties are compounded.

Alyona Kryvulyak, a rights monitor with the La Strada-Ukraine rights group, says her hot line has received reports of various alleged crimes, despite efforts by Russian forces to prevent civilians living under occupation from communicating with Kyiv-controlled Ukraine.

"They are carrying out psychological and physical violence against civilians," Kryvulyak said. "They constantly check people's mobile phones and their social-media accounts. Any messages. They are always asking whether they send messages to anyone in [other parts of] Ukraine. They check to see if they have on their phones photographs of places were Russian forces are. We get a lot of calls along these lines."

She says her organization has recorded two alleged cases of rape -- a woman and her young daughter were both allegedly raped by Russian soldiers in front of one another – in the occupied Kherson region.

"As for other cases of rape of women or children in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories of the south, we do not have any other reports," she said. "But we are sure there have been more cases."

Kryvulyak says La Strada makes such an assessment based on its experiences in the parts of eastern Ukraine -- known as the Donbas region -- that were taken over by Moscow-backed separatists in 2014-15.

"Back then, we received appeals from Ukrainian women who were raped by Russian occupiers in the Donbas," Kryvulyak said. "And all of these cases were unique. Some victims spoke out immediately. But we had one woman who called us only after three years and asked to speak with a therapist. It was the first time she had spoken about what happened to her."

Uncovering A 'Multi-Trauma'

Oleksandra Kvytko, the director of the Ukrainian rights ombudswoman's psychological-help hot line, says she has been informed about four cases of alleged rape in the Kherson region.

"Rape is a difficult subject," she said. "It is a so-called multi-trauma -- a trauma from many aspects. A girl who goes out to collect flowers for her mother and is then raped might blame herself for going outside."

Others blame themselves for the way they dress or for being in a certain place at the wrong time or simply for being female.

"It is often a matter of overcoming one's own feelings of guilt," Kvytko said.

Aid workers must be careful not to ask questions that contain implications that could bolster such feelings, Kvytko adds. And they must be careful not to try to force women to speak about things they are not ready to discuss.

"These are the two basic taboos that you must always keep in mind," she said.

"Some victims can't talk about what happened," Kvytko said. "They have lost trust."

"But others give me permission to share their stories on social media or with journalists as part of their healing," she added. "The first thing that helps victims of sexual violence is the punishment of the perpetrators. They often say to me, 'If I don't speak out or do something, I am betraying other women.'"

'International Hybrid Tribunal'

Although Moscow has not responded to any specific allegations of war crimes committed in Ukraine, Russian officials have insisted their troops do not target civilians.

Oleksandra Matviychuk, director of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, says Ukrainian rights activists have united to call for an "international hybrid tribunal" based in Ukraine to investigate and try cases of war crimes committed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion on February 24.

"Such a court would be highly visible because it wouldn't be somewhere off in The Hague, but here in Ukraine," she told RFE/RL. "It would combine the work of local investigators and judges with that of invited foreign investigators and foreign judges."

"That in itself would bolster the legal system," she added. "Such a court would take on responsibility for investigating and trying these tens of thousands of war crimes and crimes against humanity that we are now documenting."

Robert Coalson contributed to this report