The Russian soldier taunted her: Your friend, he sneered, is lying on the floor, raped and naked and dead.
S., a Ukrainian writer and government worker in her early 60s, froze at his words. Her neighbor Tetiana, a bold, dark-haired 37-year-old widow, had quickly attracted the attention of Russian soldiers who, within days of the February 24 invasion, captured and occupied the small town of Makariv, about 48 km. west of the capital, Kyiv.
“She would defy them,” said S., still shaken and sorrowful as she described the harrowing events of five months earlier, before late-winter chill gave way to spring, then high summer. “She would tell them: ‘I’m not afraid of you.’”
Weeks would pass before the outside world learned of the horrors that occurred in streets and basements and back gardens of these once-tranquil suburbs and satellite towns, which were occupied for roughly a month before Russian forces in early April broke off a failed bid to seize the capital.
Townspeople who were unable or unwilling to flee endured the first wave of what Western governments and Ukrainian officials would later describe as a systematic campaign of atrocities by Russian forces against civilians: torture, execution-style killings, starvation.
Little by little, month by month, investigators have laid the groundwork for what are now more than 25,000 active cases of suspected war crimes, covering a wide variety of offenses.
Investigators compile narratives from witness testimony, from forensic examinations of mutilated corpses that are still regularly turning up – outside Kyiv, one body was recently found stuffed beneath a manhole cover – from intercepted communications by Russian soldiers describing their own acts, or from surveillance cameras that before the war monitored traffic and deterred shoplifters.
As the war nears the six-month mark, however, cases involving sexual assault are proving particularly resistant to documentation.
The prosecutor general’s office said last week there are “several dozen” criminal proceedings underway involving sexual violence committed by Russian military personnel. But police, prosecutors and counselors say the true number is likely far larger, in part because of reluctance to report such attacks.
“Sexual violence in this war is the most hidden crime,” Ukrainian civil-society activist Natalia Karbowska told the UN Security Council in June.
A complex tangle of reasons underpins that silence. Some, like Tetiana, did not live to tell their stories. Some fled the country, joining an enormous exodus, and are not in contact with Ukrainian authorities. Others feel ashamed, clinging to the belief that they could somehow have prevented what befell them. Or a sexual attack might have taken place in the context of separate, overwhelming wartime loss: a home destroyed, a loved one killed.
Still others look to the near-industrial-scale atrocities occurring elsewhere – daily bombardment of civilian areas; the deaths of dozens of Ukrainian POWs last month in what evidence suggests was a deliberate mass execution by Russian forces; reports of torture, detention and abductions in currently occupied areas – and convince themselves that they ought to quietly put their private agonies behind them.
“They think others suffered more,” said Nadiia Volchenska, a 32-year-old Kyiv psychologist who co-founded a network that connects sexual assault victims with counselors. She said people who had been raped or sexually abused in the course of this conflict – most are women and girls, but many are men and boys – are often reluctant to speak even in confidence with a therapist, let alone go to police or other investigators and provide a detailed account.
“Evil must be punished, or it will spread,”Andriy Nebytov, police chief of the Kyiv region
“Quite often, after making a first contact with us,” she said, “people will simply vanish.”
Sexual violence used as a weapon
Rape as a weapon is as old as war itself. 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. It often leaves wreckage too profound to repair.
“Of course it is not about sexual gratification,” said Natalya Zaretska, a military psychologist by training who is currently a volunteer in the Territorial Defense Forces, working with people in the formerly occupied territories in the Kyiv oblast, or province. “Rape is one instrument that is used to try to achieve this goal of subjugation.”
Ukrainian officials believe a Russian campaign of terrorism against civilians was sanctioned at the highest levels, rather than the work of rogue troops. The Kremlin has derided well-documented atrocities in occupied areas as a fabrication, so for Ukraine, compiling proof and moving ahead with prosecutions is considered vital, even if such a reckoning takes many years.
“Evil must be punished, or it will spread,” said Andriy Nebytov, the police chief for the Kyiv region.
Authorities are circumspect about the specifics of sexual assault cases under investigation, but in a statement in response to written questions from the Los Angeles Times, the prosecutor general’s office cited a few representative examples.
How many times has this happened?
In the town of Chernihiv, north of the capital, a Russian unit commander used “physical and psychological violence” against a 16-year-old girl, threatening to kill family members if she resisted his sexual advances, or to hand her over to others to be gang-raped instead.
In Brovary, east of Kyiv, a serviceman has been indicted in absentia for repeatedly raping the wife of a slain civilian. In another case in that same district, soldiers singled out one woman for assault, herding others into a locked basement. Another, Ukrainian officials say, was raped with her young child nearby.
In carefully couched language, the prosecutor’s office cited obstacles faced by investigators, including the need to protect the privacy of minors and to avoid re-traumatizing survivors. But sheer stigma was described as the overriding factor.
“Women who have been raped,” the statement said, “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. Some of the occupiers addressed one another by names or nicknames, aiding in this process.
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, including ones who came regularly to her house and to Tetiana’s simple brick home next door to loot and carouse and threaten. She particularly feared one, a Chechen, whose erratic behavior made her think he was on drugs.
When the Russians first arrived, S. was caring for her 90-year-old mother, who was in fragile health and adamantly refused to leave. But in the ensuing weeks, the soldiers’ violence and volatility persuaded her that they must seize any chance to escape.
A neighbor was shot by soldiers, eventually dying of his wounds, and S. was told his wife had been sexually assaulted. (That woman declined to speak with journalists about what had happened.) One day, a young soldier came to S.’s own house and tried to get 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. Troops again burst into S.’s house, with one of them behaving bizarrely and demanding a bandage for an injury. After downing a shot of vodka, he blurted out news of her friend’s fate.
Soldiers refused to 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. Ordered to bury the naked corpse, the soldier told S. they first wrapped the body in a blanket.
“I felt shame that she is dead and I am still alive,” she said months later on a heat-heavy summer afternoon, brewing tea for visitors and keeping an eye on her mother dozing in an armchair nearby. “I have that guilt.”
Rape counselors say that with many instances of assault having taken place early in the war, some of those people may be recovering their equilibrium enough to talk about what happened to them.
“Sometimes we see this around six months later, the beginning of a willingness to open up,” said Volchenska, the Kyiv therapist. “But now we expect a wave of similar cases from Kherson” – a southern city seized by Russia early in the invasion, which Ukrainian forces hope to retake.
“The problem is that you need to feel safe to talk,” she said. “And really nowhere in the country is safe.”
In Makariv, S. still thinks often of Tetiana – her humor, her quirks, her determination. Every day, she looks out on the now-empty house her friend once lived in, trying to picture her vibrant and alive. She remembers Tetiana telling her about a dream she’d had, during the frightening days of occupation.
“In it, she was on the cloud, flying,” S. said. “It was so peaceful. It was so good.”