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After rapes by Russian soldiers, Ukrainian victims face a painful quest for justice

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Activists protest against rape during war in front of the Russian Consulate in New York on May 28, 2022.

PHOTO: AFP

KYIV (NYTIMES) – Every day, Viktoriya has to walk past the house where she was raped by a Russian soldier the same age as her teenage son.

Russian troops arrived in her two-street village, near the Kyiv suburb of Borodianka, in early March. Soon afterward, she said, two of them raped her and a neighbour, killed two men, including her neighbour’s husband, and destroyed several homes.

“If you do not think about it all, you can live,” Viktoriya said in an interview in the village on a recent rainy day. “But it is certainly not forgotten.”

She is cooperating with prosecutors because she said she wants the perpetrators to feel the “lifelong pain” they left her with. “I want them to be punished,” she said.

Whether they ever will be is uncertain and may take years to determine. Rapes were among the many atrocities Russian troops inflicted on Ukrainian civilians during weeks of occupation in the Kyiv suburbs and elsewhere. But the challenges of prosecuting the assaults are daunting: Evidence is limited, and the victims are traumatised and sometimes reluctant to testify about their assault, if they even report it at all. The accused soldiers have mostly disappeared.

Ukrainian prosecutors say they are investigating thousands of war crimes, including execution-style killings and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Among them, “dozens” involve rapes, said Kateryna Duchenko, who oversees rape cases at the office of Ukraine’s general prosecutor – a low percentage that represents only a fraction of the suffering. The oldest victim was 82 years old, she said.

Still, the Ukrainian authorities are trying to seek justice for episodes of sexual violence. Last Thursday, in a different case from Viktoriya’s, prosecutors opened the first trial of rape as a war crime. At a closed hearing at a court in Kyiv, they charged a Russian soldier with breaking into a home in Bohdanivka, a village east of the capital, raping a woman in the presence of her child and murdering her husband. The assault took place the day after Viktoriya and her neighbour say that they were raped in their village on the other side of Kyiv.

The soldier on trial, Mikhail Romanov, 32, was identified by investigators using social media, according to news media reports, and the survivor recognised him. He is being tried in absentia, but the case will nevertheless send an important signal to victims of wartime sexual violence, said Yulia Gorbunova, a senior researcher on Ukraine at Human Rights Watch.

“It shows that the government is serious about prosecuting rape cases,” she said.

Russian forces retreated from the areas surrounding Kyiv, including Viktoriya’s village, throughout March. In the weeks that followed, Ukrainian authorities were inundated with accounts of atrocities, according to Lyudmyla Denisova, who was serving as the country’s top human rights advocate at the time. From April 1 until May 15, her office’s psychological help hotline received 1,500 calls from people seeking assistance to cope with sexual crimes, torture and abuse, said Oleksandra Kvitko, who manages the hotline.

To investigate rapes, prosecutors collect whatever physical evidence is available and take testimony from the victim. A medical examination can also serve as evidence, but when rapes occur on occupied territories, an exam is often not possible immediately, and if enough time passes, it may not produce traces of a violent sexual encounter.

In the absence of DNA matches, prosecutors try to rely on other forensic evidence – such as torn clothing, and evidence of cuts and bruises on the victim.

Even when it is possible to determine a perpetrator’s identity, most of them are not in Ukrainian custody, as was the case with Romanov, the Russian soldier who was put on trial last week.

The Russian Ministry of Defence did not respond to requests for comment on Romanov’s case. It has denied allegations that its soldiers commit war crimes.

Viktoriya, 42, and several neighbours provided accounts of the night of the assault to The New York Times on condition that only their first names be used. Viktoriya asked that her village not be named because there are so few people in it that outsiders would be able to identify her, and she feared harassment.

On the night of March 8, Viktoriya said, there was a knock at her door. Three Russian soldiers came in, reeking of alcohol.

They forced Viktoriya to accompany them to a neighbouring house, where they had planned to take away another woman, but they decided she was “too chubby,” she said.

The drunken trio took her down the village road to a third house, where a neighbour named Valentyna lived with her daughter, Natasha, 43; Natasha’s husband, Oleksandr; and their 15-year-old son.

When Oleksandr opened the door, the soldiers asked for his wife. “I’m also Russian,” he protested, telling them that he had been born and raised in Crimea. Viktoriya watched as he pleaded with them to take him instead.

One of the soldiers shot him in his doorway, she said.

“He was so cruel, he treated me not as a woman, as a mother, but as a prostitute,” Viktoriya said. “He raped me, and in front of my eyes, they killed Oleksandr so cruelly. I hated them so much. I wish they would die along with Putin.”

In an interview in the entrance to the house where Oleksandr was killed, Valentyna said that her daughter had returned in the early morning hours, looking for her son. She wasn’t able to say much.

“She was like a stone, she walled herself off,” Valentyna said.

The family buried Oleksandr in their backyard, near a birch sapling. Valentyna had bought one tree for each family member, expecting them to grow for years before any of them died.

Police investigators came to exhume the body a month later, and the women gave statements about what had happened to them that they hope will lead to a trial. Prosecutors confirmed that they were investigating the assaults as well as Oleksandr’s murder. A neighbour, Viktor, confirmed to the Times that Viktoriya had come to his house that night and told him that she had been raped. He said she stayed until the Russians left – fearing the soldiers would search for her in her home.

Natasha’s relatives persuaded her to leave the village with her son. She is in temporary accommodation now in a small Austrian town where neither of them speak the language. She is in touch with a Ukrainian psychologist, a fellow refugee, with whom she speaks daily.

Viktoriya said that she didn’t want to leave Ukraine without her husband, who, as a man of military age, cannot leave the country until the end of the war. It was difficult remaining in the village, she said, because everyone knew what had happened to her. She believes that those who left during the war and returned have blamed the ones who stayed for the destruction.

“This war was supposed to reconcile the people, and they got worse,” she said. “This war broke everyone’s psyche.” She has resumed smoking, which she said she had quit before the war. She is also taking sedatives. She hopes her tormentors will be punished.

But no trial, she said, will be able to answer the questions she still asks: “Why do they have such aggression against our people? Why did they come here, burn people out of their homes, and bring grief?”

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