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Rape is a war crime, and Ukrainian women are sharing their stories

The details of alleged rapes by Russian soldiers are emerging from formerly occupied areas.

Remains of Russian military vehicles are seen on the street in Bucha, Ukraine. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, a Ukrainian woman told Human Rights Watch that a Russian soldier raped her while she sought shelter with other women and children in the local school. He took her into a classroom, she said. Afterward, she was cold, so she asked whether she could get dressed again. Yes, the woman said the soldier told her, but nothing from the waist down.

It’s the little details, isn’t it? In the early days of the invasion, rumors of Russian soldiers raping Ukrainian women leaked out of the occupied regions, often without a lot of accompanying information. As Russian troops have retreated from those regions, reports have become more official and specific. The 31-year-old mother’s full account of the rape appeared in a briefing from Human Rights Watch, and it’s those accompanying details — which I’ll discuss in this column, so please be warned — that haunt you.

I cannot fathom which is worse: an assault or the feeling of sitting bare-thighed on a cold school chair, knowing that your assailant doesn’t want to be bothered with a zipper when he decides to assault you again.

When he raped her the second time, the woman said, he also cut her face with a knife and sliced off her hair.

Rape is warfare. It doesn’t involve tanks or bombs, but it is warfare. It is a crime that often goes unpunished, committed by soldiers who are part of a horrible tradition: using women’s bodies as battlegrounds, annihilating human psyches alongside cities. Soldiers who deprive women of humane treatment and throw away their humanity in the process.

A 50-year-old woman named Anna told the BBC that a soldier had taken her from her home to assault her; when he later allowed her to return, her husband had been shot. Another husband was also killed when he tried to protect his wife, a Kyiv sheriff said; the soldiers in that attack returned three more times to repeat the assault, threatening violence against the woman’s young son if she did not comply. Before leaving for good, they killed the family’s dogs.

The BBC article that included those two accounts also contained an interview with Ukraine’s ombudsman for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisova, who said she was documenting a case of approximately 25 young women who were held in a basement in Bucha, all of them systematically raped and nine of them now pregnant. “Russian soldiers told them they would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man,” Denisova said. “To prevent them from having Ukrainian children.”

When activists argue that rape is not a crime of sex but a crime of power, this is what they mean. They mean exactly this: that rapists use sexual assault as a tool against women to show them they have no power, but that rapists can also use it against men to make them feel helpless, too. The men could not stop the attacks against the women they loved, and for trying they would sacrifice their lives.

Hesse: Heartbreaking stories of birth during wartime

Hearing from experts on these horrors can make them even more disturbing. An academic who studies the dynamics of gender in warfare told a HuffPost reporter that not every skirmish involves the same levels of sexual assault. Gang rape, like the account in Bucha, is more prevalent when the military perpetrators “suffer from low cohesion” and don’t know what they’re fighting for.

“Gang rape helps armed groups that suffer from low cohesion to essentially overcome that problem,” Dara Kay Cohen told HuffPost. “It’s a way of signaling virility and masculinity, which can create social bonds between members of armed groups.”

Do you see what I mean? Rape and war are hard enough to comprehend without having to consider that soldiers may be committing rape basically as a team-building exercise to boost morale in the face of a senseless mission. Or that perpetrators of this kind of gang rape are “more normal or less pathological than people who tend to commit rapes on their own” and who outside the war context tend to be “just ordinary people,” Cohen said.

I cannot stop thinking about the woman in the classroom who was not allowed to put on her pants.

The soldier who allegedly raped her told her that she reminded him of a girl he’d gone to school with. He said this even while he was hitting her in the face and shooting bullets into the ceiling to terrorize her, the woman told Human Rights Watch. He told her his name and that he was 20 years old, she said, and also told her that if she didn’t do as he asked she would never see her child again.

Which would be worse: a rapist refusing to see you as a person, or a rapist asking that you see him as a person while he did it?

I cannot stop thinking about the woman whose husband was shot, or the woman whose dogs were killed, or the women who huddled together in a basement until nine of them missed their periods and they slowly realized why.

Hesse: What mothers know about war

And thinking, also, about the men who allegedly attacked them. The men these soldiers were back at home, the monsters they were abroad. The “virility” they may have believed they were signaling in the middle of an aimless, confusing war.

What would that soldier in the school have been doing that day if he were home in Russia instead of invading a peaceful neighboring country? What would his alleged victim have been doing if she had been home, too, instead of pleading for her life, half-dressed and so very cold?

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