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Opinion Why it’s so hard to track sexual violence in the Ukraine war

A look through a broken window shows residential buildings damaged during Russian attacks in Irpin, Ukraine, on June 16. (Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Iuliia Mendel is a journalist and former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Many of the crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine are brutally obvious: the civilians needlessly wounded or killed, the shattered schools and hospitals, the attacks on cultural sites.

But other crimes are less visible — not least because their victims have to cope with stigma and shame. I’m speaking, of course, of the acts of sexual violence committed by Russian troops.

The fraught nature of these atrocities, which are historically underreported, means that it will be a long time before the full scale of the problem is clear. The same small towns in the suburbs of Kyiv that are already known to the world for the widespread killing of civilians — Bucha, Borodyanka and Irpin — are haunted by tales of rape, too. Ukrainian officials and activists have also heard many accounts of sexual atrocities from eastern Donbas and the southern provinces that remain under occupation today. (One-fifth of Ukraine’s territory is currently under Russian control.)

In early June, a United Nations agency announced that it had received 124 reports of sexual violence from the war zone in Ukraine. Later that month, another U.N. body stated that it had “received numerous allegations” of sexual atrocities and had “been able to verify 23 cases of conflict-related sexual violence, including cases of rape, gang rape, torture, forced public stripping, and threats of sexual violence.” Ukrainian civil society organizations have obtained information about dozens of other incidents. Human Rights Watch said in early April that it had documented a case of repeated rape by a Russian soldier in the Kharkiv region.

A growing body of anecdotal evidence suggests that the real numbers are almost certainly far higher. Collecting reliable data is extremely hard. In Ukrainian society, and especially in rural areas, sexual crimes are so stigmatized that victims fear being judged. It is usually the victim’s relatives and friends who seek help on the victim’s behalf. Ukrainian activist Natalia Karbowska recently referred to wartime sexual violence as “the most hidden crime.”

La Strada Ukraine, a human rights organization, has been receiving calls about incidents of sexual crimes since early March. In the first two months of the war, they learned about 17 victims: one man and 16 women, three of whom were teenagers.

“We’ve had calls about group sexual assaults,” Iuliia Anosova, a lawyer with the group, told me recently. “We heard stories about groups of soldiers committing rapes in front of onlookers.” That suggests, Anosova says, that the Russian military has been using rape as a tool of intimidation, putting psychological pressure on Ukrainian soldiers, who have to worry about the fates of their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

Kateryna Galyant, a clinical psychologist with the Dobrobut Medical Network, says victims often say they want “to peel off their skins.” Once victims emerge from the initial shock, they try to destroy everything that reminds them of the terrible experience. It’s a protective response for the mind.

But that coping mechanism can create obstacles when it comes to investigating the crime. Traumatized victims often don’t remember the exact chronology of events. Their memories are fractured. They’re often unable to recall important details, such as the appearance of the attacker, the location or whether others were present. And all of this, of course, becomes even harder to reconstruct under wartime conditions.

The highly fraught nature of the issue was underlined in late May, when Ukraine’s ombudsperson for human rights was dismissed amid intense controversy after providing unverified data about sexual assault allegations (among other criticisms).

Despite the challenges, Ukraine has already started going after perpetrators. In May, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova posted a picture of a Russian soldier whom she identified as a suspect in several rapes committed in the Kyiv region. She described how the soldier, together with other servicemen, twice broke into local homes and raped women. She asked the public to provide leads to her office.

Last month, Ukrainian prosecutors launched their first trial (in absentia) of a Russian soldier accused of rape. The main witness in the case is also the victim, who accused the soldier of killing her husband and then repeatedly raping her.

There are grounds for hope that investigators can address broader questions as they amass more evidence. In 2008, the United Nations passed a resolution defining rape as a weapon of war. Many Ukrainians suspect that Russia is deploying this weapon as part of its genocidal strategy against their country. One recent report on the war in Ukraine by two respected human rights organizations noted: “Rape and sexual violence can be probative of genocide.” The authors cited the Islamic State’s systematic sexual violence against Yazidi women in Iraq as an indicator of the extremist group’s desire to wipe out Yazidis as an ethnic group.

Galyant told me that Russian soldiers are using sexual violence to send a clear message: “We will exterminate you, destroy you psychologically and physically.” Sadly, that is entirely consistent with everything else Vladimir Putin’s army has been doing in Ukraine.

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