17 April 2022
by Alla Konstantinova (editor: Egor Skovoroda)
Individual reports of rape began to appear from almost the very start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine but the scale of such crimes only began to take shape once the Russian army pulled out of the towns and villages of Kiev Region. As yet, however, there are not even approximate figures: it will take years to gather the information. Mediazona has looked into the evidence about rape victims that is already accessible and about how psychologists are working with them.
“One young girl can’t talk properly because when she was being raped, she was hit around the face and she’s lost all her teeth. Ukrainian has a special word for this difficulty with pronunciation – ‘gugnyavit’,” says Ekaterina Galyant, a clinical psychologist from Kiev, between lengthy pauses.
She is currently in Tallinn, working in two local maternity hospitals with women who have fled Ukraine. They are not necessarily pregnant. All Ukrainian women who arrive are offered an examination and consultation. Ekaterina has both medical and psychology training and so “is both doctor and psychologist” to the refugee women
Three girls raped by Russian soldiers are now in Tallinn. They are 16,17 and 20 years old. They connected with Ekaterina through social media, two of them on the advice of friends. Ekaterina relates that as a psychologist she works with them individually on Zoom: her camera is switched on, theirs aren’t. Ekaterina doesn’t know their real names and so far has not asked too many questions. Sometimes the conversation lasts only 5-10 minutes before the girls begin to cry and switch Zoom off. It isn’t easy for Ekaterina herself: she says she will suffer from burnout if she takes on even one more victim of rape from the war.
“Two girls are from Bucha and one from Irpin” she goes on to say. “Of course no one has yet written in their application: “I have been raped. Please help.” Essentially, they write, “I can’t see any meaning in life,” “I’m having suicidal thoughts,” “I can’t sleep,” “I can’t eat,” “I can’t touch myself. I hate my body” etc. “One of my clients with suicidal thoughts found me through a volunteer channel. We got in touch on Zoom – I took her case history. I thought she might be clinically depressed, that I’d have to bring in a psychiatrist – and then later she told me she had been in Bucha and had been raped. Well, from that point on, we have been working.”
Ekaterina says that the histories of the three women who have been raped are very similar. This actually confused her to begin with: “I started to think it was one moral degenerate, a pervert – there are people like that in peacetime too. But in this instance they showed up in groups and all did the same thing! Maybe they’d been given an order or a plan… [the women] effectively say the same thing.”.
The victims’ recollections seem to be divided into three parts, she continues. To begin with, the girls recounted how Russian troops at the start of the occupation went from house to house, registering who was there and whether they included any men. They took away mobile phones. Then how the soldiers started looting: according to Ekaterina, one of her clients “even had her iron seized”. Somewhere around 10 days before the withdrawal from Kiev “the atrocities began”.
“[Russian soldiers] took all the men away and no one knows what they did to them,” Galyant says. “Practically only women and children were left [in the houses]. One of these young girls lost her Dad during the occupation. He went somewhere in Bucha to get food and they shot him, as she tells it. She hasn’t seen his body but one of the neighbours allegedly has. He didn’t return and now she has no means of looking for his body. For the moment, we’re not touching on that topic.”
All three girls say that the soldiers went through the residential buildings in groups of three to five, of varying age: “The main ones were the young soldiers, under thirty years old, and there was always someone older with them. Maybe 45, 50 years old. Like their fathers, roughly speaking,” says the psychologist. They went to the buildings in the evenings. All the soldiers, as the victims recall, were drunk.
“If there was some kind of alcohol in the house, they took it all, sat in the kitchen, forced the girls to cook them something, or bring them something, if there was anything in the house. Well, and then the rapes started…” says Ekaterina. “Speaking about the girls – it all happened once, but it was gang rape. And the more the girls resisted, the more the soldiers were…well, this girl had her teeth knocked out, and she said that she screamed and tried to scratch their faces, to do something. But a 16-year-old girl against five men…”
Ekaterina’s 17-year-old client lost consciousness during the rape: “And she was actually glad of that.” All three girls were able to run from the house when the soldiers who had raped them fell asleep. One of the girls – the one who lost her father – was noticed on the street by a neighbour.
“They took her to a house, where there were people in the basement,” the psychologist relates. “She said that while they waited for evacuation, they barricaded themselves in the basement and did not come out. There were also people who had already died – there was no food, and they could not endure. I asked where they got water: and in these basements of old buildings, there are all these sewer pipes – they made some holes in them and gathered some water from there.”
Ekaterina Galyant does not know for certain where the girls who turned to her are now – this is also a part of their agreements. While trying to obtain a medical history and administer assistance, the psychologist also discovered physical injuries.
“One girl has abrasions, according to the symptoms – not a broken arm, but severe bruising,” she says. “We tried to at least draw what she cannot say, and her right hand does not work. It worries me more than anything that none of these girls have yet seen a gynaecologist. They all say that when they took a shower for the first time, they wanted to wash themselves, and in general, to take the skin off of themselves. And they start to do this: they pour alcoholic solutions into their vaginas… This is a question that also hurts me a lot. I understand that if, roughly speaking, two weeks have already passed and they have an infection or a pregnancy – this issue must be resolved somehow.”
“She was sitting with a fur coat on her naked body. They killed her with a bullet to the head”
“We have a collective claim: raped women as young as 14 years of age, and some of them are pregnant,” Vasilisa Levchenko, a psychotherapist from Kyiv, writes on her Instagram. “By rapists, damn it. Let me be precise: by the occupiers, Russian soldiers who stole the tech and gold from their houses, looked for a blender and food processor to bring to their wife as a trophy, and then raped civilian Ukrainian women […] We are sharing out the cases in the team’s chat. Three for Katya, two for Nina and Ella—the most difficult ones, who are now mute and won’t say a word.”
Levchenko told Mediazona that five who had suffered from sexual violence had come to her personally. But at this point it’s impossible to gather statistics even within the Psychological Aid project she works with: “Hundreds of cases are coming to the project daily, and we can calculate how many of them concern rape.”
Just before the beginning of April, inhabitants of the village of Zagaltsy in Kyiv Oblast had to hide two young women from Russian soldiers, Roman Vagrant told Mediazona. The beginning of the war found him in Borodyanka, which he fled with his family for Ternopil. He has relatives living in Zagaltsy; the village was occupied by the Russian military in early March.
“Alcohol, cigarettes, and women — that’s all they care about,” Roman says. “Two young women remained in Zagaltsy, and people hid them because someone had told the soldiers there were women in the village and they wanted young women.”
“I heard a solitary shot, the sound of the gate opening, and then steps in the house,” Natalya from a village in Brovarsky Raion told The Times. “It was [a soldier named Mikhail] Romanov, who had returned with another 20-year-old in a black uniform. I shouted, Where’s my husband? Then we looked outside and saw him on the ground by the gate. The younger guy put a gun to my head and said, ‘I shot your husband because he’s a Nazi.’”
According to Natalya, her little boy hid in the house’s boiler room while the soldiers raped her. She recalls that the rapists held a gun to her head and spewed scathing comments at her—and raped her three times. “When they came back the third time, they were so drunk they could barely stand,” the Ukrainian recalled. “Eventually they both fell asleep in armchairs. I crawled to the boiler room and told my son we had to run away very fast or they’d shoot us.”
Elena from occupied Kherson weeps as she tells Radio Svoboda how Russian soldiers raped her. They followed the woman on her way home from the store: “I’d barely reached the house. They walked through the door behind me. I didn’t have time to get my phone. I didn’t have time to do anything. They just threw me on the bed in silence, undressed me in silence. At four in the morning they just left. They didn’t talk to each other. They just kept calling me a filthy Uke, a Banderite. And then they said, ‘All right, that’s it, time for us to get to our post. We’re leaving.’”
“He took me to the house next door,” 50-year-old Anna, an inhabitant of a village in Kyiv Oblast, told the BBC. “He told me: ‘Get undressed or I’ll shoot you.’ He kept threatening to kill me if I didn’t do what he said. Then he started raping me. While he was raping me, four more soldiers came in. I thought I was done for. But they took him away. I never saw him again.”
Anna describes her rapist as a “skinny young Chechen fighter.” Before the rape, he “put a gun to her head” and led the woman to the next house, and when she got back to her own she saw her husband had been wounded in the belly. There was no way to get to the hospital—there was fighting under way—so the spouses hid in the next house, where her husband passed away two days later. Anna buried him in the back yard.
According to Anna, after her husband’s death she learned that one other woman was raped and killed in their village — and when, after the Russians left, police came to exhume her, her body had no clothes and had a deep slit in the neck.
After Russian troops left Bucha outside Kyiv, the nephew of one of the town’s inhabitants discovered a murdered woman’s body in the cellar under his shed.
“She was sitting hunched over with her legs spread wearing a fur coat on her naked body,” as the incident is described in a New York Times report. “They killed her with a bullet to the head, two cartridges were found next to her. When the Ukrainian police got the body and conducted a search, they found open condom wrappers in the cellar and a used condom in the house.”
“He said I looked like a girl he went to school with”
Reports of rape began to appear, one after another, immediately after the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kyiv Region at the end of March. Some reports were later deleted by their authors — for example, Ukrainian journalist Alina Dubovskaya, who wrote a post about a nine-year-old girl who was raped and physically injured by eleven soldiers in Irpin (a city in Kyiv Region).
“Because of the impact this story had, I had to hide the post about the family of the girl who was raped and killed,” Dubovskaya said, explaining why she deleted the report from her page. “Partly because of the wave of hate expressed toward me, partly because I decided to re-open it only when the family allows the evidence to be published, when I will be able to update the post so that no one has any questions.”
Violence was not confined to Kyiv Region. On 3 April, Human Rights Watch published a report concerning a 31-year-old woman from the village of Malaya Rogan near Kharkiv. A Ukrainian woman, who asked not to be identified, described how, on the night of 14 March, a Russian soldier broke into the basement of a local school where a group of women and children were hiding. According to the victim, the soldier took her to a classroom on the second floor and, at gunpoint, forced her to undress and perform oral sex on him. He cut her face and neck with a knife: “He said I reminded him of a girl he went to school with.”
Numerous rapes were also reported by officials. As early as 22 March, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova wrote that she was “receiving information about sexual crimes by the Russian military in the occupied territories.”
Venediktova also reported that the identity had been established of one of two Russian soldiers who raped Natalya, a resident of the village of Bohdanivka in Brovarsky District (Kyiv Region), while her son hid in the boiler room. This case has also been reported by Amnesty International.
The chief of police of Kyiv Region, Andrei Nebitov, spoke as follows about this crime and the course of the investigation: “The husband tried to defend his family. He was born in 1985. He was a relatively young man. He was shot with a pistol in his own yard. […] The woman went home with the child, and tried to hide from this violence. But in the evening, two [Russians] (one of whom, [Mikhail] Romanov, has been identified by us) went back to the house after drinking alcohol and, under the threat that they would inflict bodily harm on her three-year-old son, and shoot him in the same way as they had her husband, committed an act of violence on the wife. Apart from Romanov, the other individual has not yet been identified by the police. They were both soldiers of the Russian Federation. They left, but then they came back three more times, committing acts of violence against the wife, until she managed to break free and escape.”
In early April Liudmila Denisova, Human Rights Commissioner of the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council – Ukraine’s unicameral parliament), reported on the abuse of children in Bucha (a city in Kyiv Region). Denisova said that a 14-year-old girl had been raped by five Russian soldiers, and had become pregnant as a result, and that an 11-year-old boy had been abused “in front of his mother.” Denisova says she also knows of many other examples of sexual violence in other cities: for example, that a group of women and girls were held in the basement of a house for 25 days, and that nine of them are now pregnant.
Aleksandr Vilkul, head of the military administration of Kryvyi Rih, spoke about rape in Kherson Region: “We are increasingly confronted with terrible stories. Such as, for example, the rapes of a 16-year-old pregnant girl and of a 78-year-old grandmother in one of the villages in the Inhuletsk District. This is something that will never be forgiven.”
In a recent address to the Lithuanian Parliament, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of “hundreds of victims of rape, including under-age girls or very young children and even babies. It’s terrible to talk about it, but it’s true, and it happened.”
The Russian authorities have not acknowledged any cases of rape. On 5 April, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that reports about murders and rapes in Bucha were a “false provocation.”
“The psyche has a tolerance point beyond which it can no longer endure”
“Victims of violence can remain silent about what happened to them, especially if they don’t have injuries requiring immediate medical attention”, explains psychologist Ekaterina Galyant. She assumes that there will only be more appeals for help over time.
At the moment, victims in Ukraine can call the police, contact the psychological support hotlines and the General Prosecutor’s Office. There are no official statistics on rapes in Ukraine during the war and psychologists are limited by ethical standards and will not share information about their clients with each other or with governmental agencies, notes Galyant.
“Collecting information about such cases can take quite a long time”, says Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Ukraine, who is currently studying cases of violence in Bucha and Brovary near Kiev. “In some conflicts, months and sometimes years passed before the true scale of such crimes became known.”
“Because of the patriarchal structure of society not everyone will talk (about being raped)”, says Leonid Romanov, a volunteer that helps Ukrainian refugees evacuated to Poland. In Poland a termination of pregnancy is possible only when there is a threat to the life or health of the mother, therefore, if necessary, volunteers can transfer girls to other countries where there is no such problem with abortions. But no one has contacted Romanov yet.
“But between 1st March and 11th April, 99 pregnant citizens of Ukraine contacted the Polish organisation Abortion Without Borders”, Anna Prus, a volunteer from the Warsaw organisation Abortion Dream Team, told Mediazona.
“We don’t ask people why they want an abortion, how they became pregnant, where are they from”, emphasises Anna. “We have no right to such information. Sometimes people want to talk to us about what happened during this pregnancy, but it’s their desire to share the details”.
Ekaterina Galyant thinks that rape during the war can cause irreparable damage: “People in a situation of war need psychological help. Post-traumatic syndrome develops from three to six months after a traumatic event. That is, we are all not even in it now, we are now in the acute stage of stress. And no one doubts that all Ukrainians will need such help. The psyche has a tolerance point beyond which it can no longer endure, this leads to the development of some kind of illness, depression and other things. And if it’s war, and rape is in addition to all this, then this can destroy the psyche absolutely, do you see?”
Translated by Melanie Moore, Alyssa Rider, Marian Schwartz, Elizabeth Teague, Ecaterina Hughes