[🇺🇦 🇫🇮 🇸🇪 🇩🇪 🇬🇧 🇺🇸 Please find help resources for victims of sexual violence in selected countries at the end of this post.]
There is no shortage of horrors on display of the many war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. Within three months, the number of war crimes under investigation has already passed 13,000. The image above is just one of them: Bodies of four naked women set on fire on Zhytomyr Highway near Kyiv, left like roadkill. The flames had gone out. (Image: @visegrad24)
News reported from Ukraine include more often than not a “Warning: This report contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.” Most victims are women and girls, but no one is excluded: Both men, boys, and children have been victims of rape. Not everyone lives to tell even if their trauma would eventually allow them to do so. Like the four women left to burn on the highway. Some victims would’ve been too young to tell, like the one-year-old Ukrainian baby boy who died after a rape. It’s hard to find words, but every story that can be told, needs to be told. And prosecuted.
Rape is an effective and cheap weapon of war with a goal to break morale and inflict as much as trauma as possible on the entire community, not just on the victim. Systematic gang rapes are committed using face coverings while forcing loved ones and members of community to watch. Repeated rapes are acted so that women never want to have sex again, and give birth to more children.
It’s not the first time rape as a weapon has been deployed in a war, a conflict, or a genocide.
Worse, it’s not even the first time it’s happening to Ukrainians. Only in the past the perpetrating Nazis were German, the oppressors former Soviet rulers.
In 2016, two years in the Russian Annexation of Crimea, commenting on the 1992-1995 Bosnian war with rape camps, and estimated between 12,000 and 50,000 repeat, gang, and public rapes, as the importance of war crime trials like ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia), the late Madeleine Albright (May 15, 1937 – March 23, 2022) wrote:
“We could not accept, in the last decade of the 20th century, the idea of ethnic cleansing and mass rape being perpetrated with impunity in the heart of Europe.”
It was also the first time a war tribunal established rape and sexual enslavement as war crimes. The world must continue Madeleine Albright’s legacy and work on the promise of “Never again”.
End War. End Rape. End Rape As Weapon Of War.
Recommended read: Madeleine Albright’s final New York Times opinion piece about Putin, dated just 24 hours before Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb 24, and to date four weeks prior her passing.
Journalists are risking, and losing, their lives in witnessing and documenting war crimes in Ukraine, meeting with both victims of war and people helping the ones in need. Finnish public broadcaster Yle journalist Suvi Turtiainen and photographer Rinna Härkonen recently traveled to previously occupied city of Ivankiv, north of Kyiv, where they met with its newly liberated residents. She also interviewed a psychologist treating rape victims of Russian soldiers. Published on May 4, 2022, the story has since been translated into Swedish and Russian, but as every war story from Ukraine is important and deserves as wide audience as possible, I took the liberty to translate it from Finnish to English. The accustomed warning applies.
🇫🇮 📺 Raiskaukset Ukrainan sodassa (22:40:00)
Russian Troops In Ukraine Rape In Front Of Loved Ones – Psychologist Treating 100 Rape Victims Shares Their Stories With Yle
In April, the phone rang at Oleksandra Kvitko, Ukrainian psychologist. The caller was a 12-year-old girl.
The girl told me that she had one day gone to the yard to pick flowers. She wanted to cheer her mother up. She went out even though her mother had told her not to because of the Russian occupiers who were already in town.
The mother later found her daughter unconscious in the yard. She had been gang raped. After the rape, the girl tried to kill herself. Kvitko, who is treating the victim, says she blamed herself. She had gone out even though her mother had told her not to.
She was 12-years-old.
As a psychologist, Kvitko watches the war in Ukraine from a gruesome vantage point. She answers the emergency phone number where rape victims of Russian troops seek help. She’s often the first person a victim talks to about the rape.
In many cases, Kvitko learns about the rapes before Ukrainian authorities do. In worst case, sexual violence is only uncovered in autopsies of the civilian victims. The experiences of survivors first see the light of day when they start sharing their stories.
A lot of victims want to talk to a psychologist, but not yet to the police. Kvitko and her colleagues are an information source to the Ukrainian Government on what has taken place.
The stream of incoming calls is constant and from people of all ages. Rapes are reported by women, children, men, and the elderly.
Help is provided over the phone, as victims have fled across Ukraine and Europe. Kvitko also fled with her children to Kyiv in western Ukraine when the war began.
The Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights opened up the emergency response line in the beginning of April with the support of UNICEF. There are five psychologists offering help.
Kvitko is currently treating 94 cases. In total, 600 victims of sexual assault have contacted them. Kvitko has been working with victims of sexual violence long time before the war. During the interview she’s having trouble holding back tears.
“What we are being told now is completely unprecedented,” Kvitko says.
The victims’ reports show that rapes follow a certain pattern. A pattern that proves that they are not actions of individual Russian soldiers, but of systematic violence.
Kvitko tells me about a phone call from a mother of a 11-year-old boy. Russian troops tied the mother to a chair. After that, the soldiers raped the boy in front of her mother.
Kvitko also tells about two sisters, where the younger one was raped in front of her older sister. The older sister got down on her knees and begged the soldiers to take her instead of her little sister.
The soldiers lifted her up and said, “No, you’re watching”, the psychologist tells.
“No, you’re watching”
Not in single rape reported to Kvitko, the soldier has been alone with the victim. “It’s always a gang rape”, Kvitko says. The victims are not taken aside. They are being raped in front of their family, friends, or neighbours. “They have wanted to have an audience,” Kvitko says.
Public rape is a horrifying, effective instrument of warfare. It traumatizes not only the victim, but the whole community.
In almost every case shared with Kvitko, the rapists had covered their faces during the act. “Psychologically, this is frightening. If the perpetrator can’t be identified, then all men become enemies and rapists, Kvitko says.
The majority of people calling the emergency response line live in the vicinity of Kyiv. Now that the occupier has been evicted, the actions of Russian troops are starting to unfold in all their horror.
One such place is the small town of Ivankiv, 85 kilometers north of Kyiv, where it shares its northern border with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site.
At the beginning of the war, Russian troops stormed across the nuclear contaminated area and occupied Ivankiv. The bridge to Kyiv was blown up so that the residents couldn’t escape. Weeks after liberation, the bridge is still broken, but a temporary overpass has been built next to it.
Destroyed Russian tanks can be seen alongside the roads. The hotel by the Ivankiv city entrance has been burned down with a sign “Mines” hung on the door. The Russians mined buildings and terrain to such an extent that it’s estimated to take years to clear them up. You have to drive in the middle of the road because the roadsides can be mined.
In the city center, people are again daring to come out for a walk after weeks of hiding. The occupier arrived in Ivankiv so quickly that few residents had time to escape.
In the central square, friends Elina, 19, and Sofia, 16, say they have been in the city throughout the occupation.
“We tried to hide together. But nowhere was really safe, niether at home nor in the basement, Elina says. Elina says that they knew soldiers were looking for young women of their age. When Russians withdrew from the city, the two friends learned that 15- and 16-year-old siblings of a family they know had been raped.
“It happened here, in a house close by,” Elina says.
Sofia says that her hometown feels different after the occupation. The knowledge that Russian soldiers were here and invaded people’s homes has left a lasting fear.
On the way back from Ivankiv to Kyiv via the western route, the cities from news headlines, Borodyanka, Bucha, and Irpin, pass by.
This is where Russian soldiers killed and raped. When the towns were liberated, it was revealed that civilians had been shot in cars, homes and on bikes. In Borodyanka, Russia had bombed a residential house so badly that those who sought refuge in the basement were buried in the rubble.
In the east and south of Ukraine, the Russian occupation is still ongoing. No one knows exactly what’s happening there.
Psychologist Kvitko receives calls not only from areas surrounding Kyiv, but also from people who have managed to escape Kharkiv and Kherson.
Not everyone wants to talk, they write. Kids draw, too.
Of Kvitko’s 94 patients, so far only five have talked to the authorities about the rapes committed by Russian troops. Kvitko passes victims’ reports on to the authorities for the purpose of war crimes investigations and encourages her patients to file a report.
“It’s too early, especially for the children. They can’t talk yet.”
Most of the victims are women and children, but during the Russian war of aggression, men have also reported sexual violence. It took a long time until men started calling her.
Kvitko is currently helping six men, three of whom are over the age of 60.
She says the number of people who need help is overwhelming. She has sought support from psychologists in Israel with experience of helping war victims. Kvitko says they threw their hands up in the air, telling they have no experience of sexual violence of this magnitude.
Marta Havryško, researcher from Ukraine has investigated rape in the different wars of Ukraine. She gives us a video call interview from Switzerland where she fled to at the beginning of the attack.
According to Havryško, millions of women and children haven’t just escaped the bombs in the recent weeks. They have also escaped rapes, memories of which are deeply rooted in the nation’s memory.
Havryško has studied the use of sexual violence in Ukraine during the Nazi occupation and Soviet rule. In her work, she has interviewed dozens of elderly women who had been raped during previous occupations and oppression.
It’s fully obvious to Havryško that Russia is once again using rape as a weapon of war. Had the rapes been acts by individual soldiers, they would have tried to cover their tracks more often.
Based on victims’ testimonies, Russian troops rape systematically, using the same pattern. In a group, with their faces covered. “These are public rapes in which family members and acquaintances are forced to watch their loved ones suffer”, says the researcher. The aim is to inflict as much suffering as possible not only on the victim, but also on the entire community.
According to her, the rapes have features of genocide, for which the Russian state media and speeches by Russian leadership have laid ground for a long time.
Genocide is a strong accusation, but Havryško says there are starting to show signs of it.
In one case that was made public, Russian soldiers had called the victims Nazi whores. In Russian propaganda, the illegal war of aggression is justified by liberating Ukraine from Nazi rule.
In another case, victims had been told that the rape would continue until women never want to have sex again with a man and give birth to more Ukrainian children.
“This is clearly genocide talk,” Havryško says.
Rape is used as a weapon in genocide because it traumatizes the entire community. Rape of women and children sends a message to the soldiers defending their homeland that they had failed to protect their own.
According to Havryško, systematic rape has a clear link to how the Russian leadership and media talk about Ukraine and Ukrainians. The message of genocide is constantly on the agenda.
They deny the existence of Ukraine as an independent state. They are spreading the idea of destroying Ukraine, Havryško says. As an example, she recites a disturbing joke made by Putin.
In early February, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow. The Internet filled up with jokes about Putin who, fearing the coronavirus, sat at a long table meters apart from Macron.
At the following press conference, Putin made a joke that could only be understood by those who know the Russian language and culture, i.e. also by Ukrainians.
Putin referred to Ukraine with a phrase identified as a reference to a Soviet era punk song that refers to necrophilia, i.e rape of a dead person.
“Whether you like it or not, endure it my beauty,” Putin said, talking about Ukraine and compliance with the Minsk peace agreement.
Ukrainians understood the dark message of the joke. They knew to fear sexual violence because the generation of their mothers and grandmothers had experienced the same thing.
“Women’s bodies are once again a battlefield,” Havryško says.
Rape victims need both urgent and long-term help. One of the most urgent help is access to abortion. The Ukrainian High Commissioner for Human Rights, Lyudmyla Denisova, has told that nine of the 25 women who were repeatedly raped in a Bucha basement are pregnant.
Many are fleeing the war to Poland, where it’s very difficult to have an abortion. Aid organizations have started to supply Ukraine with morning-after pills, but they must reach the victims quickly.
A lot of people are afraid to talk and tell what they’ve been through. The reason is shame and self-blame.
One of the most urgent help is access to abortion.
Kvitko, the psychologist, fears that the rapes confirmed so far are just the tip of the iceberg. Even during peacetime, many victims report sexual violence only years later.
Her psychological first aid for rape victims is to make them understand that they are not guilty of anything. “As is common with sexual offences, women blame themselves. Why did I wear that skirt, why did I go to that place”, Kvitko says. Like that girl who was raped after she had gone to pick flowers for her mother.
Kvitko says that the victims will need help for a long time. They can call her at any time of the day. She will answer and listen.
Yle didn’t try to interview rape victims for this story. An interview without the support of a psychologist can worsen the trauma. The psychologist retold cases where victims have given their permission to share stories anonymously.
More Witness Testimonies
‘Russian soldiers raped me as my terrified son cried’ by Catherine Philp, March 28, 2022
HELP FOR VICTIMS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE
War or peace, 1 in 3 women are subjected to sexual violence and harassment. During wartime, sexual violence doesn’t only exist in the war zones: Within the first weeks of the war in Ukraine, Swedish and Finnish authorities had received reports of both sexual violence and trafficking attempts of Ukrainian refugees. Few help lines for victims of sexual violence:
☎️ 24/7: 0 800 500 335 (from landline) or 116 123 (from mobile)
☎️ 0800–97899 (Crisis Helpline)
☎️ 116 006 (RIKU Victim Support Finland)
☎️ 24/7: 08000 116 016 (Hilfetelefon)
☎️ 24/7: 808 2000 247
🇺🇸 @RAINN #
☎️ 24/7: 800.656.HOPE (4673) (RAINN)