After the withdrawal of Russian forces from occupied positions in northern Ukraine at the end of last month, allegations of rape and other war crimes mounted in their wake, prompting calls for investigations and, possibly, international tribunals.
Now, although fighting remains intense in southern and eastern Ukraine as Russian forces regroup and push towards new targets in those parts of the country, similar allegations are emerging there.
Oleksiy Danylyak, first deputy prosecutor of the southern region of Kherson, which was occupied by Russian troops for most of the 2-month war, said RFE/RL his office had opened more than 1,000 cases involving alleged violations during the occupation, including murder, abduction, deportation or forced displacement, torture, and sex crimes.
Even in areas under Ukrainian government control, documenting possible war crimes cases is hard work. In areas still occupied by the Russian army and where fighting continues unabated, the difficulties are compounded.
Alyona Kryvulyak, a rights monitor with rights group La Strada-Ukraine, said her hotline had received reports of various alleged crimes, despite efforts by Russian forces to prevent civilians living under occupation from communicating with the kyiv-controlled Ukraine.
“They exert psychological and physical violence against civilians,” Kryvulyak said. “They’re constantly checking people’s cell phones and their social media accounts. All the messages. They’re always asking if they’re messaging anyone in [other parts of] Ukraine. They check to see if they have photographs on their phones of places where Russian forces are. We get a lot of calls for that.”
She says her organization has recorded two alleged cases of rape – a woman and her young daughter were both allegedly raped by Russian soldiers in front of the other – in the occupied Kherson region.
“As for other cases of rape of women or children in the temporarily occupied southern Ukrainian territories, we have no other reports,” she said. “But we are sure there have been more cases.”
Kryvulyak says La Strada makes such an assessment based on his experiences in parts of eastern Ukraine – known as the Donbass region – which were taken over by Moscow-backed separatists in 2014. -15.
“At the time, we were getting calls from Ukrainian women who had been raped by Russian occupiers in Donbass,” Kryvulyak said. “And all of these cases were unique. Some victims spoke up immediately. But we had a woman who called us only after three years and asked to speak to a therapist. It was the first time she had spoken about this that had happened to him.”
Discover a “multi-trauma”
Oleksandra Kvytko, director of the Ukrainian Rights Ombudsman’s psychological helpline, said she was informed of four cases of alleged rape in the Kherson region.
“Rape is a difficult subject,” she said. “It’s so-called multi-trauma – trauma in many ways. A girl who goes out to get flowers for her mother and is then raped might blame herself for going out.”
Others blame themselves for the way they dress or for being in a certain place at the wrong time or for simply being a woman.
“It’s often about overcoming your own feelings of guilt,” Kvytko said.
Aid workers should be careful not to ask questions with implications that could reinforce such feelings, Kvytko adds. And they have to be careful not to force women to talk about things they are not ready to discuss.
“These are the two basic taboos that you should always keep in mind,” she said.
“Some victims can’t talk about what happened,” Kvytko said. “They have lost confidence.”
“But others give me permission to share their stories on social media or with journalists as part of their recovery,” she added. “The first thing that helps victims of sexual violence is punishment of the perpetrators. They often tell me, ‘If I don’t speak up or do something, I’m betraying other women.'”
“International Hybrid Court”
Although Moscow has not responded to any specific allegations of war crimes committed in Ukraine, Russian officials have insisted their troops are not targeting civilians.
Oleksandra Matviychuk, director of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, said Ukrainian human rights activists have united to call for an “international hybrid court” based in Ukraine to investigate and adjudicate cases of crimes of war committed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion on February 24. .
“Such a tribunal would be very visible because it wouldn’t be somewhere in The Hague, but here in Ukraine,” she told RFE/RL. “It would combine the work of local investigators and judges with that of visiting foreign investigators and judges.”
“That in itself would strengthen the justice system,” she added. “Such a tribunal would investigate and prosecute these tens of thousands of war crimes and crimes against humanity that we are now documenting.”