Kherson region, Ukraine
Day after day, town after town, a policeman and a prosecutor go door to door in Ukraine’s Kherson region.
Walking through muddy streets, past homes damaged by artillery strikes, they search for those left behind. The two men form a specialist unit that traveled from the capital, Kyiv.
A mother and her daughter walk out into their yard. “We are looking for sex crimes,” prosecutor Oleksandr Kleshchenko said.
Until the beginning of October, this region of the country was occupied by Russian troops. Burnt cars litter the fields. The letter “Z” – a symbol used by Russian forces – marks the walls.
The scars of war run deep here. Russia used sexual violence as a “weapon of war” – a deliberate “military strategy” – in its conquest of Ukraine, United Nations investigators have said. They even relayed allegations of Russian soldiers wearing Viagra.
Russian authorities have denied accusations of war crimes in Ukraine.
In two weeks of work in the Kherson region, the Kyiv team documented six allegations of sexual assault. The real number is almost certainly much higher, they say.
Tatiana, 56, said to be one of the victims. CNN is withholding his last name and that of his village to protect his identity.
Stepping on broken glass, she ushers us into her brother’s house, where she says two Russian soldiers broke into her door on August 26.
“They walked around these rooms,” she said. “One stayed there, and the other, who raped me, came here. He came in, walked around the room a bit, and here, at this spot, he started groping me.
“I said, ‘No, no, I’m not old enough to give you anything, look for younger girls.'”
He slammed her against the wardrobe, she said, and tore her clothes. “I was crying, begging him to stop, but to no avail,” she says. “The only thought I had was to stay alive.”
He warned her not to tell anyone, she recalls. “I didn’t tell my husband right away,” she said in tears. “But I told my cousin, and my husband overheard. He said, ‘You should have told me the truth, but you kept silent.’ »
“I was very ashamed,” she says. “I wish he and all his loved ones were dead.”
She spent three days at home, in a daze, too ashamed to go out. Then, in an act of extraordinary bravery, she says she confronted the commander of the Russian soldier.
“His commanding officer found the leader of his unit. He came to me and said, “I punished him severely, I broke his jaw, but the most severe punishment is yet to come.” Like shooting. The commander asked me: ‘Do you mind?’ I said, ‘I don’t mind, I wish they were all put down.'”
Although the prosecutor, Kleshchenko, and policeman Oleksandr Svidro specifically search for evidence of sex crimes, wherever they go they are confronted with the horrors of the occupation.
In these liberated villages, almost all the buildings have been damaged by the war. Many houses were reduced to rubble.
On their first stop the day CNN accompanied the investigators, in Bila Krynytsya, a crowd waiting for food distributions surrounded the prosecutor.
The village was behind Russian lines, but never directly occupied. Those gathered cry that they have been abandoned for months, without any help from either Russia or Ukraine.
“Have you reported [the damage] anyone?” asks the prosecutor. “Who should we report this to?” responds a man in the crowd.
A man in the crowd tells investigators that he was detained by Russian soldiers and subjected to a mock execution. It’s hard to hear, tales of torture like this are common here, but that’s not the subject of their work today.
Despite these villagers’ displeasure, Ukraine’s counter-offensive in this part of the country has revived public hopes that victory might be possible – or at least that Kyiv could liberate key cities from Russian control, such as Kherson.
Beginning slowly in late summer and then to a large extent in early October, Ukrainian forces regained hundreds of square kilometers of territory that Russia had held since the early days of its full-scale invasion.
A short drive over pockmarked roads in Tverdomedove, a mother and daughter tell Kleshchenko they haven’t heard of any sex crimes in their one-road hamlet.
Their neighbor, Vera Lapushnyak, 71, is sobbing uncontrollably. The Russians were nice when they arrived, she says.
“They said they came to protect us,” she recalls. “But from whom, why – we did not know.”
She was widowed more than 30 years ago – she says her husband died in a motorbike accident – and her son joined the army shortly after the Russian invasion on February 24. She decided to leave, she says, about three months after Russian troops occupied her village. .
Months later, after the Ukrainian army liberated her village in a lightning counteroffensive, she returned. The bombardments had reduced its roof to its rafters.
“I don’t know where to sleep now,” she said in tears. “There are no windows or doors. I sleep like a tramp.
She shows us inside. The ceiling in his room completely collapsed. She moved her bed to the only room that still has an intact window.
“I don’t know where to put it so that (the ceiling) doesn’t fall on my head,” she says. “If he fell and killed me, it would be better, so I wouldn’t suffer. But I want to see my son again.
As the sun sets at the end of a long day, the two-man team arrives in Novovoznesens’ke, a village where they uncovered two more cases of rape, allegedly by Russian soldiers. The next day, they return to Kyiv to submit their findings.
Of course, many of these claims will be impossible to prove; many don’t even have a suspect. For now, the team is filing its reports, and its investigators are continuing their work, hoping to be able to file a complaint in the future.
The UN says it has investigated cases in Ukraine of “sexual and gender-based violence” against people between the ages of 4 and 82. As of September, 43 criminal cases had been initiated, according to the UN.
Police officer Svidro says most cases of sexual violence go completely unreported.
Work takes its toll. “It’s psychologically difficult,” he says. “You understand that every person is in distress. But it is important work. »