Ukraine collecting evidence of sexual violence, torture to prove Russia sanctioned the acts


Warning: This story includes details of sexual violence and torture.

Daria’s voice trembled. She raced to get her words out as she relived the events of early 2022. She pressed a cigarette to her lips to try and, unsuccessfully, calm her nerves. 

But she didn’t take up any offers of stopping when she spoke with CBC News last summer. She wanted to tell the world what happened to her when she was captured by three members of the Russian forces who took over her town a few weeks after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. 

“They tortured us so much,” she said. “They did everything, even things impossible to imagine.”

Soon after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, it set its sights on the capital, Kyiv, and Russian forces began moving into surrounding towns. There, they clashed with Ukrainian forces, killed or apprehended many of the male residents and traumatized the local population. 

Daria, who is using a pseudonym because Ukrainian law protects the identities of people alleging sexual crimes, was working as a seamstress in Velyka Dymerka, northeast of Kyiv, when Russian soldiers arrived in mid-March and began going door to door, looting. They eventually arrived at her door and took her hostage, holding her in the storage room of a local grocery store.

“They just grabbed me by my hair,” she said. “When I started to resist, they tied my hands and feet.”

A man in a white cap stands to the right of a destroyed tank. They are in a garden.
A local resident, Valerii, stands in his backyard garden near a Russian tank, destroyed during Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the village of Velyka Dymerka, Ukraine, July 22, 2022. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Daria’s is one of over 200 accounts of sexual abuses allegedly committed by Russians during the war that have begun proceeding through Ukrainian courts, according to the national prosecutor’s office.

Ukrainian authorities are now using some of those accounts to try to put together a case before the International Criminal Court (ICC) that would establish that the use of sexual violence and torture has been systematic, deliberate and, ultimately, directed by the Kremlin. 

‘I hear all their voices, all the screams’

At the time of her capture, Daria said, she was pregnant. She told her captors this, hoping they would have mercy — they didn’t. Instead, she said, they beat, tortured and raped her repeatedly. 

She said they also forced her and a dozen other hostages to use drugs. She doesn’t know what they were but says they made her heart race and feel as though she was going to die.

“They opened our mouths and stuffed the bag with the drugs down our throats, poured water and shouted, ‘Swallow, Ukrainian bitch.'”

Ukrainian authorities have been able to corroborate parts of Daria’s story. They confirmed, using medical records, that she had been pregnant, but was traumatically raped to the extent that she later required surgery and miscarried as a result. The other details of her story are based on her testimony alone.

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During her two weeks in captivity, Daria says, she witnessed others, including children and the elderly, being raped, beaten and degraded in various ways, including having objects inserted in genitals and getting their teeth knocked out.. 

“Everything was happening in one room,” she said. “I mean, they raped everyone in front of each other. They killed and shot men there, too. 

“I hear all their voices, all the screams. I even forget sometimes that I was raped.”

A man wearing white protective gear walks through a graveyard holding a cross. There are rows of crosses and wreaths behind him marking graves.
A volunteer places a cross with a number to a grave of one of unidentified people killed by Russian troops, during a mass burial ceremony in the town of Bucha, Ukraine, Sept. 2, 2022. Bucha is one of the towns Russian forces invaded when the war began in 2022, aiming toward Kyiv. (Vladyslav Musiienko/Reuters)

On March 21, a so-called green corridor opened — a temporary and localized ceasefire allowing civilians to pass from areas with active fighting — and one of Daria’s captors let her go. 

“I don’t know why he chose me,” she said. “Probably, he felt sorry for me and another girl because we were raped so many times.”

Healing will be a long road for Daria. 

In her interview with CBC, her psychologist held her hand and told her she was strong and that the important part was that she survived. The psychologist works with the United Nations Population Fund, which has been working on public awareness campaigns and support for victims of wartime gender-based violence.

Three women stand holding hand-painted signs in Ukrainian.
UNFPA staff prepare for a demonstration in Lviv, Ukraine, to raise awareness about the use of sexual violence in Russia’s ongoing war. “Violence is not power, but the lack of power,” one sign reads. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC News)

“To tell you the truth,” Daria said, “I’ve regretted so many times that they didn’t kill me.”

CBC News contacted the Russian Ministry of Defence for comment regarding the specific allegations made against Russian soldiers in this article, but did not receive a response. 

Russia has refused to directly address allegations made by the United Nations Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine that it’s used torture and sexual violence against Ukrainian civilians in a way that is widespread and systematic.

Finding evidence is a monumental task

Challenges abound for international and Ukrainian investigators trying to corroborate accounts such as Daria’s. In addition to lacking resources and the number of allegations continuing to rise, much of the evidence has been destroyed as battle lines have moved. 

“We’ve not only pursued searches for evidence directly at known scenes of crimes, but we’ve also been monitoring open sources of information, such as social media channels,” said Andrii Kovalenko, the lead prosecutor for the southern Kherson region, which was controlled by Russian forces for almost nine months until late 2022. 

Tracking down people to provide testimony is difficult, as is identifying exactly where the crimes occurred, Kovalenko said. 

“Victims were brought there with their faces covered,” he said.

A man in a black T-shirt stands in front of a pile of sandbags.
Andrii Kovalenko is the lead prosecutor for the southern region of Kherson, which was occupied for almost nine months until late 2022. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC News)

As in Daria’s case, medical information can sometimes be used as evidence, he said. In particular, he referenced the case of one woman from a village outside of Kherson who reported being repeatedly raped by a Russian soldier while her young daughter listened to her mother’s cries from the next room.

The woman ended up pregnant as a result of the rape and gave birth, Kovalenko said. 

The UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine has concluded that Russian forces have committed a variety of war crimes in Ukraine, including sexual and gender-based violence against individuals as young as four and as old as 82. 

Kovalenko says the true extent of these crimes will never be known because of the fear of stigmatization survivors have, but also because some of the victims died of their injuries. 

Additionally, the men accused of these crimes, when they can be identified, are either in Russian-held territory or have been killed in the war, making it unlikely or impossible for them to be tried, Kovalenko said. But when the identities are known, Ukrainian courts will sometimes try them in absentia. 

Tactics predate 2022

Russia and its allies in Ukraine have been accused of using sexual violence and torture techniques even before the recent invasion, specifically, during the fighting in Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatists that broke out in 2014 in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

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Oleksii Holikov, 29, returned to his hometown of Horlivka in the Donetsk region in 2014 after it was captured by separatists. He and his friends joined the armed resistance, participating in everything from civil disobedience to attacks against Russian and separatist forces. He was captured in 2016 during a search of his car at a checkpoint that turned up a detonator used in a failed attempt on a Russian general’s life.

He says he was then held for over a year in the so-called Izolyatsia prison, a notorious detention facility set up under the self-declared, Kremlin-backed Donetsk People’s Republic. The UN has singled out the secret prison for “egregious violations” of human rights, and Holikov says, while there, he endured torture that included techniques that Ukrainian prosecutors and UN representatives told CBC News constitute a form of sexual violence.

A man with brown hair. He's wearing a blue sweater and black backpack.
Oleksii Holikov says he was captured from his eastern hometown and detained in 2016, and endured over a year of torture that included sexual violence at the hands of the Russians. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC News )

For Holikov, who was released in a prisoner exchange in 2017 and now lives in the western city of Lviv, the trauma of the sexual violence lingered much longer than the other punishments and humiliations he endured.

“With the torture, when the pain stops, it’s over,” he said. 

“Sexual violence is not suffered only in the body, but in the mind. It suffocates the brain.”

During his time in captivity, Holikov says, he was never raped but he was subjected to electric shocks using a Soviet-era machine known as TAPik. 

It’s a torture technique that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has said has been used on prisoners of war by both Russian and Ukrainan forces in the current war. 

Protesters wear gas masks as one prepares a petrol bomb. The building next to them is on fire.
Pro-Russian protester wearing gas masks storm a regional police building as one prepares a petrol bomb in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka, near Donetsk, on April 14, 2014. Oleksii Holikov returned to his hometown in 2014 when it was captured by Russia-backed separatists. (Alexey Kravtsov/AFP via Getty Images)

“An electrode was inserted into my anus,” Holikov said. “They started electrocuting. Then the same electrode was placed on my genitals and the current began to flow in the same way. I passed out, but my ears were already bleeding.”

CBC News was able to verify that Holikov was held in Izolyatsia from 2016 to 2017, but could not verify his account of what happened during that time. However, aspects of it are similar to cases documented by the OHCHR in interviews with former Ukrainian detainees. 

The UN special rapporteur on torture has said that if reports of Russian use of methods such as electric shocks, beatings, hooding and mock executions are verified, they could “amount to a pattern of state-endorsed torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Holikov says psychological support has been a critical resource for him and that the passing of time has helped more than anything else. But he worries that Ukrainian society is not yet prepared to accept the number of Ukrainians who will have survived such traumas. 

A brown chair sits in the middle of a purported torture facility. The door has been propped open.
Ukrainian authorities identified 35 torture facilities in the Kherson region alone. This one, 15 Pylypa Orlyka St., is just one such example. In other towns, police stations and restaurants were used for this purpose. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC News)

“Most men who have experienced this are afraid, and so they just keep quiet,” he said. “They do not speak to anyone about it, because they are afraid judgment will cause people to turn away from them. And they’re right to be afraid, because that’s what happens.”

Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer and head of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, agrees these collective traumas pose a threat to Ukrainians’ sense of community.

“The survivors of sexual violence feel shame. Their relatives, their neighbours feel guilt. And other members of the community feel fear that they can be subjected to the same treatment,” she said. “And that is why sexual violence is used like a tool to ruin the connection between people in a community and to decrease the possibility of this community resisting.”

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