Translated to English from pravda.com.ua
10,000 dead and more than 20,000 wounded. These are the consequences of the three year armed conflict in Ukraine.
Other figures remain in the shadows; for example, the number of victims of sexual violence committed by opposition forces.
Although the issue is ignored by authorities, sexual harassment, rape and genital mutilation have been reported to occur in secret places of detention and temporary military camps throughout the country.
LENA, 22, KIEV
When Lena (names have been changed) woke up, she saw nothing. She was blindfolded, with her hands tied behind her back.
The 22-year-old woman did not know where she was, but she heard noises and screams. There was a feeling that she was in a cellar. She was thirsty.
When the panic rose in her throat and became unbearable – she began to scream. A guard entered the room and began to beat her with the butt of his weapon until she stopped.
The next day, the journalist was not given any food or water. She screamed again, and again was beaten by the guard.
Sometimes he would hold her down and injected her with a needle. The injection caused Lena to sweat profusely and soon lost “all sense of time.”
When she was not being abused, she replayed all the facts in her head. She knew that for journalists, especially coming from Kiev, it was risky to go to separatist controlled Donetsk.
At the time she though “If no one will go to Donetsk, the world would not know what is going on there”, – she thought to herself. But she could not imagine that this trip would change her life completely.
Project Zero Impunity contacted Lena through the lawyer defending former prisoners unoccupied territories of Ukraine.
After what had happened to her, the young journalist fled Ukraine and now lives in Germany.
She never told anyone the details of what happened to her during detention – neither human rights activists or doctors who treated her in Ukraine and in Germany.
However, on October 24th 2016 the young woman, with hesitation, shared her story over Skype with Zero Impunity.
After a few days spent tied up in the cellar, Lena was taken for her first “interrogation”, behind closed doors.
Tension in the room reached new heights when interrogators found pictures taken at the Euromaidan on her camera.
During the interrogation the interrogators turned into tormentors. They started to beat Lena in the head and in the stomach. Not only with their fists, but also with her camera.
The message was clear: this is the price you pay for such photos.
But even that was not enough, to force Lena to –speak, simply because she did not have any relevant information for them. To get her to talk, they threatened another prisoner: “If you do not answer, he’ll pay!”
Each interrogation lasted two to three hours. The whole time, blows rained down on Lena.
Most of all she was afraid of being raped, more than the ruthless beatings she endured. At first, when they would touch her, she would freeze in horror.
“When I was in the cell, the guards touched my hair, stroked me. Sometimes they would say something like,”Com one, we just want to play!” One day, during an interrogation one of them unbuttoned my blouse. He put one hand on my cheek, . another on my body. I was scared to death,- says journalist.
Almost two weeks passed before one morning Elena woke up without a blindfold. Several guards took her to a room, which she had never seen before.
In the center of the room on the floor was a mattress, on it was sitting one of the lead interrogators. The soldiers pushed her into the room.
“Here’s a woman for fun” – they said.
Lena begged them not to touch her, but to no avail. Three or four soldiers began to remove her clothes.
“Sweating, they started to rape me. First were the men wearing black. Then the men wearing green uniforms.“, – she said.
On the other side of the screen Lena stops, takes a drink of water. Taking a deep breath, she begins to speak again, her voice falters:
“On that day there were at least eight men. I lost consciousness several times. To bring me back to my senses, they poured on me a bucket of cold water.”
Lena says that the men in black were Russian or Chechen, judging by his accent. The green uniforms were Ukrainian nationals.
“They came and went. They would blow marijuana smoke in my face, so to wake me. The whole time they were laughing and listening to music.”
When it was over, the rapists left Lena in the room. She did not move, her battered body lay half-naked on the cold floor. They brought her food, which she didn’t eat and clothes she refused to wear. When they took her back to her cell, the sun had already set.
The next day, Lena was released.
Why had they waited until the last day to rape her? Lena replayed over and over in her head what she heard during the interrogation.
“They said that no one wanted to pay a ransom for me, neither my family nor country. I was of no interest to them: no information, no money … ” – said the journalist.
Perhaps they wanted her to pay in another way?
Or the separatists wanted to “break” her, to ensure she never came back to the region with her camera to document what is happening in the separatist territory?
Almost three years after the incident, the formerly ideological journalist is now only a shadow of her former self. She does not know if she will ever have answers.
RAPE AS A WEAPON OF WAR
What happened to Lena is far from an isolated incident in the conflict tearing apart Ukraine for the last three years.
The number of cases of sexual violence has increased dramatically.
According to the report, “Unspoken pain”, published last February by the “Justice for Peace in the Donbass” Coalition (one of the few organizations that are engaged in this issue), about a third of all respondents (including civil and detained soldiers) refer to cases of sexual violence.
“Despite the shocking scale of such violence, the government continues to gloss over and ignore this issue “, – say the report’s authors.
Severity of the violence committed against women and men, in the spring of 2014 until the summer of 2015, is shocking.
Acts of sexual violence, committed in the conflict-torn Ukraine, range from intimidation and genital electrocution to rape.
The authors of the report “Unspoken pain” have the testimony of two women who had their chests pierced with a screwdriver, and a man who was anally raped with an electrical drill.
According to a study conducted by Zero Impunity, and the first published reports on the subject, such acts of violence occur most frequently in illegal detention centers, which are located in former prisons, military or administrative buildings, confiscated plants, former schools or abandoned cellars.
Victim profiles vary widely. Victims include participants of armed battles, elected officials of the opposition, and anyone suspected as a Ukrainian National sympathizer.
Reporters are also targets, along with ethnic religious and sexual minorities.
Some of the prisoners are ordinary people, who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Very few female prisoners, and even fewer men, dare to tell what happened to them.
“For many of the victims who refuse to talk about sexual violence it is still too soon,” – says Anna Mokrousova, a psychologist who works with the “Blue Bird“, a public organization, which offers support for ex-prisoners. She interviewed more than 300 former civilian prisoners.
Mokrousova, a former captive herself, was herself threatened with rape during her detention. She says that Ukrainian society, deeply shocked by the war, is not ready to hear such stories.
“Society is unable to accept these victims” said the psychologist.
She stresses that only the instances which can be used as propaganda are publicly revealed, and the majority of real cases are barely acknowledged.
Naturally, the Ukrainian conflict is taking place not only at the front lines, but also in the media. To win people’s hearts and minds, the media on both sides, distorts the narrative about the combatants’ use of rape as a weapon of war.
Pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian websites frequently publish articles about enemies who conduct sexual torture, carry out mass rape, and rape minors. Such stories are told in detail, illustrated with staged graphic photos, , and backed by false testimony of “victims” who are paid by the authors of these reports.
Such propaganda is actively spreading via social networks, with an extensive role played by an army of trolls, working for Moscow. They sow hatred and discredit the online pages of real victims.
But the reality is sometimes worse than fictional propaganda. And although it seems that the number of rapes in separatists-controlled territory has increased dramatically, the other side of the front line, in territories controlled by Kiev’s forces, has also committed terrible acts of violence.
CONSUMED BY GUILT
Zero Impunity met Vadim (name changed) on October 7th, 2016 in a dark corner of an empty pub in the center of the Ukrainian capital.
A veteran of the Ukrainian battalion, he looks thin and pale, his head shaved bald. Vadim nervously drinks coffee with cream.
Arranging an interview with him was not easy. Vadim is afraid of retaliation from the members of his former battalion, if they find out that he gave an account of what he saw.
It has been almost three years, but he has yet to recover from the violence witnessed.
Vadim, who was furious with the Russian annexation of Crimea, joined the conflict as a volunteer in the early summer of 2014. After a short stay in another unit, he switched to “Aydar“, aUkrainian volunteer battalion with a particularly bad reputation.
At that time, these units played an increasingly important role in the protection of Ukraine, who’s official army was badly disorganized, understaffed and deeply corrupt.
He began serving in the battalion “Aydar” in the town of Schastya a few miles from the unofficially established front lines. Vadim was appointed as a guard at the base, which was located on the territory of the former police academy. His task was to monitor the temporary prison, located on the base. He was immediately confused by the actions that occurred in the buildings.
“When the soldiers returned from the front, they were in a state of shock and is often intoxicated. They went to the jail in the basement to”Blow off steam “on the prisoners “” – the man recounts.
Vadim’s task was to monitor the temporary prison, located on the base.
While working as a security guard, shift after shift, Vadim witnessed acts of inhuman violence, but could do nothing stop it. He heard the screams and the sound of blows through the doors. But one cry he will never forget.
As the only guard on duty in a building that, he was told held a woman suspected of being an enemy sniper, because when captured, she was “wearing a hooded sweatshirt.”
The narrative of female snipers appears in many conflicts of the former Soviet Union. Very often, women were falsely accused of being snipers, and raped as punishment.
A “Commander” entered the building one day;
Vadim pauses to clear his throat.
“A few minutes later I heard a woman scream,” No, no! Do not do this “- he recalls.
Sounds coming through the door left no doubt that what was happening behind it.
“I’m sure she was raped,” , says Vadim. He saw her the next day and noticed that she had “difficulty walking.”
The guilt has plagued Vadim for three years. He often thinks about what he could have done to stop what he heard.
Vadim hopes to be able to make amends, and to one day testify before an international tribunal, to the basic elements of the crime he witnessed; to reveal names, dates and details.
It is critical that in this long-awaited tribunal, are considered not only crimes committed against prisoners.
One place in the conflict zone where women are subjected to extreme pressure are checkpoints.
According to several interviews conducted by Zero Impunity, checkpoint soldiers, at times force women to provide sexual services to pass through checkpoints.
In February 2017, a report was published by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on sexual violence in Ukraine.
It describes the story of a woman who was a victim of gang rape after a routine stop at a checkpoint in Donetsk controlled by the separatist battalion “Vostok“. She was accused of violating the curfew.
“ She was taken to what appeared to be a police station, occupied by the separatist battalion, and for three hours was beaten with an iron rod and raped by several people. “, according to the UN report.
They released her the next day.
PROSTITUTION AS A MEANS OUT OF POVERTY
Not far from Donetsk is the small town of Krasnogorovka.
The territory of Donetsk is controlled by Ukrainian forces but the border with the separatists is just three kilometers away.
The whole city is covered with the scars of war: windows smashed, destroyed roofs, bullet pierced walls. The sound of artillery gunfire cab be heard and, and the city is teeming with soldiers.
One morning in mid-October 2016 Zero Impunity attended a small social event organized for the local youth community volunteers.
There, we talked with one of the volunteers, Elena Kosinova, who in a low tone told of many people in the village who are forced to prostitute themselves to soldiers.
According Kosinova, at highest risk are the “poorly protected women”, including “single mothers, who fell upon hard times” and “girls from “bad families “who may not even have needed the money, but at simply needed food.”
Kosinova notes that ‘prostitution of poverty’ is mostly “non-violent“.
In one of the parks in Kiev, we met with Ilia Bogdanov, a former member of the FSB (Russian intelligence), who changed sides to join the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist paramilitary group “Right Sector“.
During the conversation, he notes that many terrible deeds are largely explained by alcoholism, reigning at the front lines. Describing the area where the conflict takes place, Bogdanov is not shy in his description. According to him, this is a place where “13 or 14 year old girls are drinking with soldiers, who in the end have their way with them, in spite of still being children the field commanders turn a blind eye to it.”
According to the 2016 report, “In Search of Justice“, published by the Center for Civil Liberties in Kiev, the Ukrainian side of the front-line region is only at a 30% policing capacity by regular police forces.
Even in areas with existing police stations, it is unlikely that a girl from Krasnogorovka, or for that matter the majority of victims of sexual violence in Ukraine, would file a formal complaint with them. The fear of reprisal and a sense of shame are too strong. Even before the recent armed conflict, victims of violence were not eager to speak out.
“Our country has a very strong culture of blaming the victimPeople will say that it’s your fault you were dressed inappropriately, should not have drank so much“, says Anastasia Melnichenko, a 30-year-old Ukrainian activist.
A few years ago Melnichenko experienced sexual assault. In 2016, she launched a campaign on Social Networks under the hashtag #yaneboyusyakazaty, as a way of starting a discussion around this prohibited topic.
However, even Melnichenko has little hope for change.
“The only way to prevent rape and sexual aggression, is not to be born a woman” she said.
And for those who dare to report sexual assault to local police, find that completing a formal rape report often turns into a nightmare. Police officers in Ukraine are themselves often guilty of sexual crimes. Accused officers and men often pressure victims, to retract their statements.
After her release, Lena, the Ukrainian journalist who was held captive and raped in Donetsk, went straight to the police station in the breakaway region, to repot the assault.
Nothing during the process added to her confidence, but she “pulled herself together” and described all that had happened to her, “except for the rape.”
The lieutenant listened to her, with a contemptuous smile, and said: “We cannot help you with anything.”
When she asked to use the phone to call friends or family, she was refused and shown the door.
Lena’s fruitless and painful visit to police in Donetsk took place in the spring of 2014. Since then, little has changed in the area, now officially controlled by Moscow backed separatists. Hope that victims of sexual violence receive any justice or compensation, remains bleak.
In the “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic” Ukrainian civic structures and administration are no longer active. They were gradually replaced by a parallel justice system, which lacks qualified personnel, financing and transparency.
For many activists, it explains why, in spite of the fact that sexual crimes were committed on both sides of the front, it seems that on the separatist side they occur more frequently.
“Since the beginning of the conflict the separatist territory has been controlled by armed forces and organized crime, and the Ukrainian territory controlled by the central authorities, there is still a functioning state system and Prosecutors continue their work. In separatist territories, torture – including sexual violence – are a policy instrument designed to intimidate the population” , says Vladimir Shcherbachenko, coordinator of the report “Unspoken pain.”
As part of this investigation, Zero Impunity requested permission to enter Donetsk and Luhansk. The authorities of the “DNR” and “LNR” refused access without further explanation.
ANNA, 17, KIEV REGION
And what about the areas that are controlled by Kiev?
In these zones, the level of impunity may be lower, but the authorities are still not in a position to offer real justice to victims, particularly in cases where the perpetrators are part of the Ukraine armed forces . For example, the case of the rape of 17-year-old Anna (name changed).
Rain is drumming on the roof, as we speak in a parked car at her hostel on the outskirts of Kiev. The young girl, with long blond hair and a gentle disposition, feels betrayed after a formal decision in a Kiev court in the region Ivankov. The court sentenced the rapist to a 2 year suspended sentence, and a fine of about 100 euros for anal rape.
According to Ukrainian law, anal rape is not considered rape. The maximum penalty, according to the criminal code, is 3 years, compared with 7 to 12 years for the rape of a minor.
The man who abused Anna was a soldier and served in one of the border units. He took part in the fighting on the East front, but at the time of the incident was in Mlachevka, a village, where Anna grew up, and which is located 100 kilometers from Kiev.
The verdict against the man who attacked Anna, passed on June 10, 2016, includes a list of mitigating circumstances, including “participation in anti-terrorist operations in the East.”
This decision demonstrates that the authorities in Kiev are ready to forgive the crimes committed in the country, by those whom they consider heroes in the national struggle.
Anna’s was not the only case, which fell into the hands of Ukrainian judges. About a dozen members of the battalion “Tornado” are being prosecuted for several crimes committed in the East, including sexual violence.
The military prosecutor has focused his prosecution strategy on the accusations of sexual abuse and seems to want to make an example of this case.
However, the task will not be easy. Often, protesters disrupt hearings of these specific cases, to put pressure on judges. The case against the battalion “Tornado” was no exception.
“The national spirit is very strong (in Ukraine). In a situation like this, when a country is attacked by a neighboring state, those who defend their homeland are national heroes.“, says Simon Papuashvili, a coordinator of the NGO International Partnership for Human Rights.
However, the public prosecutor appealed Anna’s case. The latter decision stayed the two-year probationary period, but increased the fine to 3,500 Euros.
At first, Anna’s family had hoped to challenge the ruling.
“We are exhausted, my daughter is no longer able to endure this process“, said Anna’s mother in early March.
On October 12, 2016, Zero Impunity contacted the judge who handed down the controversial decision, but he declined to comment on his decision.
Central authorities seem to be more concerned to bring to justice those responsible for crimes in the conflict zone, despite the February 2016 adoption of a national action plan to strengthen the protection of women in times of armed conflict.
Statistics, provided in November 2016 by the Attorney General’s office, speak for themselves. – All of 7 investigations into cases of sexual violence, related to the Ukrainian conflict, occurred. Three were closed due to lack of evidence.
For its part, the coalition “Justice for Peace in the Donbass” has compiled a list of more than 200 victims.
When we asked, the office of the Attorney General confirmed that a preliminary investigation, against the last soldier suspected of committing rape, was launched February 7, 2017.
Is it possible that the Ukrainian authorities simply do not see the point of further investigation?
Testimony of a former prisoner who spent time in the SBU jail, say that the Ukrainian secret services themselves are not without sin.
According to a recent report by the UN, “sexual violence is most often committed against persons, especially women, held by Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and volunteer battalions .”
On the other side of the front lines, the secret service, in particular the Russian secret service, are also involved. In the testimony of a man who was held captive by separatists, there is mention of the presence of “FSB members” in a place where “sexual crimes were committed” and where “they availed the services of prostitutes.”
ALICE, THE INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT, THE WAR THEATER
In the wilderness justice looms on the horizon only as a faint semblance of hope: hope of international justice.
This is the hope with which Alice lives. Three years ago, the young journalist, was raped in Kramatorsk, by a man who said he was a former Russian officer.
Zero Impunity met with Alice in her Kiev apartment on October 9th, 2016.
Showing rare courage during our time in Ukraine, Alice wants everyone to know about what happened to her. She hopes that one day her case will receive a hearing in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
“If I can do that, it is not for personal revenge, but for all the girls who have experienced the same situation“, she says.
Of the 3000 cases of violation of human rights in Ukraine, which are currently in review before the ECHR, not one is related to sexual violence.
Alice’s case, theoretically, will be the first. Presently, the ECHR cannot arrest those convicted, and victims do not get any reparations.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is the only court which can adjudicate war criminals who cannot, be tried in their home countries.
For Alice, a large-scale international court is the only way out. The structure of justice in Ukraine, and the fact that authorities in Kiev do not have access to the occupied territories, leaves no doubt that the only way to achieve justice is to attract international players.
But whether it will be an effective solution, only time will tell. Despite the fact that Ukraine has not yet adopted the Rome Statute (Statute, adopted by the International Criminal Court), the International Criminal Court still has the right to investigate crimes on the territory of Ukraine (including the separatist regions), regardless of what nationality is subject to investigation: Ukrainian, Russian, etc.
Knowing this, some activists have collected testimonies of victims of sexual abuse and started their transfer to the ICC. In an email dated March 9, 2017, the ICC announced that they have “any actual decisions about the alleged behaviour has not been made”
The likelihood that the case will be scheduled for trial is very low, mainly due to the extremely long waiting period. On average, for a case to proceed to court, it takes about 10 years.
“ It’s a long process, it may take ten or twenty years, but if all goes well, we can get a warrant for Vladimir Putin’s arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity.”, says Papuashvili, coordinator of the NGO International Partnership for Rights person.
Papuashvili has already helped to bring to the attention of the ICC about 300 cases, including those related to torture not of a sexual nature, and now has over 400 in the works.
” However, there remains the problem that Russia, as a non-state party, is not obliged to cooperate with the ICC and, accordingly, in cases in which arrest warrants will be issued by the ICC against Russian citizens, Russia is likely to refuse to extradite its citizens to this court, in which case the court has no authority to act, “- continues Papuashvili.
According to Alexander Pavlichenko, one of the authors of the report “Unspoken pain,” Russia has already begun a sweep among the separatists.
More and more separatist leaders disappear under “mysterious circumstances” which Pavlichenko says are “thinly disguised acts by Russia in the history of personnel cleanup.”
He fears that all the criminals “will disappear in the next two years, and with them any chance to learn the truth.”
To break the silence that surrounds sexual violence, Alice has created a theatrical performance.
But Alice is not one to despair. She decided to take action.
To break the silence that surrounds sexual violence, she created a theatrical performance that has been performed twice in Ukraine and once in Berlin.
In this work, she presents her own incarceration, including the rape. She goes so far as to remove all her clothes on stage. This is a very powerful experience … not only for her.
“Some in the audience openly cry. In time, the atrocities of this war will cease to become just numeric figures. It’s here, in the theater, that you can feel how real they are. ” ,she says.
Ilone Schultz , Marie-Aliks Detri (Maria Varennikova) for “UP.Zhizn”
“Ukrainian Truth” cooperates with the international project the Zero Impunity . This transmedia project, which aims to documentation and exposure of impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence during the current armed conflict.
Along with many international media, “Ukrain’ska Pravda” published an investigative reporter, which explains how the “impunity” occurs in our institutions, international organizations and armies.
The Project was created by activists documentary makers Nicolas Bliss, Stefan Hubert-Blyth and Marion Gout of a_BAHN , and based in results of investigations, it continues to operate in civic activities.
Since September of this year, the project will give everyone the opportunity to use a “virtual” tool to help put pressure on the Ukrainian government and international organizations.
You can already support their civil position and sign the petition, which calls for the rule of law and to help war victims achieve justice.
Every vote counts. Together, we are changing the world!
Translated for Zebra News by Anna L.