Four years into war, widespread sexual violence continues to haunt much of eastern Ukraine.
In the legal vacuum created by the conflict between Ukraine’s army and pro-Russian separatists no one is safe from grave human rights violations—including sexual violence.
In July 2014, Gayde Rizaeva, a 36-year old Ukrainian mother, says she was walking down the road with her three colleagues carrying supplies to troops when a car pulled up alongside them. Bags were suddenly thrown over their heads, and they were dragged into the back of the car.
Rizaeva and her three male friends had been abducted by pro-Russian militants and taken to the nearest base in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), where they were locked inside a temporary prison and accused of being snipers for the Ukrainian army.
During their torture, she says, militants demanded to know the location of Ukrainian military bases. She was forced to watch as her male colleagues were stripped and raped, but that she herself was spared that assault.
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Four months pregnant at the time, she says that she was beaten so severely that she miscarried during the attack. "I cried, I begged, I prayed for them to stop hurting me."
After 98 days in isolation, Rizaeva and the others were freed in a prisoner swap.
The Ukrainian war erupted in March 2014 in the aftermath of a large wave of protests—the Euromaidan movement—demanding closer integration with Europe. It has since claimed over 10,000 lives including almost 3,000 civilians, and more than 1.7 million have been displaced, according to the United Nations.
Sexual violence—including rape, sexual slavery, and forced prostitution—is a common method of torture in Ukraine’s conflict zone, according to local NGO Justice for Peace in Donbas (JPD). One in three women and one in four men have suffered or witnessed sexual violence at the hands of officers on both sides of the conflict, JPD documented in a December 2017 report based on 300 interviews with survivors and witnesses.
Human rights organizations disagree over the extent to which sexual violence can be considered a weapon of war in Ukraine. While EUCCI says it has been used "consciously and deliberately" as a form of torture and political intimidation to achieve victory in the conflict, a 2016 UN monitoring mission report concluded that it found no evidence of either side using it systematically for strategic ends.
But political ideology is said to be a strong motivation for the sexual violence. "Officers sexually violated prisoners in front of others as a warning of what would happen if they continued to have the same ideas about their country’s future," says Hanna Yanova, the co-author of JPD’s report.
Sometimes politics has nothing to do with it, says Anna Mokrousova, a psychologist and the head of the Ukrainian NGO Blue Bird. Mokrousova has been abducted and threatened with rape herself. "A lot of the time what prisoners come face to face with is sheer cruelty," she said, and it appears that in some cases, sexual violence has been used to extort money and property.
Irina Dovgan, a Ukrainian former prisoner of war abducted in August 2014, was threatened with rape if she did not give her bank details. She told Broadly about the moment her captors pressed her face down against the floor of her cell. "How should we rape you?" they asked her. "How many people do you want? Ten, twenty? There are a lot of us here."
Dovgan managed to escape sexual violence by handing over the information they demanded. Her family lost almost $7,000 in savings.
"At the beginning of the conflict especially, soldiers were uninhibited by any laws and they did awful things just to feel a rush of power," said Evgen Shlyakhtin, a Ukrainian ex-prisoner of war from Lugansk.
JPD and the UN agree that sexual violence—like many other human rights violations in Ukraine’s war—is fueled by a culture of impunity and silence.
"Many people do not report the violence, especially as the war is still going on, because they’re afraid of reprisals and the stigma attached to rape," says Yanova.
The reluctance to report sexual violence is often exacerbated by government institutions, whose actions betray a legacy of implicitly or explicitly accepting or ignoring such incidents.
According to the UN, by the end of 2016, Ukraine’s Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office had launched only three criminal proceedings involving allegations of conflict-related sexual violence. The military prosecutor’s office said the cases have been closed due to lack of evidence, and derided allegations of impunity as "unjustified rumors," Newsweek reported.
"I don’t think I’ll ever get over the trauma of what happened, I’m just learning how to live with it."
Last July, a former soldier convicted of violently raping a 16-year-old girl received a suspended sentence as the judge considered his military service in Donbas an extenuating circumstance. The rapist’s four-year suspended sentence with a two-year probation period sparked indignation among human rights organizations in Ukraine, which held it up as an example of the widespread impunity surrounding rape.
"I don’t think I’ll ever get over the trauma of what happened, I’m just learning how to live with it," said Rizaeva. She considers rehabilitation programs for ex-prisoners of war "absolutely necessary."
But former prisoners of war currently have limited access to medical and social assistance.
"Most survivors are displaced people, without housing, without work, without all the essential things, and with a lot of health problems. They do not receive any help from the state at all," says Mokrousova.
Today, practically all programs of psychological assistance and social rehabilitation are carried out by NGOs and volunteers.
Rizaeva, now living in Kiev with her 17-year-old son, refuses to be crushed and silenced by her experience. In her current job, she helps to coordinate exchanges between Ukrainian and Russian prisoners.
"I’m very proud of myself for being so strong," she says. "They didn’t manage to destroy my love for life, my love for my country, and my love for people."