When war came to the Ukrainian village of Malaya Rohan on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Olha and her family fled to the basement of a local school.
There were about 40 of them, mostly women and children, and as the days passed the group stayed hidden in fear, surviving as best they could while fighting raged above them.
On March 13, about two weeks after the Russian army entered Olha’s village, there was the sound of windows breaking at the entrance to the school. The door to their hiding place was smashed down and in the broken frame, a Russian soldier stood with his assault rifle and a pistol.
The basement that had sheltered Olha, her five-year-old daughter and others from the village for so many days had been discovered.
WARNING: This story contains details that may distress some readers.
The soldier told the group to line up and then began to give orders: one of the few men in the group was singled out to take the soldier to find food. When they returned, Olha was told to hand over her daughter. She refused. Instead, the soldier walked up to her and demanded she leave her daughter with the group and follow him.
They went up to the second floor of the school and into an abandoned classroom. The soldier pointed one of his guns at Olha and told her to undress. He shot into the ceiling, pushed the barrel of the gun into her temple for “motivation”, Olha says, as he forced her to perform oral sex. Then he raped her.
Later, when Olha was putting on her clothes, the soldier told her his name and that he was Russian and was 20 years old. “He told me I reminded him of a girl he went to school with,” Olha says.
Then he raped her again, dragging a knife across her cheeks and throat; using it to slice off chunks of her hair. After that, he beat Olha’s face and body with a school textbook.
The next day, the soldier left.
How many Ukrainian women are being raped?
Across Ukraine, accounts of rape by Russian soldiers are growing.
Last month the trial of the first Russian soldier to be charged with rape as a war crime began in a Kiev court. It could be the first of hundreds of such cases.
By early last month the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had received 124 official reports of alleged sexual violence committed across Ukraine during the war.
Yet the real statistics are almost certainly far higher, and all but impossible to quantify.
“To investigate sexual crimes … when we are still in the military conflict, is very difficult. The victims are actually scared,” Ukraine’s prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova has said.
As a result, Natalia Karbowska from the NGO Ukrainian Women’s Fund, describes sexual violence in war as “the most hidden crime”.
Olha, 31, whose real name is suppressed, revealed her story to researchers from Human Rights Watch who are active in Ukraine documenting sites of suspected sexual violence, interviewing witnesses and victims.
Their job is a race against time.
A vast majority of cases are likely to remain unrecorded because the victims have fled the war or have not had an opportunity to report their experiences; because they have since died; because the shame and trauma they feel makes it too difficult to talk about it out loud.
The urgency remains, not just to encourage victims to speak out, but to document their stories before the evidence left behind is lost forever.
Yet even with carefully documented evidence, the path to a successful prosecution is far from straightforward.
Could Vladimir Putin be held accountable?
As stories of sexual violence mount it’s reasonable to ask what vulnerable women will gain in recounting their trauma? In the chaos of war, can anyone be held accountable?
Sexual violence is one of the most common crimes in a conflict zone, classified by international law under three of the most serious categories: a war crime, a crime against humanity and an act of genocide.
Yet while sexual violence in war in has been officially condemned since 1863’s Leiber Code, 1907’s Hague Convention, and again in 1949’s Geneva Convention — which was signed by Russia — it was 1993 before rape was recognised as a crime against humanity and 1998 before it was classified as a war crime by the statute of the International Criminal Court. In 2008 the UN Security Council listed sexual violence as a war crime, crime against humanity and act of genocide.
For rape to constitute a war crime it must have taken place during an armed conflict. Under this definition individual soldiers — like the soldier who assaulted Olha — can be prosecuted.
Some international law experts have expressed concern that rushing to hold trials during hostilities is unwise.
Sara Meger, a lecturer in international relations and specialist in sexual violence during conflict at the University of Melbourne, believes the reports of sexual violence gathered so far in Ukraine are likely to lead to war crimes convictions down the track.
“War crimes include [things like] wilful inhuman treatment and serious injury to civilians, regardless of military strategy. So any commission of rape by a member of the armed forces while on active duty would, I believe, fit the definition of war crime,” she says.
For rape to be judged a crime against humanity — in which senior Russian commanders or even Vladimir Putin himself can be accused despite never setting foot on the battlefield — it must be linked to a widespread or systematic attack against civilians.
For it to be considered genocide, intent to destroy a population must be proven.
Lawyers and human rights groups are already investigating whether Russia can be accused of weaponising rape in Ukraine, but identifying victims and offenders is complex. The burden of proof is rigorous. In the anarchy of a war zone, when evidence can be quickly lost in the next atrocity and victims or witnesses flee without trace, pinning down the facts to a standard acceptable in an international courtroom can be insurmountable.
Yet support for an international trial to prosecute war crimes in Ukraine – including sexual violence — is building.
These alleged crimes are most likely to be heard in the International Criminal Court, set up in 2002 to try the world’s worst war criminals.
“Individual cases of war crimes are very unlikely to be prosecuted by the ICC or any international tribunal,” Meger says. “Usually, these tribunals go after the ‘big fish’ and seek to establish a pattern of command responsibility for the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”
While individual cases of rape – like the soldier to abused Olha – are unlikely to make it to the ICC, sexual violence that could be classified a crime against humanity or genocide could get a hearing there.
In readiness, the ICC has opened a formal inquiry and sent it’s largest-ever team to Ukraine, describing the country as a “crime scene”. The UK announced in April it would send a team to Ukraine to contribute to investigations, with a special emphasis on allegations of rape as war crimes. The inquiry has the support of the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
However it’s worth noting that the US, Russia and Ukraine are not members of the ICC. Ukraine has, however, given permission for the court to investigate war crimes on its territory.
Ensuring evidence is scrupulously collected and analysed, and negotiating the ICC’s jurisdiction over war crimes committed on Ukrainian territory, means the process for stacking up a case will be slow.
And as they document evidence, researchers and lawyers are not only searching for living victims. The dead can share their stories too.
Evidence remaining on bodies gathered from mass graves in Ukraine often display injuries suggesting some women were raped before being killed.
Rape in war is ‘almost inevitable’
As Sara Meger watches the war unfold from Australia she is resigned but unsurprised by accounts emerging from Ukraine’s conflict zone. Rape has always been a feature of war, she says.
“When you have got full mobilisation of armies and invading men it’s almost inevitable that there will be sexual violence perpetrated against civilian women,” she says, noting men and boys have also reported being victims of sexual violence in war.
During World War II, Korean women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese and Stalin’s troops were accused of rape as they took Berlin. More recently, rape camps were a feature of war in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.
The examples across time and geography are just too numerous to list here comprehensively. They include Rwanda, Myanmar, Colombia, Afghanistan, East Timor and involve allegations against US, British and Australian troops, too.
In Ukraine, stories of war crimes perpetrated by Ukrainian troops are also slowly coming to light.
Meger’s research a decade ago took the Democratic Republic of Congo as its case study, examining not just the assaults carried out during that war but how sexual violence became embedded in the political economy of the country. Women were encouraged to report rape as one of few avenues to access help and in turn armed groups noted its impact and were encouraged to use rape as a tactic to instil fear.
Why do soldiers rape?
Rape used to be viewed as an unavoidable by-product of military culture in which soldiers are socialised through notions of masculinity, virility and hyper-sexuality, Meger says. It’s still a valid analysis.
“You see it in military chants and cultural mores around the military and through this process men are socialised to believe their status is tied to the performance of masculinity, which is also sexualised,” she says
Within the military, elite troops invested with a sense of being above the law, are statistically most likely to perpetrate atrocities, Meger says: “We saw that with our own special forces in Afghanistan.”
Research on sexual violence during conflict has found rape occurs in two broad contexts.
First is straightforward opportunism, in which sexual ownership of [most commonly] women becomes part of the so-called spoils of war. In the chaos of conflict, women were viewed as the property of invaders, and sexual violence takes place in the moment, says Meger.
Rape carried out perhaps by a renegade soldier is probable in Ukraine, Meger believes.
“To rape the women of [your enemy] can be effective in reinforcing a sort of cultural dominance,” Meger says. “I think that helps us understand why invading forces rape, not out of sexual desire, but a kind of anger or hatred element behind how they treat civilians.”
The second category is more complicated to prove. For sexual violence to be categorised as a crime against humanity or genocide, it must be shown to be strategic and a deliberate tool of military planning used to dehumanise and destroy culture and morale in the opponent.
Successfully arguing in the ICC, for example, that rape violates these laws of war, rests on proving sexual violence in Ukraine has been weaponised and linking it to a chain of Russian military command.
Known as “command responsibility”, it must be proven that Russia’s military command knew or had reasonable expectation to know how soldiers were acting on the ground and were in a position to prevent it.
If this can be shown then international law can build a case arguing Moscow, a specific commander, or even Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, should be held accountable for genocide, human rights abuses and war crimes.
Has sexual violence been weaponised?
The stories emerging from Ukraine create an overwhelming suspicion that Russia’s military has weaponised sexual violence.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been quoted as saying that “What we’ve seen in Bucha is not the random act of a rogue unit, this is a deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape, to commit atrocities.”
But most international leaders have stopped short of outright accusing Russia of using sexual violence as genocide or a crime against humanity, instead waiting for the evidence to be gathered.
Meger agrees it is vital to see what has been corroborated to implicate Russian troops in a deliberate strategy of rape in Ukraine.
Just as Blinken highlighted the horrific battles around Bucha as a potential location for these crimes, Meger notes the area around Mariupol, where there have been heavy Russian troop losses and intense battles, as a possible location to find evidence for rape as a weapon of war.
“We often see sexual violence used against civilians almost like retribution,” she says. “Trying to undermine the morale of the national armed forces.”
A poor track record for prosecuting rape
Having law onside is crucial, yet few attempts to prosecute sexual violence in conflict zones have been successful.
The legal framework governing these crimes can be complex. Prior to 2002 individual tribunals were set up to conduct trials following wars in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia, for example. These had some success in prosecuting sexual violence.
In Rwanda 12 people were prosecuted for rape, and 30 Serbian military in Yugoslavia. But the relatively small number of convictions, in the face of many, many thousands of reported victims of sexual violence, underscores the difficulty of achieving legal redress.
But in July 2002 this tribunal system was replaced with the International Criminal Court, established to investigate and try genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.
Yet over the 20 years of its existence the ICC has achieved only one successful prosecution including rape: Congolese military leader Bosco Ntaganda was convicted in 2019 and sentenced to 30 years prison for atrocities including murder, rape and the conscription of child soldiers.
The ICC’s landmark 2016 conviction of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, for war crimes and crimes against humanity including rape committed when he was a militia leader during the Second Congo War in 2002-2003, was sensationally overturned two years later.
It is against this background that Meger urges caution when linking evidence of horrific acts of rape and sexual violence in Ukraine with the legal label of genocide or crimes against humanity.
While Meger’s caution may feel counter to the over-riding narrative of support for Ukraine, her insistence on more evidence pre-empts the very high burden of proof that would be required if these cases were to reach the ICC where demonstrating command responsibility would be key.
“It is really unpopular to say in this particular political climate, but [the Ukrainian government] is likely to be aware of how emotive [accusing Russia of weaponising rape] might be,” she says. “Not that I want to suggest that they aren’t true. I just want to see more corroboration.”
Unsettlingly, Meger also argues that focusing on sexual violence can even increase the likelihood it will occur.
Invading forces are empowered to use war rapes as a military strategy because of the notoriety it brings, and how the fear it generates can be leveraged for power and control.
“What would I find convincing?” she asks of the situation in Ukraine. “If enough witnesses come forward with the same claims and if this is corroborated by an international fact-finding team. It’s about the credibility of the source.”
Australian women were once arrested for protesting war rape
Nadia Murad, a high-profile victim of sexual assault during the war in Iraq, has offered her expertise to researchers gathering evidence in Ukraine.
In 2014 Murad was kidnapped by members of Islamic State. She was held for three months – raped, beaten and burned with cigarettes – before escaping when a door was left unlocked.
Since then Murad has campaigned for the end of sexual violence as a weapon of war and was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.
Part of Murad’s human rights work has been to develop guidelines for collecting evidence of sex crimes in war that reduce the risk of further traumatising survivors.
“World leaders need to understand that whether it’s in Yemen or Ukraine or any other place, violence against women will occur and we should make sure that we have that in mind when planning to deal with these conflicts,” Murad said in an interview with Angelina Jolie.
Yet such high profile support for women victims of war rape was not always guaranteed.
In the early 1980s a group of Australian women who tried to raise the problem of sexual violence during war were arrested in Sydney.
At the Anzac Day parade in 1983 the Sydney Women Against Rape Collective hoped to join the march and bring attention to the numbers of women raped during conflict. Yet their application to march was rejected by police and the RSL. They marched anyway, walking silently through the city, dressed in black, before the official Anzac march began.
“We sang the Judy Small song ‘It’s not only men in uniform who pay the price of war’,” Meredith Burgmann – a former NSW Labor politician who marched with the group – wrote of the experience: “Most of us were very nervous about what we were about to do.”
The group was met by police officers and paddy wagons. They stopped marching and sat in the middle of the street. “We reminded each other to stay silent and be non-violent,” she wrote.
Their campaign is now commemorated at the Australian War Museum in Canberra, but on that day, 161 members of the group were arrested and accused of disrupting the event.
A parallel disaster is unfolding
Yet the suffering of women and children in war can sometimes feel endless.
As investigations into sexual violence in Ukraine take shape, a second tragedy is unfolding as women and children tryi to escape the conflict.
Evidence is growing that vulnerable women, often travelling alone, traumatised and caring for equally traumatised children, are being targeted by sex traffickers as they cross the borders and flee Ukraine.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has warned refugees risk being exploited.
Charli Carpenter, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst told Boston radio station WBUR that the risks facing Ukrainian women as they flee the war zone is heightened because men under 60 are required to stay and fight.
“If men, fathers in particular, are held back from travelling with their families, it puts women and children who are fleeing a war more greatly at risk of other forms of sexual violence and exploitation,” she says. “A lot of wartime sexual violence or conflict related sexual violence happens through trafficking networks, or other sorts of situations that women find themselves in as they are fleeing a war zone.”
Xanthe Mallett, a criminologist from the University of Newcastle who specialises in sex abuse and trafficking, agrees that the profile of Ukrainian women as they flee places them at high risk.
“This was just waiting to happen,” she says, pointing out many women will be in survival mode, willing to do almost anything to keep their children safe.
As they cross a border, disorientated, tired, some will be approached by strangers offering help.
“They’ll offer them food, they’ll probably offer them some warm clothing,” she says, noting some trafficking groups are making contact with Ukrainian refugees on social media before they reach the border, often using another woman as the link to lower suspicion. With no other support and in desperate circumstances it can be very easy to take a leap of faith.
“Nobody knows where they are or where they are going. These things, as they are crossing borders, mean we’ve got every factor that makes them vulnerable coming together,” Mallett says.
Mallett says evidence already suggests Ukrainian children are being picked up by European sex-trafficking rings and women are being forced into prostitution.
“These organised crime groups have extensive networks throughout Europe and they are attracting and selling people into sex-trafficking rings and also moving arms and drugs,” Mallett believes. “It’s all just part of the dark economy and the arrival of these women and children from Ukraine will be viewed as a new product to sell for financial return.”
For Ukraininan women and their children fleeing the conflict, the choices ahead of them are stark: leave Ukraine to escape fighting also requires facing the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
Mallett believes there is little choice. “If you are a woman in some parts of Ukraine now you have literally nothing except the clothes on your back,” she says. “What else are you going to do?”.
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