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Ukrainian women shared their accounts of rape by Russian forces. We found their assailants

by Olesia Bida and Myroslava Chaiun June 14, 2024 4:25 PM 10 min read
"He Came Back" is an investigative documentary about sexual violence committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. (The Kyiv Independent)
by Olesia Bida and Myroslava Chaiun June 14, 2024 4:25 PM 10 min read
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Editor’s Note: This story was produced in collaboration with the Organized Crime and Corruption and Reporting Project (OCCRP) and is published by both organizations. The story is based on the Kyiv Independent’s latest investigative documentary, “He Came Back.”

The day after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Maryna discovered she was expecting a boy. Fearing it might be the last time she would be able to get to a hospital, she queued for hours at checkpoints to attend the ultrasound appointment and learn the gender of her baby. She was 16 years old and five months pregnant.

There was no time to celebrate the news from the hospital scan – she had to decide where to shelter as the Russian troops rolled in. Fleeing to the tiny village of Krasnivka in the southern Kherson Oblast, where her mother lived, she hoped she would be safe. But the soldiers came.

In a powerful interview for a documentary from the Kyiv Independent, Maryna gives a chilling account of what happened next. (See all of the Kyiv Independent's investigative documentaries on Russian war crimes here.)

“When they entered the village, they asked us to come out from the cellar (where we were hiding) and told the girls like me, my sister, and another younger girl that we shouldn’t go out on the streets. Soldiers shouldn’t see us. Because some of them could rape us,” she said.

She describes how, days later, after troops attacked and interrogated residents, a drunk soldier started asking the ages of women and girls in the house where Maryna was sheltering. After taking her mother into another room briefly, Maryna says the soldier returned for her, took her into that room while her mother and the children in the house waited in the kitchen, and raped her.

“He said that if I resisted, he would shoot me. He also threatened me with his fists. I told him that I was pregnant and that I didn’t want anything, and he said: ‘Don’t be such a tease. If you don’t want to be with me I’ll call 20 people and you’ll be with everyone in turns. So choose, either be with me, or with them.’ I still remember this very foul-smelling alcohol breath. I tried to push him away, and even though he was drunk, he was stronger than me,” she said.

Screengrab from the "He Came Back" documentary. (The Kyiv Independent)

Maryna isn’t the woman’s real name. She used Maryna as a pseudonym in the film and asked for her identity to be concealed as she rebuilds her life in private. She is one of two women who give accounts of being raped by a soldier in the early weeks of the all-out invasion in the documentary, titled “He Came Back”. The film seeks to shine a light on sexual violence by Russian forces in Ukraine and to hold those responsible to account.

The other woman who speaks out in the film is Daria, a graphic designer in her 30s, who did not give her surname and asked for her identity to be protected. As the full-scale invasion began, she had fled with her boyfriend to Havronshchyna, a village of around 1,000 residents a short drive west of Kyiv, where her family had a house.

She describes how a soldier, who she remembers was always drunk, said he wanted to interrogate her about her phone and took her to a house away from her family. Once there, he sat her on a bed and told her to undress, she recalled.

“I realized that if I cried, or fought back in any way, he might get mad, and it could end up worse. So I just sort of put up with it, as if psychologically I had left my body,” Daria said.

Afterwards, he drove her home, where her family was waiting in the yard. “The worst moment wasn’t even when he brought me to that abandoned house, but when I saw my parents and the state they were in. They looked barely alive, very pale, barely able to stand. Of course, I didn’t tell them anything.” The same thing happened the next day, she said. After that, Russian soldiers began to withdraw from Havronshchyna and other Kyiv suburbs under mounting pressure from Ukrainian forces.

Screengrab from the "He Came Back" documentary. (The Kyiv Independent)

Reporters from the Kyiv Independent used testimony from Daria and Maryna as well as witness statements from villagers and military personnel to build a picture of the soldiers who committed the alleged rapes. They also identified the soldiers’ unit commanders, both of whom have gone on to be decorated by the Russian state. Their findings have been shared with investigators in Ukraine and abroad.

While reporters cannot quantify the extent to which sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war by Russian forces in Ukraine, psychologist Nataliia Potseluieva, who is working with survivors, paints a truly disturbing picture of the potential scale: In the film she describes how she has spoken to survivors between 5-years-old and 65-years-old, men and women.

A number of Ukrainian men have given accounts of being rounded up by Russian forces and held in detention centers in Russia or the occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine where they were subjected to horrific sexual violence, as reported by Slidstvo.info, a Ukrainian investigative journalism outlet.

Quest for justice

The UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, has publicly accused Russia of committing war crimes by using rape and other forms of sexual assault as part of its military strategy.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office has recorded almost 300 cases of sexual violence against Ukrainians by Russian forces since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, the majority in the same areas where Daria and Maryna were targeted. Two Russian military personnel have been convicted in absentia and another 42 soldiers charged.

Wayne Jordash, a British lawyer assisting Ukrainian prosecutors in investigating crimes by Russian-led forces, said the number of cases of sexual violence recorded by Ukrainian authorities could be the tip of the iceberg.

“Given what we can see about Russian behavior and the glimpses we see into the investigations, I’d be surprised if we weren’t talking about thousands of cases,” he said.

Anna Sosonska, a prosecutor who is heading Ukraine’s war crimes investigations department into sexual violence and also features in the Kyiv Independent’s documentary, said progress in the pursuit of justice in such cases is not only hampered by the war itself, but by the stigma around rape in Ukraine.

Anna Sosonska, Ukrainian prosecutor, head of Ukraine’s war crimes investigations. Screengrab from the "He Came Back" documentary. (The Kyiv Independent)

It is a thread that runs through Maryna’s own story. She describes how she did not want to report her rape, and that it was her mother who told Ukrainian police. “I thought about keeping silent and just forgetting it. (But) my mom could not live in peace,” she said.

As police have so far been unable to identify her attacker, reporters from the Kyiv Independent pieced together their own evidence.

They collected clues from Maryna’s recollection of the soldier’s first name and call sign “Synii” (which is the Russian and Ukrainian word for “blue”) interviews with villagers and military personnel, and references on social media to build up a profile of the man alleged to have raped Maryna, a Ukrainian national from the Donetsk Oblast with several criminal convictions, none for rape. The evidence suggested the man – Mykola Senenko – was a member of the 109th regiment of paramilitary forces from the Russian-controlled part of the Donetsk Oblast. The regiment spent the early weeks after the full-scale invasion stationed across the northern section of the Kherson Oblast, including Maryna’s village of Krasnivka.

A member of the regiment told the Kyiv Independent reporter posing as a Russian investigator that a soldier with the call sign Synii had been caught “near a naked girl” and been discharged. Maryna said that the same senior officer had offered to execute the soldier in front of her following the rape and she had refused. The village was liberated by Ukrainian troops soon after. Reporters have not been able to locate Senenko, whose social media activity ended in 2020.

Maryna and Daria each positively identified men in social media images found by reporters as the soldiers who raped them.

Daria said the soldier who raped her gave her his name: Nadbit Dabayev. Reporters confirmed that prosecutors in Ukraine are pursuing four other war crimes cases against Dabayev: one for the murder of a villager, one for the theft of a car, and the other two, brought by Daria’s family, for stealing Daria’s father’s car and subjecting the family to a mock execution. The soldier was formally charged with the crimes by the Kyiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office in April 2023.

Daria said rape is not among the charges because she feared exposing her father to the details of what happened to her if she pursued her case in Ukraine. She told reporters she had instead given testimony about the attack to investigators outside Ukraine.

Official documents filed by the Security Service of Ukraine when it opened its investigation show Dabayev was serving in the 37th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade. The 37th brigade, whose home base is in the Far Eastern Russian republic of Buryatia, led the ground assault on the Kyiv Oblast in the early days of the war. Of the 42 charges of sexual violence brought by Ukrainian prosecutors against Russian forces, 10 relate to soldiers from that brigade.

The members of the 37th brigade, whose home base is in the Far Eastern Russian republic of Buryatia. 37th brigade led the ground assault on the Kyiv Oblast in the early days of the full-scale Russian invasion. Screengrab from the "He Came Back" documentary. (The Kyiv Independent)

(A second Far Eastern unit, the 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, has been accused of war crimes for the massacre of civilians in Bucha, also in the Kyiv Oblast, during the same time period. Russia has been criticized for its disproportionate use of soldiers from minority ethnic groups and disadvantaged communities including the so-called “mobilization reserve regiments” from Russian-controlled portions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, which were largely drawn from men with little or no structured military oversight.)

Reporters found that Dabayev continued to post pictures of himself in uniform on social media. Contacted directly, he refused to respond to reporters’ questions about the charges brought against him and the accusation of rape.

After the withdrawal from Kyiv Oblast, the 37th brigade was deployed in Kharkiv Oblast. As of February, its commander remained Colonel Yuri Medvedev, who in 2022 received the Order of Courage, one of Russia’s highest state awards. Under international law, military commanders can be prosecuted for war crimes committed by their subordinates, a legal principle known as command responsibility.

In the case of Senenko, reporters determined the 109th regiment was likely under the control of the 11th Guards Air Assault Brigade, a Russian unit headed by Colonel Denis Shyshov. According to Shyshov’s profile on the Russian Defense Ministry’s website, he participated in Russia’s offensive in southeastern Ukraine at the start of the invasion. Shyshov received the Hero of Russia award, Russia’s highest honorary title, in 2022.

A civilian car carrying a family of five (including one child) shot by the Russian military in the village of Havronshchyna, Kyiv region, in March 2022. (SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Stock Photo)

There is no indication that Medvedev, Shyshov, or any Russian commanders have been held to account for the conduct of subordinates suspected of rape and other violent crimes while serving in Ukraine. The Russian Investigative Committee did not respond to a request to comment from OCCRP.

Russia has rejected claims of systemic sexual violence in its conduct of the war in Ukraine. In April, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, accused the UN’s Patten of “blatant lies and manipulation” in her reporting on sexual violence in Ukraine. “Russia condemns sexual violence in all forms,” he said.

‘I have to live for him’

Psychologist Potseluieva says that she supports survivors during the process of testifying about the sexual violence they suffered, accompanying them during interviews with prosecutors or police, and calming them afterwards. (Maryna and Daria are not among the survivors she has worked with.)

“I explain to them why it is important to actually turn to law enforcement. I explain that every recorded crime is one more step towards an international criminal tribunal and that that country’s leaders will be held accountable for everything they have done,” she said.

Justice in the courts will take time, said British lawyer Jordash. “Ukraine doesn’t have most of the suspects in custody, and they’re not likely to have those suspects in custody in the very near future,” he said. The case files that Sosonska and other prosecutors are painstakingly building are likely to be used for trials in absentia, which Jordash said can serve the purpose of “laying a bedrock of truth” about Russian military crimes.

Meanwhile, Ukraine recently announced it would begin issuing its first-ever reparation payments to up to 500 survivors of wartime rape, a move that the country’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, said was “an important step towards restoring justice.”

Daria, who fled Havronshchyna and spent a year in the relative safety of Uzhhorod on Ukraine’s western border, says free psychological counseling made available to victims of sexual violence has helped her to transform “trauma into strength.”

She and her boyfriend remain a couple, and she hopes to use her artwork and her experience to help other Ukrainians who have survived brutal attacks.

“I’m gradually trying to spread this information, to show that these crimes exist,” she said. “I want to be more active and more confident. Of course, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to talk about it publicly, or to talk about it at all.”

Maryna and her son in the park. Screengrab from the "He Came Back" documentary. (The Kyiv Independent)

Maryna has completed training as a pastry chef and dreams of a home surrounded by flowers. She still has trouble sleeping and has also started to work with a counselor. Life revolves around her son, who is now almost 2-years-old. “I have a sense of purpose now, I have to live for him,” she says. “He can’t do without me.”

See all of the Kyiv Independent's investigative documentaries on Russian war crimes here.

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