Evidence some Ukrainian women raped before being killed, say doctors
Forensic specialists carrying out autopsies north of Kyiv say they ‘still have hundreds of bodies to examine’
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Forensic experts with bodies of civilians killed in Bucha. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian
Forensic doctors carrying out postmortem examinations on bodies in mass graves north of Kyiv say they have found evidence some women were raped before being killed by Russian forces.
“We already have a few cases which suggest that these women had been raped before being shot to death,” said Vladyslav Perovskyi, a Ukrainian forensic doctor who with a team of coroners has carried out dozens of autopsies on residents from Bucha, Irpin and Borodianka who died during Russia’s month-long occupation of the area.
“We can’t give more details as my colleagues are still collecting the data and we still have hundreds of bodies to examine,” he said.
Perovskyi’s team has been examining about 15 bodies a day, many of them mutilated. “There are many burnt bodies, and heavily disfigured bodies that are just impossible to identify,” he said. “The face could be smashed into pieces, you can’t put it back together, sometimes there’s no head at all.”
He said the bodies of some women they had examined showed signs that the victims had been killed by automatic gunfire, with upwards of six bullet holes in their backs.
Oleh Tkalenko, a senior prosecutor for the Kyiv region, said details of alleged rapes had been forwarded to his office, which is investigating circumstances such as locations and the ages of victims.
“Rape cases are a very delicate and sensitive matter,” Tkalenko said. “Forensic doctors have a specific task of checking the genitalia of female victims and looking for signs of rape.”
A foreign coroner working north of Kyiv who asked to remain anonymous said some bodies “are in such bad shape that it is not easy to find signs of rapes and sexual abuses. But we are collecting evidence in a few cases of women we believe had been raped before being murdered.”
Following the withdrawal of Russian troops from towns and suburbs around the capital, dozens of women have told police, the media and human rights organisations about atrocities they say they suffered suffered at the hands of Russian soldiers. Investigators have heard testimony of gang-rapes, assaults taking place at gunpoint and rapes committed in front of children.
Ukraine’s human rights commissioner, Lyudmila Denisova, has officially documented the cases of 25 women who were kept in a basement and systematically raped in Bucha, a town north of Kyiv now synonymous with Russian war crimes. Authorities have warned those cases could be the tip of the iceberg and accused Russian troops of using rape as an instrument of war.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in a statement last week that hundreds of women had been raped by Russian soldiers. Ukrainian authorities have declined to give exact figures or details about where the rapes occurred or the ages of the victims.
Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians during the war even as evidence to the contrary has mounted.
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Tkalenko said women were reluctant to file police reports about acts of sexual violence because they believed the perpetrators would not be caught. Instead, they were contacting psychologists and doctors for help.
“Psychologists work with the rape victims and then with detectives,” Tkalenko said. “Women are very reserved, and the information on rape cases is more closed.”
Much of the evidence collected by Ukrainian prosecutors will soon be forwarded to the international criminal court (ICC), which has launched an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
One volunteer who travelled into liberated areas north of Kyiv on 1 April to help evacuate residents said they encountered three naked women who emerged from houses and basements. One had been badly beaten and was taken away by ambulance, they said. The volunteer said they also witnessed about 10 other women giving statements to police about being raped.
“What usually happens is that rape victims initially want to tell their story, but then they go away and it isn’t until months later that they come back to talk,” the person said.
Tkalenko says that when prosecutors hear about rape cases they approach victims individually and try to see if they will file a statement. “People are ashamed to talk about rape,” he said.
- In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html