Kherson region, Ukraine
Day after day, from town to town, police officers and prosecutors go from house to house in Ukraine’s Kherson region.
Trampling along muddy roads, they pass houses damaged by artillery fire and search for those left behind. The two men formed a special unit that traveled from the capital, Kyiv.
Mother and daughter went out into their yard. “We are looking for sex crimes,” said prosecutor Oleksandr Kleshchenko.
Until the beginning of October, this area of the country was occupied by Russian troops. Burnt cars litter the field. The letter “Z” – the symbol used by the Russian forces – refers to walls.
The scars of war run deep here. Russia used sexual violence as a “weapon of war” – a deliberate “military strategy” – during its invasion of Ukraine, UN investigators said. They even relayed accusations of Russian soldiers possessing Viagra.
Russian officials have denied charges of war crimes in Ukraine.
During two weeks of work in the Kherson region, the Kiev team recorded six cases of sexual assault. They say the real number is almost certainly much higher.
Tatiana, 56, said she was one of the victims. CNN is withholding her last name and the name of her hometown to protect her identity.
Walking over broken glass, she showed us to her brother’s house, where on August 26 two Russian soldiers walked in her door.
“They walked around those rooms,” she says. “One stayed there, and the other dared me to enter here. He came in and walked around the room a little bit and started pulling me around here.”
“No, no, I’m not old enough to give you something, look for little girls,” I said.
She said as he pinned her with his shorts and tore her clothes off. “I was crying, begging him to stop, but to no avail,” she said. “The only thing I thought about was staying alive.”
She remembers being warned not to tell anyone. “I didn’t tell my husband right away,” she said, crying. “But I told my cousin, and my husband heard. He said you should have told me the truth but you kept quiet.
“I was so embarrassed,” she says. “I wish he and all his relatives were dead.”
She stayed at home for three days, in a state of shock, too ashamed to go outside. She then says that in an extraordinary act of bravery, he confronted the Russian military commander.
“His commander met his unit chief. He came to see me and said, ‘I punished him badly, I broke his jaw, but the worst punishment is ahead.’ Like shooting. The commander asked, ‘Does this matter to you?’ he asked me. I said, ‘I don’t mind, I wish they would all shoot.’
Although prosecutor Kleshchenko and police officer Oleksandr Svidro are searching for evidence of sex crimes, they encounter the horrors of the job everywhere they go.
Almost everyone in these liberated villages was affected by the war. Many houses were reduced to rubble.
During CNN’s first stop with the investigators, a crowd waiting for food stamps surrounded the prosecutor in Bila Crinista.
The village was behind the Russian lines, but was not captured directly. The gathered shout that they have been abandoned for months without any help from Russia or Ukraine.
“They reported [the damage] To anyone?” asks the prosecutor. “Who shall we inform?” A man in the crowd answered.
A man from the crowd tells the investigators that he was captured by Russian soldiers and mocked. It’s hard to hear, there are such torture stories here, but this is not the issue of their work today.
While these villagers are not satisfied, Ukraine’s counteroffensive in this part of the country has raised public hopes that victory may be imminent – or at least that Kyiv will liberate key Russian-held cities such as Kherson.
After a slow start in late summer and early October, Ukrainian forces regained hundreds of square miles of territory they had held since Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Down a short drive down a bullet-riddled road, in Tverdomdov, a mother and daughter told Kleshchenko they had never heard of sex crimes in the one-way village.
Their neighbor, 71-year-old Vera Lapushniak, sobbed uncontrollably. She says the Russians were kind when they first arrived.
“They said they were here to protect us,” she recalled. But from whom, why – we did not know.
She was widowed 30 years ago – her husband died in a motorcycle accident – and her son joined the army after the February 24 invasion of Russia. She decided to leave, she says, about three months after Russian troops occupied her village. .
Months later, she returned after the Ukrainian army liberated her village in a lightning strike. A shell lowered her roof to the roof.
“I don’t know where I’m going to sleep now,” she said, crying. “No windows or doors. I sleep like crazy.”
Our inner self shows us. The ceiling of her bedroom had completely collapsed. She moved her bed to the only room with a window still intact.
“I don’t know where to put it so (the roof) doesn’t fall on my head,” she said. “I’d rather it fall and kill me, so I don’t suffer. But I want to see my son again.
As the sun set, at the end of a long day, a group of two arrived at a village called Novovoznesensky; Russian soldiers have been accused of exposing two more rape cases. The next day, they return to Kyiv to present their findings.
Of course, many of these charges will be impossible to prove; Many don’t even have a suspect. For now, the team files its reports, and investigators continue their work, hoping to file charges in the future.
The United Nations investigated cases of “sexual and gender-based violence” in Ukraine between the ages of 4 and 82. The United Nations says 43 criminal proceedings have been launched since September.
Svidro, the police officer, said that most cases of sexual violence are not fully reported.
The work takes its own price. “It’s psychologically difficult,” he said. “You understand that everyone is worried. But this is important work.”