In a small village Russian soldiers occupied as they tried and failed to take Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, at the beginning of the war, two women say they are living with the pain of multiple traumas: destruction, death and rape.
One of the women – who said her husband was murdered by Russian troops on the night of the rape – left her hometown in the Brovary District to save herself and her teenage son further pain.
The other woman has stayed and is seeking justice from Ukrainian authorities.
Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainian officials have noted multiple instances of sexual abuse of women, children and men by Russian forces who, they say, are using rape and other sexual offenses as weapons of war.
CNN spoke with the women from Brovary District about their harrowing experience and agreed not to share their real names – or those of their family members – to protect their privacy. They are just two of the hundreds of Ukrainians who have reported alleged war crimes.
“There have been 700 reports since the first of April,” Lyudmila Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudsman, said, including at least one case where a young boy was reportedly raped.
Denisova has the daunting task of gathering evidence of reported war crimes related to the Russian invasion. A hotline has also been organized to provide free psychological support for victims or witnesses of sexual assault, she said.
“It’s very difficult. You know someone has to do it, for our fighters on the front lines, it’s much more difficult for them. They are in danger every minute. This is my own front line.”
The rape cases are investigated by a special prosecutor’s office, Denisova said.
“From the details we have been given we are 100% sure war crimes have been committed,” said Olexiy Bonuk, the head of the department within the prosecutor’s office investigating the case.
The women CNN spoke with said their suffering has been compounded by local gossip about what happened to them and the stigma inflicted on rape survivors. But they’re determined to fight.
The women were neighbors in a village in the Brovary District, about an hour’s drive outside Kyiv.
Both women are married. Both are in their early 40s. And both say they were targeted by Russian soldiers.
“We are the youngest women in this village. And they wanted skinny women,” said one of the survivors, who overheard the soldiers talking.
“What that son of a bitch did to me was horrible. He forced me to …”
The woman, who CNN is calling Nika, trails off. Her eyes lower. “I can’t talk about it. I’m ashamed and scared.”
The Russians began engaging Ukrainian troops in Brovary District on March 1. Nika said she was first approached on March 9 while at home with her husband.
Russian soldiers and their commander came to their home and demanded she and her husband hand over their phones. The troops left after a Russian soldier fired a shot hitting her home and grazing their commander, she said.
Two of the younger Russian soldiers returned in the dead of night, Nika said. They separated her from her husband, snatched her by the hood of her coat and dragged her out of the house and down the street to a neighbor’s home where another survivor, who CNN is calling Dasha, was asleep. Dasha’s husband, daughter and mother, Valentina, were also sleeping in the home.
When the Russians arrived and knocked on the door, “They banged so hard it shook everything, even rattled the windows,” Valentina said.
Dasha’s husband went out to talk with the soldiers, she said, and Nika was outside listening to the men argue.
Moments later, Nika said she heard what cold-blooded murder sounds like.
“There was a short conversation. And then there was a sound, like bang! A shot like a firework,” Nika said. “My body was shaking.”
She then saw the Russian soldiers pushing Dasha’s husband’s body out of sight.
The soldiers then took her and Dasha down the street to a house vacated during the invasion, Nika said. She heard the soldiers calling each other by name: Danya and Oleg.
“While we were going there, Danya said, ‘Guess what, Oleg? Look who we are going to f**k!’” Nika said, apologetic for quoting his curse words.
Even after trying to reason with him, Nika said, she was raped by Danya in the downstairs part of the home.
Danya told Nika he was 19 years old, she said.
“I told him I am 41, my younger son is the same age as you. I asked him if he had a girlfriend. He said, ‘Yes. She is 17. But I didn’t have sex with her.’”
Nika asked, “Why are doing this to me? He answered that he hadn’t seen a woman in two weeks.”
The anger rises in her voice as she recounts the conversation. “Can you believe that? It is crazy.”
Escaping bullets and accusations
Nika and Dasha both survived the attacks. But another threat soon presented itself. The town was under fire during a fierce battle between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
Amid the fighting, the women escaped their captors, and said the soldiers were too scared to run after them for long.
But escaping their attackers meant running through an active battle zone.
“There were bullets flying around from the forest. I thought, ‘Oh my God, someone will see me, and kill,’” Nika said.
At great peril, the women managed to make it back to their homes. Dasha had to face the horrors of not only what she just endured, but also the need to grieve the loss of her slain husband.
With the village remaining under Russian occupation, Dasha and Valentina tried to dig a grave, but the ground was too frozen. Gathering all her strength, Dasha went to a Russian commander to demand help burying her husband, Valentina said.
“She said, ‘Your guys came at night and killed him. Help us bury him,’” Valentina said.
The Russian commander capitulated, she said, and soldiers helped bury Dasha’s husband in the family’s backyard. A proper burial, however, was out of the question while under occupation.
Making matters worse, gossip soon floated around the village. Neighbors began accusing the women of being collaborators and getting special favors for sex.
“I wasn’t collaborating with them. I was afraid of them. It is crazy!” Dasha told CNN, exasperated. “Did they see it? Did they? They didn’t. I can make accusations too. It doesn’t make them true.”
On being victimized twice – the rapes, then the rumors – Nika said, “God sees everything.”
She intends to do whatever is needed to help prosecutors prove the assault.
“I want them (the soldiers) to be punished by a judge. They must decide what to do with them: shoot them, kill them, tear them apart. The bastards.”