Day after day, in town after town, a police officer and prosecutor go door to door in Ukraine’s Kherson region.
Treading muddy streets, past homes damaged by artillery strikes, they look for those left behind. The two men form a specialist unit that’s traveled from the capital, Kyiv.
A mother and daughter come out to their yard. “We are looking for sexual crimes,” the prosecutor, Oleksandr Kleshchenko, says.
Until early October, this area of the country was occupied by Russian troops. Burnt-out cars litter the fields. The letter ‘Z’ – a symbol used by Russian forces – marks the walls.
The scars of war run deep here. Russia has used sexual violence as a “weapon of war” – a deliberate “military strategy” – in its conquest of Ukraine, United Nations investigators have said. They have even relayed allegations of Russian soldiers carrying Viagra.
Russian authorities have denied accusations of war crimes in Ukraine.
In two weeks of work in the Kherson region, the team from Kyiv has documented six allegations of sexual assault. The real number is almost certainly much higher, they say.
Tatiana, age 56, says she is one of the victims. CNN is withholding her last name and that of her village to protect her identity.
Walking over broken glass, she shows us into her brother’s house, where she says two Russian soldiers forced their way through her door on August 26.
“They walked around those rooms,” she says. “One stayed there, and the other one, who raped me, came in here. He came in, walked a little bit around the room and here in this place, he started groping me.”
“I told him, ‘No, no, I am not of the age that I can give you something, look for younger girls.’”
He pinned her against the wardrobe, she says, and tore at her clothes. “I was crying, begging him to stop, but with no success,” she says. “The only thought I had was to stay alive.”
He warned her not to tell anyone, she recalls. “I didn’t tell my husband right away,” she says, in tears. “But I told my cousin, and my husband overheard. He said, ‘You should have told me the truth, but you kept silent.’”
“I was very ashamed,” she says. “I wish that he and all his kin were dead.”