Kherson region, Ukraine
Day after day, city after city, a police officer and a prosecutor go door to door in Ukraine Kherson region.
On muddy roads, houses damaged by artillery fire, they search for those left behind. The two men form a specialist unit that travels through the capital, Kyiv.
A mother and daughter come out into their yard. “We are investigating sex crimes,” says prosecutor Oleksandr Kleshchenko.
By early October, this part of the country was occupied by Russian troops. Burnt cars litter the fields. letter ‘Z’ – the symbol used by the Russian army – marks the walls.
War wounds run deep here. Russia used sexual violence as a “weapon of war” in its conquest of Ukraine – a deliberate “military strategy” – United Nations investigators say has been told. They have also alleged that Russian soldiers carried Viagra.
Russian officials have denied allegations of war crimes in Ukraine.
In two weeks of work in the Kherson region, the team from Kyiv documented six allegations of sexual abuse. The real number is almost certainly higher, he says.
Tatiana, age 56, says she is 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 shows us into her brother’s house, where she says two Russian soldiers forced their way through her door on August 26.
“They walked into those rooms,” she says. “One stayed there and the other, who raped me, came here. He came in, walked around the room a bit and started pricking me here and there.
“I told him, ‘No, no, I’m not old enough to give you anything, look young lady.’
He pinned her to a wardrobe, she says, and tore off her clothes. “I was crying, begging him to stop, but to no avail,” she says. “All I could think about was staying alive.”
He warned her not to tell anyone, she recalls. “I didn’t tell my husband right away,” she said, crying. “But I told my cousin and my husband listened. He said, ‘You should have told me the truth, but you kept silent.’
“I was so embarrassed,” she says. “I wish he and all his relatives were dead.”
She spent three days in the house, in a stupor, too ashamed to step outside. Then, in an extraordinary act of bravery, she says she confronts the Russian soldier’s commander.
“His commander found the head of his unit. He came to see me and said to me, ‘I punished him severely, I broke his jaw, but the severest punishment is yet to come.’ like shooting. The general asked me, ‘Do you mind?’ I said, ‘I don’t mind, I want them all shot.’
Even as prosecutors, Kleschenko, and police officer Oleksandr Svidro search for evidence of sex crimes, they encounter the horrors of the profession wherever they go.
Almost every building in these liberated villages has been damaged by the war. Many houses were destroyed.
At their first stop, in Billa Crinius, on the day CNN accompanied the investigators, the prosecutor was surrounded by a crowd waiting for food handouts.
The village was behind Russian lines, but was never directly captured. Those gathered scream that they have been released for months without any help from Russia or Ukraine.
“Did you report [the damage] Anyone?” asks the prosecutor. “Who do we report this to?” replies a man in the crowd.
A man in the crowd tells investigators he was held down by Russian soldiers and mocked. Hard to hear, stories of such torture are common here, but not the subject of his work today.
Despite the discontent of these villagers, Ukraine’s counteroffensive in this part of the country has given the public hope that victory is indeed possible – or at least that Kyiv might liberate key Russian-held cities such as Kherson.
Starting slowly in late summer and then massively in early October, Ukrainian forces have regained hundreds of square miles of territory that Russia had seized since the early days of the full-scale invasion.
In Tverdomedov, a short drive through streets pockmarked by gunfire, a mother and daughter tell Kleschenko they haven’t heard of any sex crimes in their one-road village.
Their neighbor, 71-year-old Vera Lapushnyak, sobs uncontrollably. The Russians were kind when they first arrived, she says.
“They said they came to protect us,” she recalled. “But by whom, why—we don’t know.”
She was widowed 30 years ago – she says her husband died in a motorcycle accident – and her son joined the army shortly after the February 24 invasion of Russia. She decided to leave, she says, about three months after Russian forces took over her village.
A few months later, after Ukrainian forces liberated her village in a lightning counteroffensive, she returned. Schelling had lowered her roof to its rafters.
“I don’t know where to sleep anymore,” she said, crying. “There are no windows or doors. I sleep like a bum. ”
She shows us inside. The ceiling of her bedroom has completely collapsed. She has moved her bed to the only room that still has an intact window.
“I don’t know where to put it so that (the roof) doesn’t fall on my head,” she says. If he falls and hits me, that will be fine, so I won’t be hurt. But I want to see my son again.”
As the sun set at the end of a long day, the two-man team reached the village of Novovozhnesensk, where they uncovered two more cases of alleged rape by Russian soldiers. The next day, they return to Kiev to present their findings.
Of course, many of these allegations will be impossible to prove; Many don’t even suspect. For now, the team files its report, and its investigators continue their work, hoping to be able to file charges in the future.
The United Nations has said it is investigating the cases in Ukraine “Sexual and Gender-Based Violence” Against people aged 4 to 82. 43 criminal proceedings till September was startedAccording to the UN.
The police officer, Svidro, says that most cases of sexual violence are not fully reported.
Work takes its toll. “It’s mentally tough,” he says. “You understand that every person is distressed. But this is important work.”