Interview with Iryna Didenko — the prosecutor in the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine. Conducts cases of sexual violence during the Russian occupation. She already opened 155 cases.
Performance against sexual violence/ Photo: Alisa Guseva
«Vchasno» news agency: At the beginning of 2023, the General Prosecutor’s Office reported that more than 150 cases of sexual violence were already recorded. Speaking of the brutality of occupiers, which cases horrified already-experienced prosecutors?
— Each story is terrible in its own way. We are very careful to protect such information from the public, as there is nothing worse for us than re-traumatizing an injured person. And the worst thing is if a person who experienced this violence recognizes himself/herself in some media material. So I can’t go into the rough details, but I will say this clearly: the criminals sometimes raped one person overnight, and in some cases, it happened every day — they said «Wait for us tomorrow» and came for several days in a row. Sometimes it lasted daily for more than 30 days.
Many of the rapes took place with the use of brute force — and several of our victims now have very serious physical injuries. When we assessed their condition, it became clear that first of all they needed medical help. But, in addition to the above, the age of the victims is also impressive — there are raped people aged 61, 67, 73, 83 years. That is, absolutely nothing was a reason for the Russians not to mock people. In addition, murders that occurred because men or women, members of the family, wanted to protect their wives and relatives were no less cruel.
— Unfortunately, children always remained in the occupied territories. Women suffered from violence at the hands of the occupiers, but did the Russians take pity on children?
— Unfortunately no. From open criminal proceedings, we have evidence of rape and violence against children. In particular, there were 11 registered cases of rape of minors. Their age ranged from 4 to 17 years.
But crimes of a sexual nature are usually not committed alone but in connection with other crimes. That is, in half of these cases where the victims are children, as a rule, criminals raped the child and the mother. That is, there are two sorrows in the family.
— Were there men among the victims of sexual violence?
— Yes, there are such cases too. We must understand that sexual violence is not only rape. Rape is only one form of violence, and there are more than 14 of them in total. This includes public exposure, forced to watch rape, genital mutilation, genital torture, etc.
There are many forms of sexual violence. And among the victims, there are both women and men. Among the victims who are ready to testify are 40 men. Of course, the classic form of sexual violence against both genders is rape, these are the predominant cases.
— There is a stereotype that it is most difficult for men to share their experiences. Which category of victims is the most difficult to work with? Women, children, or men?
— Of course, men. This is the most difficult topic for them. Therefore, our team is gender equal: there are male prosecutors, and there are female prosecutors. And the victims themselves choose with whom they are ready to communicate. But in any case, it is most difficult to talk and disclose information about the experience with men. This pseudo-demand for men «be strong, don’t tell, keep everything to yourself» is a stereotype that also needs to be fought.
— In your practice, have there already been cases when it was known for sure that a person experienced violence, even the available evidence, but he or she refuses to testify because it is too painful and scary for him or her to remember it?
— There are such cases. And in such situations, we stop the investigation process until the victim is ready to continue. We had a case when the media somehow found out the victim’s personal data: her story, address… In one day, dozens of journalists — both Ukrainian and foreign — gathered in front of her house. Of course, the neighbors understood what was happening. It is possible to guess the victim’s condition at that moment. She refused to communicate with us and now we stay away from her, we completely understand her feelings, so we are ready to wait as long as necessary. Therefore, we are very careful with everyone. There is nothing worse than hurting someone even more while trying to help. Therefore, privacy is one of our priorities. And here I will add: we forget about a serious problem in our society — stigma (prejudiced attitude towards a person). It is very rare for victims to find support from their neighbors, on the other hand, they are much more often met with a lack of understanding of the situation. Some generally believe and directly declare: «You are the one to blame for what happened.» And although we explain to people that only the criminal is always to blame, we need to overcome the stigma throughout the country.
— Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, some regions of Ukraine have been occupied for more than half a year. Constant hunger, fear, abuse and humiliation were daily conditions of survival in those territories. How is sexual violence by Russians related to the period of occupation of cities or villages?
— Now we see cases of sexual violence, in particular, rape, in all territories of Ukraine that were occupied. And these are systemic things. For example, during the occupation of Kyiv oblast, we saw exclusively classical forms of rape. But if the territory was occupied for a longer time, we could see completely different types of torture and abuse practiced by the Russians. Therefore, fortunately, the de-occupation of Kyiv oblast took place quickly — and we did not see what could await the people later. And on the example of the Kherson oblast, which was occupied for a long time, we see exactly this «further».
— Speaking of this «further», are we talking about the mass of abuse or their cruelty? And during what period does this «more terrible» occur?
— Considering what we already see as a system, the abuse by the Russians begins on the second or third day of the occupation. First, the occupiers enter the territory, find houses that they like, and make temporary «headquarters» for themselves. It takes them a day or two. And then they go to every house and take money, property, phones, and women. Or they rape them «on the spot», in their own houses, and take women with them from another house. I repeat: wherever the occupiers were, we see this situation.
After the rapes, the second stage comes — when the civilian population is tortured in the torture chambers, in particular with the use of electric current. This is done by professional FSB workers who come for this purpose. They use electric torture in the genital area.
After that, the next step is to focus on gender-based violence. For example, if a family member serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine or works in law enforcement agencies, the occupiers come and take away the mother, wife, and daughter. They torture her, abuse her, and then send her home and «ask her to say hello to her son, husband or father, thus putting pressure on our defenders. This is what we are seeing and learning now.
— Considering the fact that you are working in newly de-occupied territories, which always remain dangerous, the work sometimes continues under shelling. In addition, collecting information about the horrors experienced is morally difficult. What do you personally consider the hardest part of your job?
— To be honest, it is difficult in all cases. But my team had specialized in this topic since the second half of March, as my unit had been dealing with domestic and gender-based violence before the full-scale invasion. It covers both rape and psychological abuse. Therefore, after a full-scale offensive, the decision to help victims of sexual violence by the Russian military was logical. But although we have serious experience in these areas, it was difficult at first. For example, during our last visit, we interrogated the victim and made a video with her consent. And the next day, the shell hit that yard — the house is no longer there… The work itself under shelling is hard, it is made even harder by the topic and what the people with whom we communicate have experienced.
— In psychology, there are not uncommon cases when people closed in on themselves after sexual abuse. Some could not live with it any longer. In your practice, how much does such an experience affect future life? After all, psychologists work with the victims in parallel to minimize suffering and help them recover.
— Of course, psychologists immediately, together with the first volunteers, enter the de-occupied towns and villages. They immediately begin to work with the victims and provide them with the necessary help. But no matter what, the experience leaves a terrible mark on the present life of these people. And there is nothing worse than when a person hides a problem in himself/herself and does not tell anyone about it — even psychologists, because she/he is «afraid», or «ashamed»… Sometimes it turns out that this problem is «closed» inside a person, it does not go anywhere and always with her or him.
Therefore, we always emphasize that people need to communicate, open up to us, psychologists, get help and seek punishment of criminals. Only then this pain will decrease, then there is a much greater chance that a person will return to normal psychological life.
For example, I have a victim girl who, after the rape of her mother, constantly repeated the phrase: «I hate men. They hurt me.» She is a young girl, who is only 15, and we are not sure whether she will have a family in the future. Therefore, a psychologist also works with her and says the results are good. But without working through the experience with a specialist, it is very difficult to return to your life, to stop being afraid…
Finally, the prosecutor adds: the real number of cases of sexual violence committed by Russians in Ukraine is much higher than the figure announced at the beginning. In particular, such a discrepancy occurs due to the fear of testifying against criminals, the fear of their return, repeated harm, etc. However, Iryna Didenko asks not to remain silent about what happened but to do everything to ensure that the criminals are punished.
The interview was recorded by Alina Yevych
Interview in Ukrainian available by the link: «Вражає вік зґвалтованих російськими окупантами: від 61 до 83 років, діти від 4 до 17 років».