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Gender equality

Vuk Valcic  / Zuma Press / ISOPIX
Vuk Valcic / Zuma Press / ISOPIX

#16Days | I was less afraid of a russian missile than of a russian soldier: Sexual violence as a weapon of war in Ukraine

published 29 November 2022 updated 13 March 2024
written by:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked the beginning of a collective nightmare. Attacks against civilians, including sexual violence against women and girls have been used as part of the campaign of terror to intimidate the population. This first-hand account from Ukraine details the horrors war unleashed but also the unbreakable spirit of Ukrainians fighting for freedom.

The full-scale war in Ukraine has been going on for nine months. The russians [1] were allegedly going to capture most of our country in five days. They did not expect that Ukrainians loved their country and freedom and would not meet them with flowers and warm embraces.

The first days after the 24th of February were like another reality, a nightmare for all Ukrainians. People couldn't accept the fact that their lives changed in one moment, at 5 am when we heard the first sounds of missile strikes and explosions. We couldn’t understand why it was happening to us, a peaceful nation, who just wanted to be free and independent.

I have two sons, four years old and 12 months old. My family and both my children spent several weeks after the start of the russian invasion in the basement of our house, together with our neighbours because of the constant shelling. My husband joined the local defence forces. The basement was absolutely unadapted for a long stay: it was February, cold, no beds, no kitchen to prepare food. The explosions outside did not allow us to sleep, the children were scared and cried constantly. It was the worst time, when you didn't know what to do, didn't know what the future may hold, your plans gone up in smoke. These were the feelings of every Ukrainian family, of every Ukrainian woman.

But what scared me the most was when the russian army was 3 kilometres away from our house. We had already heard about their cruelty. The fear for my children was probably the most terrifying and uncontrollable feeling. After the liberation of every new corner of Ukrainian land, every Ukrainian village or town, we see the overwhelming joy of freed people, but we also see the same horrible picture of occupation. Its signs are destruction, murder, and violence. It is painfully clear: the aggressor country widely uses violence against civilians, in particular sexual violence, as a weapon of war. Rape has become a too common practice of the russian occupiers.

In July, after four months of war, the UN reported it had received more than 150 complaints of sexual violence committed by russian troops in Ukraine and this is only the tip of the iceberg. The overwhelming majority of cases remain unreported as victims of sexual violence often refuse to speak to law enforcement agencies. They have experienced severe psychological trauma, so most do not want to recall those terrible events, some are afraid of a possible revenge by occupiers and fear for their relatives who are still under occupation.

Anyone can become a victim of rape in the occupied territories: men, women, even children. There are reported cases of rape at gunpoint in the presence of family members. According to one victim, a russian soldier explained the purpose of sexual violence: “so that Ukrainian women would not want to have sexual contact with any man, to prevent them from giving birth to Ukrainian children”.

For us this is not just a war, this is genocide. Frankly speaking, after the photos and evidence of what the russians did in the first month of the war in the Kyiv region, I was less afraid of a russian missile than of a russian soldier.

After this nightmare I can’t really imagine what psychological wounds caused by russian barbarities our children, our people will carry.

My colleagues from the eastern regions told me about the forced deportations of people, including teachers, and there is official evidence of this. Thousands of people and children have already been taken out of temporarily occupied territories to russian territory illegally, against their will. It’s an act of kidnapping by the state. All these are crimes against humanity.

Teachers under occupation are in an extremely difficult situation. The Ukrainian education system is being destroyed in these territories. The “occupation authorities” force teachers to work according to the russian curricula. Teachers are threatened with torture and arrest, for refusing to cooperate with the occupiers. Parents who do not allow their children to go to school are threatened with having their children taken away to boarding institutions. It's hard to believe that this is happening in the centre of Europe in the 21st century.

The Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine, as many other trade unions in Ukraine, is actively supporting internally displaced people, contributing to humanitarian aid provision and providing assistance to its members in need.

We have no doubt that Ukraine will win and will be peaceful and free again. But the wounds run deep, and the physical and psychological trauma will not disappear overnight. It will take years if not entire lifetimes to come to terms with what we suffered and lost so unfairly. The sexual violence against women and girls, the attacks on civilians, the torture, all the innocent lives lost or changed forever cannot be forgotten. Ukrainian authorities are gathering evidence of war crimes in every newly liberated territory. We call on the international community to recognise russia as terrorist state, to ensure that these crimes do not go unpunished by mounting a determined effort to prosecute the perpetrators and those who unleashed this bloody war to the full extent of international law. Seeing justice done will be the first step towards healing and rebuilding our lives and our country.

1. ^

This is the author's preferred spelling in sign of protest against the war of aggression on Ukraine.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.