Men and boys are among the alleged victims of rape by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, where dozens of cases of sexual violence by the invading forces are already under investigation, UN and Ukrainian officials said on Tuesday.
“I have received reports, not yet verified … about sexual violence cases against men and boys in Ukraine,” said Pramila Patten, UN special representative on sexual violence in war, at a press conference in Kyiv.
Patten added that it can be particularly challenging for male rape survivors to report the crime. “It’s hard for women and girls to report [rape] because of stigma amongst other reasons, but it’s often even harder for men and boys to report … we have to create that safe space for all victims to report cases of sexual violence.”
She warned that dozens of cases of sexual violence that are under investigation so far “only represent the tip of the iceberg”, as she urged survivors to come forward, and the international community to find perpetrators and hold them responsible. “Today’s documentation will be tomorrow’s prosecution,” she said.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said on Tuesday that her office had collected reports of sexual violence by Russian troops against men and women of all ages, from children to elderly people.
Speaking at a news conference in the shattered Kyiv suburb of Irpin, one of a cluster of small towns whose names have become synonymous with Russian war crimes, Venediktova said Moscow had used rape as a deliberate strategy. “This is, of course, to scare civil society … to do everything to [force Ukraine to] capitulate.”
There have been few public accounts of sexual violence in Ukraine. Some victims have left the country, and others who have stayed are frightened of speaking about their experience, Venediktova said.
However, teams of prosecutors and investigators have been gathering evidence of widespread sexual violence since Russian forces retreated just over a month ago.
Gang-rapes, assaults at gunpoint, and rapes committed in front of children are among the grim testimonies they have collected from victims and their families.
The country’s human rights commissioner Lyudmila Denisova, has officially documented the cases of 25 women who were kept in a basement and systematically raped in Bucha, which neighbors Irpin.
Forensic doctors carrying out postmortem examinations on women buried in mass graves say they have also found evidence some were raped before being killed by Russian forces.
UN envoy Patten said she was visiting Kyiv because of the overwhelming indications of widespread, systematic sexual violence in the conflict, and the risk to Ukrainian women from trafficking if they try to flee the conflict.
“All the warning signals are flashing red in Ukraine, with allegations of brutal sexual violence emerging,” she said, at a press conference with Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Olga Stefanishina.
“I could not stay back in my office in New York, in the face of such harrowing reports of sexual violence. I’m here because we must spare no effort to ensure zero tolerance and consistent consequences for these crimes,” Patten said.
While the fighting has ended around Kyiv for now, Russian soldiers still hold swathes of territory in the south and east of the country. Amid growing concern about rape there too, activists are trying to get emergency contraception into Ukrainian hospitals as quickly as possible.
Patten warned that for too long, the world had allowed sexual violence to be deployed as a cheap, silent and effective weapon against whole communities.
“Cheap, because it’s cost-free. Very effective, because it does not only affect the victim, it affects whole families, the communities,” she said. “It’s biological warfare. It’s psychological warfare.”
She said the UN would work with Ukrainian authorities to provide support for survivors, but is also investigating crimes to prepare cases for criminal trial.
Ukrainian investigators have already identified Russian soldiers they allege are responsible for war crimes including sexual violence, and an arrest warrant has been issued for one man accused of rape.
There has been international support for investigations, with French and Dutch forensic experts already on the ground. Britain has also promised to send investigators to help gather evidence of war crimes, including sexual violence.
But many question whether soldiers who have already retreated will face prosecution, as they are under the protection of the government in Moscow which ordered the invasion and denies committing war crimes.