Survivors say Russia is waging a war of sexual violence in occupied areas of Ukraine. Men are often the victims

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Editor’s Note: This story contains graphic and disturbing descriptions of sexual violence.

Within an hour of being arrested by Russian security forces, Roman Shapovalenko was threatened with rape.

On August 25, 2022, the day after Ukraine’s Independence Day, he said three armed, masked officers from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) stormed his home in the southern Ukrainian port city of Kherson, which was occupied by Russian forces at the time.

They turned his house inside out searching for incriminating evidence. A message in Shapovalenko’s phone that called Russian soldiers “orcs” — a derisive reference to the evil forces in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth books and a popular Ukrainian slur for the Russian army — was enough for them. He said he was tied up, blindfolded and stuffed into an unmarked car.

For days after, Shapovalenko said he was repeatedly electrocuted in his genital area, threatened with being raped with a glass bottle, and was even made to believe he could be sterilized.

Describing the graphic detail of his experience matter-of-factly, Shapovalenko sometimes paused to laugh nervously. He said his sense of humor is helping with what he knows will be a long recovery. The Russians, he said, hated it. “I made a little joke, and they didn’t like it. I got punched for that.”

Shapovalenko’s experience of sexual violence at the hands of Russian forces is common among Ukrainians – including civilians and soldiers – who have been detained since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country more than two years ago.

Human rights monitors have long reported on the rampant use of sexual violence by Russian police and security forces against prisoners and detainees in Russia. Now it seems Russia is exporting the practice to occupied Ukraine.

Few men have spoken publicly about their ordeal, but Ukrainian prosecutors and rights groups say male victims make up a growing proportion of cases. The crimes often go unreported because of the stigma and shame associated with them. The latest United Nations Security Council annual report into conflict-related sexual violence said that 85 cases had been documented in Ukraine in 2023 – affecting 52 men, 31 women, one girl and one boy. A separate report from UN rights officials who interviewed 60 male Ukrainian prisoners of war following their release found that 39 were victims of sexual violence while in Russian detention.

Their accounts tallied with cases documented by regional prosecutors in Kyiv, Kherson and Kharkiv and were corroborated by witnesses held in the same detention facilities in Kharkiv and Kherson.

Taken together, their stories capture what prosecutors describe as Russia’s systematic and continuing use of sexual violence in occupied areas as part of its efforts to force the Ukrainian people into submission.

“We see it over and over again in different regions under occupation. They use the same method of committing sexual violence, the same method of humiliation, the same method of how they explain it to their victims,” said Anna Sosonska, a Ukrainian prosecutor and the acting chief of the conflict-related sexual violence division in Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General.

‘They all laughed’

Roman Chernenko said he spent seven months in a “punishment cell” in a prison in the occupied city of Olenivka, in the eastern Donetsk region, after he was captured by Russian troops in Mariupol area. The 29-year-old intelligence officer with the Ukrainian military – who goes by the call sign “Omen” – described being tortured as often as three times a day, every day, for four months.

He said he believes officers from Russia’s GRU, the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) and the FSB, Russia’s main intelligence agency, all took part in the torture.

“They laughed when they tortured me … they told me that my mother was being f**ked by Chechens. They took me to be shot twice, they threatened me with rape,” he said.

Rape and sexual violence are explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions – the set of international laws that regulate the conduct of armed conflict – and can constitute a war crime. Mock execution is considered a form of torture under international law.

Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), committing rape and sexual violence in a systematic or widespread way is considered a crime against humanity.

According to Ukrainian prosecutors investigating conflict-based sexual violence and abuse, all available evidence indicates that it is a deliberate tactic, part of Russia’s modus operandi in Ukraine.

“It’s in every region that was under occupation. Everywhere that Russian troops were located, we’re seeing cases of sexual violence and gender-based violence. The bottom line is that it looks like it is Russian policy,” Sosonska said.

As of early May, Ukraine has officially recorded 293 cases of sexual violence, although Sosonska said that it is impossible to estimate the real number of crimes that are being committed, particularly in occupied territories which remain inaccessible to its investigators and prosecutors.

Some 37,000 Ukrainian citizens are unaccounted for, according to the Ukrainian ombudsman’s office, with thousands believed to be held in Russian detention and at risk of torture and sexual violence.

But the real scale of sexual violence committed during the war may never come to light. Only a fraction of victims tend to come forward and, according to the UN, this is especially true for men, some of whom may not initially realize that what happened to them was a sexual violence crime.

Some male victims of sexual violence may describe what happened to them instead as “torture.” The distinction, Sosonska explained, is important for any future court cases and war tribunals. Her office is also trying to educate the public about the fact that men can be victims of sexual violence – something Sosonska said may still not be fully understood.

Anna Mykytenko, who heads the Ukraine team at Global Rights Compliance (GRC), an international legal non-profit, said that Ukrainian witnesses and survivors of sexual violence have testified that Russian troops told them it was a “punishment.”

Mykytenko said that while most cases of conflict-related sexual crimes that were reported and investigated earlier in the war concerned female victims, many of the cases recently recorded have been against male victims, especially against men held in captivity.

“Sexual crimes are fairly common in detention centers and it’s very common for prisoners of war or civilians to be threatened with rape or with the sexual abuse of different types, this is something that’s almost normal for the Russian and Russia-related armed forces,” she said.

‘A systematic approach’

However, it is Rosgvardia – a paramilitary police force deployed to keep order in occupied regions of Ukraine – and the FSB that appear to be driving the campaign of torture and sexual violence against the Ukrainian people, according to the ombudsman and Ukraine’s military intelligence service.

Since the start of the full-scale invasion in 2022, the FSB has opened several regional offices in occupied Ukraine to recruit agents and gather intelligence. According to an official organizational chart published on its website, the FSB has directorates in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in Crimea and in the occupied portions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Meanwhile, members of Rosgvardia, part of the Russian security apparatus that reports directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are working alongside the Russian military to detain activists, quash protests and spread terror among the civilian population in occupied areas.

The SBU, Ukraine’s security service, has managed to track down several Rosgvardia and FSB officials who it said were either the direct perpetrators or the enablers of sexual violence against people held in detention.

The SBU and the Ukrainian regional prosecutor’s office in Kherson have identified Aleksandr Naumenko, the deputy head of Rosgvardia in Russia’s Rostov region, as a suspect in more than a dozen cases. Ukrainian authorities said last May he was responsible for overseeing a detention facility in Kherson during the occupation and that he personally ordered sexual torture of several victims who were electrocuted in their genital areas.

Two other Rosgvardia officers – Oleksandr Chilengirov and Yehor Bondarenkov – have also been accused of torture, including electrocuting at least 24 victims in their genitals at a different detention facility in Kherson.

Dmitry Laikov, an officer with the FSB’s Department for the Defense of Constitutional Order and Fight against Terrorism, is accused of overseeing genital electrocution of a detained Ukrainian citizen in a police station in the occupied city of Nova Kakhovka.

All four men have been indicted and their cases are currently being heard in court, according to Kherson prosecutors. Their whereabouts are unknown.

Ukrainian officials say that it is difficult, but not impossible, to track down individual perpetrators of sexual violence crimes. As of early May, Ukrainian prosecutors had issued official notices of suspicion against 42 Russian officers, filed 19 indictments against 28 individuals and sentenced five people. All of the trials took place in absentia, according to the prosecutors’ office.

Oleksii Butenko, a prosecutor in the Kherson regional prosecutor’s office, said he has no doubt that sexual violence was part of Russia’s strategy to subjugate the Ukrainian people in Kherson and to “destroy the Ukrainian national identity.”

‘They were having fun’

Andrii, a Kherson resident who was held in one of the Russian detention facilities, still remembers the screams of his fellow detainees more than a year and half after he was released. “We were kept in the basement of an office building. It was a small room with no furniture, we slept on cardboard and used a bucket to go to the toilet,” Andrii said.

“I was the last one to be taken in for interrogation, so I could hear them all being tortured in the next room. I couldn’t hear the conversations, only the screams and the moans. It was impossible to sleep because of these screams,” he said, recalling one particularly horrifying incident. “I don’t know who this man was and what happened to him … he was taken out into the corridor, where he was raped with a baton so that everyone could hear and see him.”

According to Andrii, the threats of rape and genital electrocution were the norm among the Russian forces. “They enjoyed it. They were having fun,” he said.

Ukrainian prosecutors have recorded incidents of Russian officials raping or attempting to rape victims using objects including batons, a pipe, a bottle, a handle of a shovel, a stick and a pen.

Sosonska said her office is determined to bring to justice not just the direct perpetrators, but also those who were in charge – whether they ordered them or failed to prevent them.

Her office is focused on prosecuting individuals, but it is also collecting evidence that will be shared with international courts, including the ICC, which prosecutes individuals over grave offenses such as genocide and war crimes, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which hears cases brought up against states.

The ICC has already issued an arrest warrant for Putin and Russia’s children’s commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, over an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia. The Kremlin has denied the allegations and called the ICC’s actions “outrageous.”

Sosonska said she believes that, just like the child deportations, sexual violence is part of what she called “Russia’s genocidal campaign” against Ukraine.

‘It is happening now’

Oleksii Sivak knew the Russians were coming for him after his neighbor Shapovalenko, the farm manager, was taken.

The 39-year-old sailor from Kherson had helped him put up Ukrainian flags around their neighborhood on Ukrainian Independence Day.

Both men were civilian volunteers. Shapovalenko had been distributing supplies, helping people evacuate and sharing information about the location of Russian troops with Ukrainian military acquaintances, while Sivak ran a soup kitchen, organizing assistance, distributing leaflets and putting up posters and flags.

“We already knew about these torture rooms; we knew that people do not return from there. I went to deliver soup, warned the people I was helping, cut off all contacts and came home to wait for them,” he said. Hiding or trying to go on the run was not an option, he added, saying he was aware Russian forces were targeting the relatives of people they were interested in.

He said eight men came to arrest him – four in military uniforms and four wearing civilian clothes, all with their faces covered. They took him to a local police station and then handed him over to what they said was the FSB.

“First, they put the clamps on my ears and while they were shocking me, they were also beating me with a stick, kicking me, and hitting me with their hands … then they moved these wires from my ears to my genitals. They said, ‘we’re going to sterilize you now’ and things like that, while they were electrocuting my genitals.” Sivak believes he has a pretty good idea why the Russian troops chose to torture him in the way they did and threatened him with rape.

“They wanted to humiliate me. It’s obvious. What do you do to cause a man the most pain? You hurt his wife or his genitals,” he said.

Of the dozens of men he was held with, Sivak said roughly half were subjected to sexual violence. “It’s a whole system. Four people (tortured me) but they were just the hatchet men. Yes, they have no brains, yes, they are animals, but even if they are imprisoned, what about their bosses? Someone was managing them; someone was giving them orders.”

Sivak said he and several other survivors have formed an informal support group and are trying to raise awareness of the fact that men can be victims of sexual violence. Sivak has attended meetings with government officials and conferences where he shared his experiences.

Ukraine is prepared for a lengthy process to bring perpetrators to justice – while protecting the victims. Since the beginning of the full-scale war, Sosonska’s prosecutors, as well as other civil servants and local government officials, have received specialized training on victim-oriented approaches, learning how to recognize conflict-related sexual violence, run investigations and communicate with victims.

Some of the training programs have been provided by the UN in a direct response to the large number of sexual crimes occurring during the occupation. Others are run in cooperation with local non-governmental organizations and victim support groups. The UN has also co-sponsored a psychological helpline specifically aimed at male survivors.

It can take years or even longer for courts to rule and victims to speak out. Some survivors of sexual violence committed by the Bosnian Serb army during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s are only now coming forward.

“Some survivors might be willing to testify within a few months, for some, it may never happen, they may never be ready,” Sosonska said.

As for Shapovalenko, he said he wanted everyone to know what happened to him – and what is still happening to others.

“I want to tell everyone, tell the international community, that it is not like they came, occupied us, stood there with machine guns and left. No, it wasn’t like that,” he said. “And the most terrible thing is not what I am telling you now. The most terrible thing is that it is happening now in the occupied territories.”

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