DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine — Volodymyr Semistyaga was wading through documents in the archives of Luhansk University when the stomp of boots interrupted his reading. A group of pro-Russian separatists knocked him down, pulled a sack over his head and dragged him from the building.
It was June 2014 and fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed insurgent groups in eastern Ukraine was intensifying. Separatists had claimed independence in the so-called Peoples Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. Increasingly, people were going missing as neighbors turned on one another.
Semistyaga — one of several university professors to face arrest when rebels purged the faculty — was taken to a dank basement in central Luhansk, where he encountered two other prisoners: teenage girls, dressed only in underwear. A soldier nicknamed Bison ran the detention facility, alongside a nurse called Katya. The pair brandished two large blades and threatened to skin the captives hands and arms, then scalp them.
The violence began after Semistyaga was transferred to a nearby cell two hours later. “I heard the girls screaming as the guards raped them,” he said. “This happened every night for the next three weeks, on and off from dusk till dawn.”
Ukraines legislation on sexual violence falls below international standards and charges rarely match the severity of the crime.
The forgotten conflict on Europes doorstep — which began four years ago this month — has killed more than 10,000 and displaced 2 million more. Ukraines army continues to fight Russian-backed separatists over an unmoving no-mans land, with no real end in sight.
Shelling and explosions are the most conspicuous signs of the ongoing war. But the testimonies of Semistyaga and many others point to unseen violence inflicted on those caught up in the conflict. Civilians in Ukraines lawless eastern regions have been subjected to sexual violence at the hands of Russian-led forces and Ukrainian government troops as both sides attempt to stamp out dissent.
Abuse is prevalent but corruption, impunity and sub-standard legislation are denying justice to survivors. U.N. human rights monitors say the proliferation of these incidents in eastern Ukraine could amount to war crimes, and highlight “prevailing impunity for human rights violations and abuses.”
“This is partly due to the fact that the conflict is ongoing and that a part of Ukraines territory remains under the control of armed groups,” says the U.N.s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in a report. “The impunity also reflects a systemic decades-old challenge to ensure accountability, as well as the failure to bring those responsible from ones own ranks to account.”
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As law and order broke down in those early days of the war, sexual abuse became a very real threat at military checkpoints, where civilians make easy targets for exploitation.
This problem has persisted throughout the conflict. In September 2016, a woman stopped at a Ukrainian army checkpoint, where a soldier told her there was an issue with her papers. She said she was ordered into a container that housed his temporary office; the officer entered and locked the door. He told her to go with him to a hotel otherwise she would be abducted and buried alive.
“He then forced her to sit on his lap and touched, smelled and licked her whole body. She was crying and begging him to let her go,” the testimony says. After 90 minutes, he allegedly agreed to release her as long as she returned to the checkpoint, threatening her with blackmail and physical violence.
In the summer of 2014, Irina Kirikova, a mother and pro-Ukrainian activist in her 50s, was delivering bundles of bread, salami and vegetables to understocked government soldiers near Slovyansk. On her return home to Druzhkivka, she said a pro-Russian Chechen soldier stopped her car at a checkpoint and ordered her to take two soldiers to Kramatorsk, another town.
Kirikova nervously laughed off the demand, saying it would make her husband jealous. In response, the soldier pressed the barrel of his Kalashnikov to her neck and hissed: “I told you, b–ch – take them.” She nodded blankly. The two militants got in but, inebriated, soon passed out.
In June 2014, Volodymyr Semistyaga, left, was grabbed from his university by a group of pro-Russian separatists and taken to a dank basement in central Luhansk. Irina Kirikova, right, a mother and pro-Ukrainian activist in her 50s, was stopped at a checkpoint that same month when a Chechen soldier swaggered over and, cigarette hanging from his mouth, told her that he “wanted a Russian woman” | Photos by Pierre Crom for POLITICO
Afterward, her husband insisted she stop her dangerous supply runs, but she kept going, albeit in secret and less frequently. The following month, in June, Kirikova was stopped at a checkpoint where a Chechen soldier swaggered over and, cigarette hanging from his mouth, told her that he “wanted a Russian woman.” She said he pulled her out of the car and dragged her toward a cemetery.
A local man noticed the struggle. He told the Chechen to let Kirikova go, adding that hed arrange a prostitute for him. Kirikova recalled this man whispering to her: “Get out of here as fast as you can.”
She has little hope of justice. “I doubt that Chechen would be punished,” said Kirikova, a former kindergarten teacher turned grocery-shop owner. “When we die, well all answer for what weve done. But that man should be given justice in this life, too.”
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Ukraines legislation on sexual violence falls below international standards and charges rarely match the severity of the crime.
Incidents of torture uncovered by human rights investigators were mainly committed in the first year of the conflict between 2014 and 2015, but abuses still occur and new testimonies continue to emerge via the United Nations and Ukrainian nonprofit groups.
And while abuse is considered to be more widespread and egregious in annexed Crimea and the separatist-held east, Ukrainian forces are also accused of carrying out abductions, incommunicado detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Repeated failure to prosecute, along with the sheer number of cases documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations, indicate a gross disregard for human rights among Ukrainian groups and the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU. The countrys broken and outdated justice system allows perpetrators to walk free. This systematic enabling of violations comes as Kiev fosters a deeper alliance with the West.
Both sides fighting in the east have used rape, forced nudity and the electrocution of genitals to humiliate and punish detainees in the easts legal vacuum, say U.N. human rights monitors. Interrogators also frequently threaten to rape or kill captives relatives, particularly their children. Mock executions are commonplace, too.
Kirikova was dragged toward this cemetery by a Chechen soldier before a local resident stepped in and told her to “Get out of here as fast as you can.” | Pierre Crom for POLITICO
“If you look at older cases of human rights violations in Ukraine, little accountability has been ensured,” said Nataliya Pylypiv, a U.N. human rights officer. “There are a number of caveats in national legislation which make it impossible to ensure justice for survivors and to investigate and prosecute conflict-related sexual violence effectively.”
Ukraines law enforcement has struggled to document and follow through on cases of conflict-related sexual violence. A lack of accountability and a pervasive environment of fear and intimidation compound the problem, deterring survivors from seeking justice.
In rape cases, Ukrainian prosecutors require biological and forensic evidence, which is hard to procure in conflict situations. Tests must be conducted within 72 hours of the assault — a tiny window of opportunity for people in Ukraines war zone, where there is extremely limited access to forensic laboratories or reliable law enforcement. This means that it is often impossible to meet a courts requirements to prove a rape took place.
Campaigners have called on the international community and warring parties to solve this issue.
Ukraines criminal code is enshrined with Soviet-era definitions of what constitutes rape — defining it as sexual intercourse against the victims will only between individuals of opposite sex, thereby denying justice to male survivors. Cases of anal rape are not treated as such but as the “violent unnatural gratification of sexual desire,” an offense that carries a lesser punishment.
Nor are allegations of conflict-related sexual violence always taken seriously. In response to a survivors claim that “a man in black uniform and balaclava threatened to castrate me,” one judge is reported to have replied: “What? Castration? It is not used in Ukraine.”
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Campaigners have called on the international community and warring parties to solve this issue. They say that Ukraine, Russia and its separatist proxies must grant independent observers unimpeded access, investigate all allegations of torture and punish those who commit sexual violence. Kiev needs to overhaul its criminal code and guarantee the rule of law.
“Addressing [conflict-related sexual violence] in a patchwork manner is not effective,” said Pylypiv, of the U.N. “To really make a sustainable change, it has to be addressed systemically.”
Kiev has sought to reassure its Western allies that it is on track to enact crucial reforms and continues to work toward EU membership. But its failure to prosecute cases of sexual abuse in frontline communities and elsewhere points to a weak judiciary system that could undermine trust in how prepared the country is to join the West.
U.S. diplomats are “deeply concerned” by allegations of conflict-related sexual violence, said a spokesperson for the State Department, which has called on Russia to “cease its destabilizing actions” in Donbas.
“This is the kind of thing thats going to undercut Western support for Ukraine,” Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said.
“There is still a general lack of confidence in the Ukrainian judicial system … One reason why Ukraine has not seen as much investment as it could see is because foreign investors dont trust the court system,” he said.
A destroyed home in Lugansk, Ukraine, several months after the start of the conflict in 2014 | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
“If Ukrainians are not seen to be devoting attention to addressing and to ending this problem, its going to damage Ukraines image at a time when Kiev needs Western support,” he added.
According to the U.N.s monitoring mission in Ukraine, sexual violence has not been used in the east as a strategic weapon of war, but there are hints of a deliberate, tactical function. For example, during interrogations, threats of sexual violence often follow real acts of physical violence, rendering the threat of mutilation or rape more credible.
In May 2015, for example, a man held by Ukrainian agents in Kharkiv was tortured for hours. Human rights researchers say the prisoner “broke down when a person claiming to be a doctor entered the room with a set of surgical tools and started pulling down his pants while threatening to cut off his testicles.” At this point, he was taken to an investigators office where he was forced to sign several confessions.
Women suspected of supporting separatists have been subjected to horrific ill-treatment. One said she was handed a pen and paper and ordered to confess. When she said she hadnt committed any crime, a man sat down and pointed a handgun at her.
Semistyaga said the men who abducted him belonged to a pro-Russian unit called SMERSH KGB, which was modeled after a Stalin-era counterintelligence group.
“He told me that if I refused to write, they would bring my daughter in and will make me watch how they take turns one after another to rape her,” she said. “After that I filled in eight pages with the text which the man dictated to me.”
Representatives from the Russian and Ukrainian defense ministries, from the Ukrainian justice ministry, from the SBU, and from the Donetsk and Luhansk “peoples republics” did not respond to requests for comment.
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Intelligent and avuncular, 64-year-old Semistyaga edited a local journal on science and social issues and ran the Luhansk chapter of Prosvita (“Enlightenment”), an organization dedicated to preserving Ukrainian culture and language.
He was among many Ukrainians who, sick of the countrys decadent elite, hungered for reform. He joined the pro-European rallies triggered by then-President Viktor Yanukovychs decision to align with Moscow over the EU and later became part of an underground pro-Ukrainian group named after the countrys national poet, Taras Shevchenko.
Semistyaga said the men who abducted him belonged to a pro-Russian unit called SMERSH KGB (“Death to Spies KGB”), which was modeled after a Stalin-era counterintelligence group formed to root out subversive elements in the Red Army.
They tortured Semistyaga to force him to reveal his associates and sign over ownership of his apartment. He says he was injected with psychoactive drugs, punched and kicked in the genitals, blinded with lights, burned with cigarettes and subjected to mock executions while being forced to sing the Russian anthem.
A separatist fighter stands guard in Donetsk in late 2014 | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
His tormentors often appeared drunk or stoned. “One of them had covered his face with a balaclava but I knew who he was. He was a policeman — and one of my old neighbors.”
By night, Semistyaga and other prisoners slept on the concrete floor. Their only toilet was a bucket overflowing with human waste. In July, Semistyaga was moved back to the first cell. The teenage girls were gone. There was only blood, smeared on the wall and on the floor. “I didnt see the girls again,” Semistyaga said.
He met six new captives, including a mother-of-two called Svetlana. Each night, she was taken into an adjoining cell. She confided to Semistyaga that the guards had undressed her and traced knives around her naked body and genitals. She refused to say if shed been raped. One day, the prisons chief executioner took her to a platoon at the front and returned without her.
“I never found out what happened to her,” said Semistyaga. He was eventually released after 55 days in captivity.
Jack Losh is a freelance journalist with a focus on conflict zones and humanitarian issues. He tweets at @jacklosh