“Shut up, or I’ll show your child his mother’s brains spread around the house!” This was the threat Russian soldiers said to Natalya, not her real name, before they took turns raping her as her 4-year-old son was crying in the next room.
Natalya, 33 years old, and her husband, Andrey, 35, lived near Shevchenkove village in the Brovary district, just outside Kyiv. There, the couple built their first home close to a pine forest.
“We were planning a child, and we were dreaming about our first home,” said Natalya, as she shared her story with The Times of London. “We wanted to live closer to nature. That’s why we didn’t live in the city. My husband put his heart and soul into building the house, and everything was made of natural wood and stone. We even used to go into the forest to pick litter that other people had left behind.“
Unfortunately for the couple, Brovary became one of the early hotspots of the conflict as Russian forces tried to take hold of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. After the Russians entered their village on March 8, Natalya recalls putting up a white sheet in front of their house to signify that they were civilians and posed no threat to the Russian forces.
Despite this, Russian soldiers came into their house the next day. They shot their dog and wrecked their car. The commander of the squad, who introduced himself as Mikhail Romanov, seemed to have taken an interest in Natalya, saying if only they were not at war, they would definitely have a “romance.”
After dark, the couple heard a commotion outside their house. Andrey decided to go out and see what was happening.
“I heard a single shot, the sounds of the gate opening, and then the sound of footsteps in the house,” Natalya said, identifying Romanov and another man wearing a black uniform, likely in his twenties.
“I cried out, ‘Where is my husband?’ then I looked outside, and I saw him on the ground by the gate. This younger guy pulled a gun to my head and said: ‘I shot your husband because he’s a Nazi.‘”
Natalya yelled at her son to stay inside. That was when the Russian soldiers decided to take advantage of the widow.
“He told me to take my clothes off. Then they both raped me one after the other. They didn’t care that my son was in the boiler room crying. They told me to go shut him up and come back. All the time, they held the gun by my head and taunted me, saying, ‘How do you think she sucks it? Shall we kill her or keep her alive?‘”
The soldiers returned for a second time, raping the Ukrainian mother again. They tried to come back a third time, but they were too drunk, according to Natalya.
“Eventually, both of them fell asleep in the chairs. I crept into the boiler room and told my son we have to run away really fast or we will get shot.”
The two fled west to a town outside Ternopil, where her husband’s sister also evacuated with her children. It was her who convinced Natalya to report what had happened to the authorities.
“I understand that many people who have been hurt would stay silent because they are afraid. Lots of people don’t believe terrible things like this happen. One of the women I was with afterwards messaged the village group, and people were saying, ‘Stop making up stories.‘”
Her son, Oleksii, also not his real name, is not yet aware of his father’s death. Natalya recalls taking Oleksii to a doughnut shop in Ternopil. The boy asked his mother to “buy a doughnut for Papa.” All the young boy knows is that they were forced to flee from the war and that his Papa decided to stay behind.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova was one of the first government officials who reported Natalya’s case through a Facebook post. Upon hearing this news, Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov rejected the allegations, saying that “It is a lie” and that they “don’t believe it at all.”
Increasing Number of Sexual Abuse from Russian Soldiers
The story of Natalya and Oleksii is not a one-off incident in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its realities. Ukrainian MP Maria Mezentseva sounded the alarms about Russian soldiers allegedly taking advantage of women during the war.
“There is one case which was very widely discussed recently because it’s been recorded and proceeded with [by] the prosecutor’s office, and we’re not going into details, but it’s quite a scary scene when a civilian was shot dead in his house in a small town next to Kyiv,” Mezentseva said in a TV interview. She was referring to Natalya’s case.
Rape and any form of sexual assault is a war crime and a violation of international humanitarian law. Mezentseva, who is the head of Ukraine’s permanent delegation in the Parliament Assembly at the Council of Europe, emphasized the need for these cases to be recorded, saying “justice has to prevail.”
“There are many more victims rather than just this one case which has been made public by the prosecutor general,” she said. “And, of course, we are expecting many more of them, which will be public once victims will be [are] ready to talk about that.“
Mezentseva said that the Ukrainian delegation has been in talks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the UK Parliament to help raise awareness about the issue and provide much-needed help for these victims.
“We will definitely not be silent,” she added.
Rape accounts had emerged reportedly immediately after the Russians invaded Ukraine, according to Chatham House (a think tank in London) and Ukrainian lawyer Kateryna Busol who actively documented allegations of sexual crime and assault in 2014 when the Russians invaded Crimea.
“These accounts are growing, and we are hearing that they are much more widespread than the one account raised by the inspector general,” she said.
Andrey and Natalya would have been celebrating their wedding anniversary this April. Now, Natalya would be lucky if she would get the opportunity to recover her husband’s body and give it a proper funeral. The widow is unsure if she will go back to their village after what happened.
“Memories are hard,” she said. “I don’t know how I will live with all of it, but I still understand that my husband built this house for us. I would never be able to bring myself to sell it.”
As the war in Ukraine pushes into its fifth week, the world fears how many more Natalyas and Oleksiis will be added to the list of victims that will forever be traumatized by these actions and behaviors of Putin’s forces.