One in three women and one in four men held captive by militants fell victims to sexual violence in Donbas – “War with no rules” report


Ukrainian human rights defenders of the Eastern-Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives conducted interviews to collect evidence of gender-based violence in the combat zone in eastern Ukraine. The biggest number of violations take place during arbitrary detentions by Russia-backed militant groups.

One in three women and one in four men who were held captive in eastern Ukraine suffered and/or witnessed sexual violence in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. These are the results of the research conducted by the Eastern-Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives that the human rights defenders presented in the analytical report “The war with no rules: gender-based violence linked to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine”. “We were trying to demonstrate the impact the conflict has on gender-based violence. We had analyzed gender-based violence in the places of detention, during the crossing of the contact line, in the territorial communities located both in and outside the conflict zone,” said Hanna Yanova, a researcher at the Eastern-Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives at a press-briefing at Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

The main source for the data quoted in the report are the interviews with persons who fell victims to gender-based violence or witnessed to it. A total of 300 persons were interviewed. “We selected 76 interviews in which the interviewees were talking about the facts of gender-based violence in particular. These are the persons who were affected by the facts of sexual, physical, and psychological violence, committed based on the social role that the person has in the context of the conflict in Donbas. The person was either in the territorial proximity to the combat actions or was detained by illegal armed groups, served in the army or interacted with the military,” elaborated Volodymyr Shcherbachenko, Head of the Eastern-Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives. He added that a total of 175 such cases were recorded based on the testimony of the witnesses to gender-based violence.

The highest number of gender-based violence cases was recorded in the arbitrary detention places – 40 cases in total. “In the report, we have identified the detention places where sexual violence was used most intensely. These are the occupied central regional cities Luhansk and Donetsk, as well as Makiivka of Donetsk region, Kadiivka, Alchevsk, and Antratsyt of Luhansk region. In most cases, it is known which militant groups are in control of which places. These are the facilities that are absolutely inappropriate for holding people. As a rule, these are the basements of administrative buildings, sewer holes, garages; people were also held in dog kennels or pits. Administrative buildings themselves are best cases,” the Head of the Eastern-Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives elaborated.

“Both men and women, girls and boys fell victims to the violence. More often women became victims to rape and sexual intimidation, men – to torture with elements of sexual violence,” Hanna Yanova said. Analyzing the cases the researchers came to the conclusion that in the majority of the cases sexual violence was applied as a kind of a weapon, consciously and purposefully. “In the majority of the cases that we have recorded sexual violence was used consciously and purposefully. It was applied against the detained persons as against ideological or military opponents. The general atmosphere in which it was applied points at the fact that its aim was to intimidate, harass, or break the morale of the detainee. There is a video in which representatives of militant groups speak about their motives,” Shcherbachenko said.

Apart from sexual violence, other forms of gender-based violence were recorded in the arbitrary detention places. “Among the forms of violence evident in the arbitrary detention places is holding captive men and women together over a long period of time (while these men and women were representatives of different sides of the conflict), access to minors was denied to both men and women, men and women were held in unsanitary conditions. Another form of violence was forcible dressing of military men in female clothes and forcing them to take up traditional female roles,” Yanova said.

The report gives particular names of the criminals. “We have identified several dozens of persons, some of them are mentioned in the report. They are both citizens of Ukraine and of the Russian Federation. Some of these people have high positions in the hierarchy of the so-called republics. […] Based on the testimony of the victims, it becomes evident that the above persons knew about the existence of the detention places and of their conditions, they were conscious of the violence applied to the arbitrary detained,” Shcherbachenko noted. “We have also recorded facts of gender-based violence on the part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and volunteer battalions as well. You are aware of the loudest case of the Tornado battalion, in which three persons were convicted based on respective articles of Criminal Code. […] But these facts are much fewer because the system is very much different in the uncontrolled area where complete lawlessness prevails,” the human rights defender added.

Applying gender-based violence in the area of armed conflicts violates a series of international documents – in particular, the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), said Anton Korynevych, associate professor at the Institute of International Relations of Kyiv Taras Shevchenko National University. “The value of the report is first of all in this statistical data. It must be translated into English and sent to The Hague to the ICC prosecutor where the case [the situation in eastern Ukraine] is being preliminary studied. I think it may have a positive impact on the course of the case at the ICC and lead to the opening of the case that will include these crimes as well as to the start a full-fledged investigation of the situation in Donbas,” the law expert emphasized.

The report also analyzes sexual violence being part of the information component of the armed conflict in Donbas. A separate part is dedicated to the gender-based violence outside of the conflict zone, in particular, in the families of the combat veterans.