Liudmila Denisova, Ukrainian Ombudsman: “Russia uses rape as a weapon of war” | International
Liudmila Denisova (Arjangelsk, Russia, 61 years old) assumed the position of Ombudsman of Ukraine in 2018 (ombudsman of Human Rights of the Parliament, in its technical name) with a speech in which he pointed out poverty as the main problem in the country and promised to defend the rights of retirees. Four years later, the Russian invasion has abruptly forced him to change focus to become the most active official speaker in denouncing sexual assaults and indications of war crimes at the hands of the Russian military.
The Ombudsman’s Office operates, with the support of Unicef, a telephone switchboard to provide psychological help every day at any time. The type of calls, Denisova points out, “has changed a lot” since the start of the war, on February 24. “Until March 31, people were mostly looking for someone. Now they have to do more with having suffered a crime, mainly sexual assault. Why? Because until then those sites were still occupied by Russian troops.” Between April 1 and 14, the switchboard received 400 calls with reports of violations, as Russian forces withdrew and focused their offensive on southern and eastern Ukraine, she says. “Clearly, it is not a definitive number, because you have to understand that not everyone calls and that some still cannot, because they are in busy areas. Perhaps it is double or triple ”, she pointed out last Tuesday in an interview with this newspaper held at the institution’s headquarters in kyiv.
The ombudsman – who obtained Ukrainian nationality after moving to the Crimean peninsula in the 1990s, now annexed by Russia – insists that it is “very difficult to have proof” of the violations, because the victims do not want to relive the experience or Let it know. “Is the problem. You have to have them, but how? When they call, to begin with, they don’t want to share their story and often say ‘it’s my fault that it happened to me too’. Or they tell the psychologist: ‘I don’t deserve your time’. Another problem is that they usually only remember the beginning of the story and the end. […]. In months or years, maybe they will talk about it with someone, ”she says. The first goal of the professionals who treat them is to prevent them from committing suicide, she adds.
Denisova believes that the sum of the high number of complaints with the taste of Russian soldiers for forcing relatives to witness sexual assaults and the phrases that the victims agree in attributing to them draws a pattern of use of sexual violence as “one more weapon of war”, rather than dealing with isolated cases. “I’m pretty sure,” she says. “One of the things that most people say is: ‘We will rape you until you feel no desire towards any other man, until you feel no desire to give birth to new Ukrainians.’ And it is in large groups. And cruel, not to kill desire. Also for alcohol. They are normally drunk when they do it,” she notes.
The ombudsman insists that, in addition to the trauma of the attack, the majority also carry the burden of having witnessed the murder of their brothers or husbands when they tried to prevent it. The authors, the victims agree in their stories, were between 20 and 25 years old, which Denisova interprets as proof of the “influence of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda”, since that age range has grown with him as president or first Minister.
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Denisova’s serious face and monotonous speech, wearing glasses and a turtleneck sweater, look like something out of a Hollywood movie about the Soviet era. The sober form contrasts with the background of her words: a chain of complaints of violations, each more atrocious. For example, that of a 14-year-old adolescent by five soldiers in front of her mother. “They didn’t want to tell the story or share it with anyone. They only called the switchboard when they discovered that she was pregnant and the doctor prevented them from having an abortion”, she says.
Another soldier raped a woman for several days and at the end he told her: “I have fallen in love with you. I want you to come with me to Russia, ”she points out. “She responded with the excuse that she couldn’t because her mother was very old and she had to take care of her. So the soldier killed the mother,” he continues.
Denisova also speaks of acts of particular cruelty. Like that of the three Russian soldiers who forced a 25-year-old Ukrainian woman to watch her sister, six years her junior, be raped for about ten hours. “She asked them: ‘please stop, do it to me, not to her’. They didn’t want her: they just held her and said, ‘We’re going to do this to every single Ukrainian Nazi bitch,’” she says.
Victims from 11 to 70 years old
Reports of rape range from a 70-year-old woman to an 11-year-old girl in Gostomel (northwest of kyiv), who now feels guilty. ‘My mother forbade me to leave the house,’ she says. ‘I did it just to bring her flowers, to make her happy.’ And that’s how she ran into the Russian soldiers. She doesn’t remember what happened, only how they started to touch her.”
The defender also recounts a call from a woman asking what to do after three Russian soldiers tied her to a chair so she could watch her 11-year-old son being raped. Another raped man was 45 years old. She “she left the shelter in one of the occupied territories to fetch water and met a soldier, who raped, robbed and beat her. He left him there probably because he thought he was dead”, she adds.
Denisova’s mobile lights up. She apologizes and takes a call. She then explains that 58 children, aged four months to four years and mostly disabled, have been found in the underground shelter of a church in the city of Kherson, in the south of the country and taken by Russian forces. . They had been there 55 days.
At the end of the interview, today’s ombudsman brings out her more political side, asking the West for new sanctions on Russia and weapons for her country. She was Minister of Labor and Social Policies between 2007 and 2010, in the second Government of Yulia Timoshenko ―the heroine of the Orange Revolution of 2004― and of Social Policy just a few months with Arseni Yatseniuk, after the famous Euromaidan protest, motivated by the refusal in 2013 of the then president, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, to sign an association agreement with the EU.
―How do you separate your role from politics in times of war?
“I fully understand my responsibilities now that I am not a politician. The fact of being known in my country helps me a lot to do my job. One half of your life you work on the agenda and the other you use it.
Like the rest of the Ukrainian leaders, Denisova enters the slippery terrain of describing the apparent Russian war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine as genocide. She argues that she is acting from the intention – which has not been proven – to partially or totally destroy the Ukrainian people. It justifies it in the transfer of children to Russia ―from, for example, Mariupol―, which links to a bill in Russia, which a committee will begin to assess next Tuesday, to facilitate the adoption of war orphans from the republics pro-Russian separatists from Donetsk and Lugansk. And she stresses the importance of the practice of preventing new births, cases she exemplifies in the capture of a married couple escaping by car to a safer part of Ukraine. The Russian soldiers only killed her, eight months pregnant: “They don’t always mind killing men, because it is women who can give birth to new Ukrainians,” she concludes.
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