As Russian troops retreated from areas around Kyiv, officials, aid workers and journalists received reports from local residents that soldiers had raped them. A Ukrainian lawmaker said that sexual violence is "systematic in all the areas that were occupied by the Russians."
"Rape is used as a tool of war in Ukraine to break our spirits, to humiliate us and to show us that we can be helpless to protect our women and children and their bodies," Kira Rudyk, a member of Ukraine's Parliament, told CBS News. "It is happening systematically in the occupied territories."
Rudyk has been gathering evidence and testimonials in the hope that the perpetrators will eventually face justice.
"At first, we were working on making sure that women are safe and receive medical help. And I can tell you that some of them were indeed pregnant of Russian soldiers who raped them," Rudyk said.
She visited Bucha shortly after Russian troops left, and once people's immediate medical needs were attended to, she said she used a combination of phone records and documents that were left behind "to get the names and last names of the soldiers who were committing those crimes… We are right now collecting more and more evidence and information about them."
"I wish he had killed me instead"
Horrifying accounts of sexual violence and rape have been reported from areas which had been previously occupied by Russian forces as they pull back to refocus their attack on Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. The full the scale of the atrocities is not and may never be known.
Rudyk heard a story of a women being raped in front of her family members, as well as one of a woman being repeatedly visited and raped over many days.
"I wish he had killed me instead of what he did,"told CBS News' senior foreign correspondent Holly Williams, who visited the small village in southern Ukraine where she lives shortly after the Russian soldiers who had been occupying it left.
Visibly distressed, Vera said that a Russian fighter from Donetsk had raped her in her house with her disabled husband in the next room.
"I asked [the soldier], 'What do you have against our government? We weren't the ones who started the war.' God, I wish I hadn't said that. I tempted fate. He said I was too smart," Vera told CBS News. "He said get up. I got up. He grabbed me by the back of the neck. He squeezed it. I started to choke. I couldn't breathe. He asked me who was in the house. I said only my sick old man, no one else… and then it started."
Vera said the police told her that two other women in her small village had also been raped — another retiree and a younger woman — and that there was a similar case in a neighboring town that had also been occupied.
Vera said that, even though the occupiers had left her village, she was still petrified every night.
"I'm sad. Everything hurts. I'm in a state where I'm neither dead nor alive."
Rape as a war crime
Under international law, rape during conflict can be a war crime, a crime against humanity and — when linked with the intent to eliminate a group — part of genocide.
Rudyk said Russian forces used rape as a tool to terrorize people, because Ukrainians were putting up such fierce resistance to the invasion.
"They're trying to figure out ways to break us. Well, it's not working right now. It's just making us angry and bringing more and more people wanting to fight, wanting to protect our peaceful cities from this atrocity," she said.
Rudyk said she didn't believe Russian troops had been ordered to rape Ukrainian women, "but they were told to do whatever they want, which is basically allowing them to do that."
Aid organizations are working to help send rape kits and emergency contraception to Ukraine to attend to immediate medical needs and facilitate the collection of evidence. On Wednesday, the United Nations announced a set of global guidelines on how to collect evidence from witnesses, victims and survivors of sexual violence in conflict zones.
Rudyk said, although she hopes her work will help justice be served, sexual violence as a tool of war will continue as long as the conflict does.
"The only way to stop the atrocities is to end the war," she said. "And every single time, when a world organization is gathering and saying, 'Ok, we will get [together] in two weeks and reconsider what's happening, and we will think, maybe we will take some actions,' I want you to think that there is probably a woman somewhere in occupied territory — and not [just] one — that for these two weeks would be waking up every single day knowing what would happen. There will be Russian soldiers coming in and raping her. And she may not survive."
Justine Redman and Pamela Falk contributed to this report.
In the U.S., help is available for survivors of sexual violence and their families. RAINN offers resources at 1-800-656-HOPE and on their website, www.rainn.org
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