Survivors of CRSV Choose to Speak Out Against the Crimes of Russian Occupiers

Iryna DOVHAN and Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA are well-known not only in Ukraine but also worldwide. Despite enduring Russian captivity, torture, and humiliation, they have not only upheld their dignity but also become symbols of resilience against consequences of CRSV. Their narratives inspire global solidarity against this phenomenon.

In 2014, Iryna DOVHAN was abducted by Russian occupiers in Donetsk because her tablet contained photos of Ukrainian soldiers she was aiding, along with other evidence showing her strong support for our defenders. Since her family was well-off, the invaders began searching for money. Text messages about cash withdrawals from Iryna’s bank accounts came even from the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. Shortly afterward, the militants of the “Vostok” battalion arrived.

For five days, she was trapped in a terrifying nightmare where death felt like the only relief. Her rescue arrived through a famous photograph captured by Brazilian photojournalist Mauricio Lima. In the picture, she was standing by a pillar, wrapped in the Ukrainian flag, amid hostile adversaries. Madam, you’ve become an internet sensation, her captors reluctantly informed her before finally letting her go.

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA provided humanitarian aid to children with developmental disabilities from a closed-down residential institution in Novoazovsk district captured and controlled by Russian aggressors. These children were left without support, often hungry and poorly clothed. Liudmyla arranged deliveries of essential supplies from areas controlled by the Government of Ukraine, along with Ukrainian books and postcards filled with heartfelt wishes for the children. She also provided sincere assistance to Ukrainian soldiers defending the town of Shyrokyne. In 2019, she was imprisoned in the infamous Donetsk prison known as Isolation. Enduring fifty days of humiliation and mistreatment, she recalls a period filled with darkness, as she always had a bag placed over her head. I could only change clothes under the blanket in the cell, recalls Liudmyla, as constant video surveillance monitored my every move”.  She later was moved she was transferred to Donetsk pre-trial detention, where she shared a cell with 20 female inmates. Among them were individuals associated with DPR armed groups, responsible for brutal civilian killings, as well as those engaged in drug and arms trafficking, and suffering from AIDS and tuberculosis. Liudmyla spent nearly three years in this challenging environment before being released during a prisoner exchange in the autumn of 2022 and returning to Ukraine.

Both women managed to start life anew while remaining committed to assisting those who currently require their support. They are actively involved in public initiatives: Iryna DOVHANn leads the NGO SEMA-Ukraine, aiding survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, while Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA takes on the role of communication manager and information policy coordinator for the organization.

What inspired you to create SEMA-Ukraine?

Iryna DOVHAN: – I joined Ukrainian human rights activists on a trip to The Hague to testify in cases for the International Criminal Court. Although initially given only 3-4 minutes to address the prosecutors, they ended up listening to me for over 40 minutes. Later that evening, during a press conference attended by many journalists in The Hague, I was approached by a woman who gave me her business card and introduced herself as a representative of the Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation, an international human rights organization supporting survivors of CRSV. They were unaware of the situation in Ukraine, as their focus had mainly been on African countries. The events unfolding in the heart of Europe came as a surprise to them!

For several months, we exchanged messages. She asked whether there were similar cases in UkraineandI confirmed there were. Following that, I started searching for survivors of CRSV in Ukraine. With the assistance of Oleksandra MATVIICHUK, a Ukrainian human rights defender and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, we found some survivors. Others were discovered through social media. I reached out to these women,suggesting the idea of setting up an organisation together.

I considered it a significant achievement that several women, including myself, were able to address international conferences and openly declare that Russia is an aggressor, and that Russian mercenaries are committing rape against women.

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA: – At the end of 2021, while I was still held captive, I was honoured with the National Human Rights Award from the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine for my efforts in defending human rights. My husband accepted the award on my behalf and gave it to my friend, Olya MUSAFIROVA, a well-known Ukrainian journalist, for safekeeping. They planned to personal present me with the award at the National Union of Journalists a month after my release, which was attended by media representatives and civil society organizations, including Iryna DOVHAN. Following the ceremony, she extended an invitation for me to join the organisation. I shared that my priority was securing the release of women who were still imprisoned, some of whom I knew personally, while others I had only heard about. I understood the challenges they were enduring. Iryna explained that being part of the organization would offer me more opportunities to advocate for these prisoners on various platforms. I also met women who had experienced captivity in previously occupied territories. Given our shared experiences, we decided to work together towards common goals, recognizing the strength in unity.

What inspired your decision to unite?

Iryna DOVHAN: – At first, there were about 17 of us, with approximately 8-10 actively involved. What was our main objective? The Mukwege Foundation raised an important question: why haven’t any of you testified about your experiences in your own country? None of these women who have experienced CRSV has testified about what they went through. This is a critical issue to address. The mission of the Foundation is to encourage the government to recognise these survivors and provide them with proper care and support.

We held a round table and invited representatives from law enforcement agencies. Viktoriia KAVCHUK from the Prosecutor General’s Office, responsible for communication, was among the attendees. Touched by the stories of our women, she brought them to the notice of the Prosecutor General, Iryna VENEDYKTOVA at the time, whose immediate response was: let’s interview all of them.

A young prosecutor from Mariupol, with some understanding of the situation, was appointed to handle the case. I convinced all our women to testify, and 10 of them agreed. However, after the procedure, one woman changed her mind about cooperating with our organisation. Six months later, she shared over the phone that the experience had been too traumatic for her to overcome, and she no longer wanted to talk about it.

Every woman had her own unique circumstances. However, our primary objective remained the same: to compel the government to recognise our existence.

What inspired the choice of the name SEMA-Ukraine?

Iryna DOVHAN: – SEMA-NETWORK is the global network of organisations established by the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation. It currently gathers female victims and survivors of CRSV from 26 countries affected by armed conflicts. We decided to join this network in 2019 because it aligned with our goals and values.

In the beginning, we made little progress. When the full-scale invasion started, I considered giving up and walking away. However, I shifted my focus to documenting Russian crimes, finding it more meaningful. While some women in our organisation left the country, new members joined. We received financial aid from the Mukwege Foundation, which involved extensive administrative tasks like questionnaires, surveys, and account setup. And I got fully engaged with the organisation again.

In April 2022, the director of the Global Survivors Fund visited Ukraine. She was impressed by our country’s efforts to support victims and survivors of CRSV during wartime – setting a global precedent. Hearing this, I could not help but think: “Wow, if we continue showcasing our efforts like this, Europe will welcome us with open arms!”

SEMA means ‘speak out’ in Swahili. What does this signify for you?

Iryna DOVHAN: – If we remain silent, nothing will change. It is vital that we speak out now. Ukraine cannot afford to stay silent.

The government, in cooperation with international institutions like the UN, the Mukwege Foundation, the Global Survivors Fund, and others – initiated efforts to address CRSV. We were invited to numerous events, and we started talking. Whether asked or not, we speak out. We have learned to speak and express ourselves clearly. We have also recognised the willingness of European nations to assist us, showing immense empathy. We are doing everything to bring our country up to their standards, and we are excited to see progress pick up speed.

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA: – I personally do not keep silent. I participate in interviews, regardless of whether it is for a national, regional, or local publication. Afterward, I find it difficult to sleep at night because it triggers memories and emotions all over again. However, my desire is for both the global community and our society to be aware of what the Russian occupiers have been doing on our land since 2014 and the suffering they have inflicted on our people.

I feel compelled to speak up because I have nothing to be ashamed of. Their actions towards me, and towards other women and men, should not weigh on our shoulders. It is their wrongdoing that should haunt them for generations to come!

What inspires you to speak out?

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA: – I am aware that women in the occupied regions are still enduring hardships and are unable to reunite with their loved ones. I always think of Olya Meleshchenko, who was arrested over her social media posts and wrongly accused of espionage. It’s been almost three years since Olya was imprisoned. When she was arrested, her youngest son was only 4 years old; now he is in first grade, living in the occupied territory. Since her husband cannot leave the area, he visits Olya weekly, bringing water, bread and encouragement. Given these circumstances, how can anyone remain silent?

I had the opportunity to join an advocacy trip to the US and speak at the UN. In my speech, I shared about imprisoned women and their struggles. This sparked many discussions. I strongly believe that people should know about what is happening in the occupied areas and in the detention facilities where civilians and prisoners of war are held. Drawing from my own experiences, I feel driven to speak out. I’ll keep doing so as long as I am able.

What are your priority areas?

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA: – I believe we should advocate for the law for survivors of CRSV, which would secure official recognition of their status. This law should outline essential services for individuals who have experienced sexual violence during wartime. Since the trauma persists, continuous healthcare and psychological support are essential, not just primary care, 3-5 times and done.

I consulted a psychologist who recommended undergoing therapy for at least 3 years, considering my traumatic experience. However, I understand that sustained therapy is not free, and switching therapists after a set of free sessions can lead to re-traumatization and will not be helpful. All these matters should be addressed in laws.

The same is with reparations: immediate payments are essential, as survivors frequently need financial support. I also believe it is important to raise public awareness of CRSV cases and educate people on how to respond properly. This way, survivors in the occupied territories or those who have left will not feel afraid. They need to know they can reach out to us, speak out, and stand together with us. They should understand that they have the right to seek help from law enforcement and pursue justice.

I believe your input should be taken into account when drafting this law.

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA: – Certainly, our organisation has joined the Inter-Agency Working Group on Combating Sexual Violence Related to Russia’s Armed Aggression Against Ukraine and Assistance to Survivors. Many other civil society organisations are also engaged in this collaborative effort. Together, we are drafting recommendations for the reparations law, with a particular emphasis on CRSV. Kateryna Levchenko, the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, chairs this IWG, and we sincerely appreciate her genuine support.

We have shared our thoughts and suggestions for the draft law on different platforms, and some of them have been integrated.

What is the main goal of your organisation: is it mainly supporting each other, or advocating for holding the perpetrators accountable?

Iryna DOVHAN: – Both. These both goals are intertwined for us. Trust me, without one, the other cannot succeed.

If you ask anyone in the organisation if we aim to seek justice for the perpetrators, the answer will be a resounding “Yes!” That is our primary goal. However, we recognise that we can’t achieve justice on our own. Additionally, these women have to somehow survive in this world juggling various responsibilities like looking after their families, children, and themselves while also taking care of their well-being. It is important for these women to feel supported by the organisation.

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA: – First and for most, survivors should be granted a victim status; the government ought to officially recognise them as victims of CRSV. We have people in the country who have been displaced from their homes, known as IDPs, yet it appears that our existence is not acknowledged.

Securing this status ensures support for women who may currently fear speaking about their experiences. It grants them access to reparations, medical care, financial aid, psychological assistance, and most importantly, protection. We advocate for justice and safeguarding these women to prevent perpetrators, those bastards, or their associates from intimidating or seeking revenge against them.

If a person is granted the status, does it mean that their personal CRSV experience will be made public?

Iryna DOVHAN: – The register must be entirely confidential, following international practices. Mistakes have been made previously, as in Bosnia, where financial assistance was provided in a pink envelope, inadvertently disclosing CRSV status. Therefore, our register is strictly internal, with restricted access. If reparations are secured in the future, each woman will receive them discreetly in her personal bank account to prevent further trauma.

I have heard some officials express the opinion that Ukrainian women who have experienced CRSV do not need official recognition. They assume these women are filled with so much anger and desire for revenge against Russia that they will testify and seek justice regardless. However, that’s not true. While I may feel driven by a desire for revenge, others like Liudmyla might not share the same sentiment. We are all unique individuals. After all, some may have no strength to either seek revenge or help others. This is a responsibility the government must undertake.

How many women does SEMA-Ukraine bring together presently?

Iryna DOVHAN: – At present, we have 39 members, with the potential for two more joining. We identify survivors through different channels. Some of our existing members notify us about similar cases in their communities and extend invitations to join us. While some accept the invitation, others may choose not to join.

I often travel to villages that have been liberated, where I connect with locals like teachers, school principals, and nurses who are well-informed about the community. I explain to them that if they are aware of such women, the government should already have some assistance available for them. I can quickly arrange support through the International Organization for Migration, enabling a woman to access a rehabilitation center. There, she will receive comprehensive free care, like in a health resort, with medication, tests, and extra medicine to take home, which is a huge help.

After that, I explained that we had received funding and prepared special gifts personally for each woman in need. I also offer to arrange gatherings with other survivors of CRSV, so they can see how others are coping and overcoming their traumas. I also explain that there is global advocacy for these women to receive reparations from Russia and the government. The local community members, who are well-respected in the village and with whom I maintain communication, understand my message. They reach out to the affected women and contact me when someone agrees to meet.

Do you share your stories with each other? Do you know the stories of all the women in the organisation?

Iryna DOVHAN: – For the most part, I know about everyone as I occasionally document their stories with their consent. There are very few who remain completely silent, so I do not know their stories. I mostly know those who choose to speak out.

Currently, we have about 40 members. This is just a drop in the ocean! Even if we reach 200, it is only the beginning. There is a vast number of CRSV survivors across the country, a fact I have seen firsthand while visiting villages previously occupied by the Russians. In each village, there are known cases of raped women, but there are likely many more that remain undisclosed.

Why do the Russians resort to such methods of warfare?

Iryna DOVHAN: – I believe these rapes originate from envy – the stupid mindset prevalent among Russians. It is often not people from Moscow or St. Petersburg who commit rape, but rather those from rural Russia, where mistreatment of women is culturally ingrained.

Russian mentality is different: women there are not treated with the same respect as in Ukraine. Ukrainian women are highly regarded in families and society, often seen wearing expensive necklaces and embroidered shirts, which are also not cheap, symbolizing their high status. It is completely different in Russia. Men there often come home drunk and do not bother to seek a woman’s consent. They are mistreating our women in the same manner. Having grown accustomed to the respectful culture of Ukraine and Europe, we were caught off guard by the intrusion of these barbarians into our lives. Ukrainian women can openly speak their minds, but confronting a Russian man can endanger their safety. I have heard many instances of this happening.

In general, it is a savage horde where violence is commonplace. We can never fully comprehend their way of thinking. A Russian invader sees a young woman and an elderly one in the yard. After the young woman leaves, he returns and assaults the elderly woman, who is in her 80s. Despite her age, he shows no restraint. This woman is now in our organisation.

We encourage every woman to testify. We firmly believe that without her testimony, her fight for justice is impossible.

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA: – They recognise their inferiority compared to us. When armed and facing unarmed individuals like children, women, or men, one may assert dominance through force, violence, threats or actual killing. However, these actions originate from weakness. They are unable to engage in meaningful conversation with us – we are so different.

Back in 2014, when unidentified soldiers arrived, I posted on Facebook about ‘orcs’ wandering our city. How absurd is it for an investigator to flag that post for examination? Then, an expert with a similarly narrow mindset deemed it an extremist statement. Finally, their superior official, displaying a similar lack of intelligence, angrily shouted at me: “Who are these ‘orcs’?”

At first, I felt frightened. I remember thinking: “Oh God, what will happen next?” Then, he asked, “Who are these orcs?” Holding back a laugh, I pressed my lips together, aware that any amusement might trigger violence and he would beat me. So, I calmly responded, “They are fictional characters”.

Who is the stronger one among us? Undoubtedly, it’s us.

Do you believe that all these perpetrators will actually be caught and held accountable?

Iryna DOVHAN: – No, I don’t. But I will ensure repercussions for their country. And I will hold accountable whoever initiated all of this.

I firmly believe that the civilized world will never view Russia in the same light again. Even the most tolerant Europeans have shown less tolerance towards Russia. This shift is apparent to me, and we are hearing about it as well.

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA: – I have faith in this. I have authentic documents from individuals, containing their full names and signatures, which I obtained from occupied Donetsk. Yet, even without such documents, identifying the perpetrators is possible. Nothing is beyond reach. Everything is possible. Just believe in yourself and your goals.

What are the primary concerns that must be addressed to assist survivors of CRSV?

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA: – Upon returning from captivity, especially when your home is destroyed and your town is controlled by Russian combatants, the immediate priority should be restoring documents. Survivors should have access to readily available support, including essential medical aid, without the need to seek funds for this purpose. For instance, there is an elderly woman in our organisation, who had her teeth knocked out by Russian occupiers using the butt of a rifle, to prevent her from resisting or causing harm during the ordeal. Unfortunately, survivors do not have access to free dental care.

Psychological support is vital, not only for the survivors but also for their entire families. A friend I met in prison cares deeply for her son but has not been in touch with him for a while. She will need help to rebuild their relationship once she is released. Her child also needs help in rebuilding connections with his mother. This issue is very important, but sadly, it is currently being overlooked.

Iryna DOVHAN: – As an organization, we will do our part, but the primary support should come from the government. This needs to be a key aspect of the state policy.

Another guiding principle when working with survivors is Nothing About Us Without Us. How does this principle work?

Liudmyla HUSEYNOVA: – I believe that neither a government official nor a scientist, regardless of their level of expertise, can engage in advocacy without survivors who have endured this horror. Simply presenting statistics or research findings and uttering dry words on international platforms, lacks the emotional impact needed to truly resonate with others.

We seek empathy and support from foreign nations and want them to grasp the suffering inflicted by the Russian Federation in Ukraine. It is crucial for them to fully understand the depth of the tragedy and pain experienced by Ukrainians. No one can express it as well as someone who has experienced it firsthand.  We need to support everyone who represents our country on all platforms.

We collaborate extensively with Ukrainian civil society organisations such as “JurFem”, “Right to Protection” etc. Whenever we require assistance, we are proactive in seeking it out. I believe our organisation is still evolving, and we constantly learning from our partners. Additionally, we engage with international institutions. I recently met with Diane Brown, the Head of the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Unit at the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, where I extended an invitation for her to meet our women. I am confident that every collaboration contributes to supporting survivors and advancing efforts to free those who remain in captivity or on the occupied territories.

Volodymyr DOBROTA,

National Press Club “Ukrainian Perspective”

The material presented herein was prepared as part of the Project “RESILIENT TOGETHER: Improving the system of response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV)”. The Project is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Ukrainian Women Fund in partnership with the Civil Society Organization La Strada-Ukraine” and the Ukrainian Lawyers Association “JurFem”, as well as the Office of the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine and the Government Commissioner on Gender Equality Policy.