'I don't want to live': Woman recounts rape by Russian soldiers
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AFP) - At times struggling to control her emotions, Elena insists she wants to tell her story of rape at the hands of two of the Russian soldiers who took over her hometown in southern Ukraine.
Pointed out to Russian forces by a fellow townsman as the wife of a Ukrainian soldier, Elena, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, recounts an ordeal that lasted for hours.
Her story is similar to those of other victims documented by human rights organisations which say rape is being used as a "weapon of war" in Ukraine.
Speaking to AFP in the city of Zaporizhzhia after managing to evacuate from the Russian-held Kherson region, Elena is waiting for a bus to be reunited with her four children in central Ukraine.
She sent them away from their hometown on Feb 24 - the first day of the Russian invasion.
Her husband was sent to the frontline and Elena stayed behind to try and organise a bigger removal of their belongings to a safer part of the country.
But she was not able to arrange a car and the situation on the ground changed quickly, with Russian troops taking over the town.
'She's the wife of a soldier'
It happened on Sunday (April 3) afternoon.
"At about 3pm, I went to the shop. While I was queueing some Russian soldiers came in and started talking to the customers," Elena said.
"I couldn't hear what they were saying but I realised that one of the residents was pointing at me saying 'She's a banderovka!'."
The term refers to Ukrainian wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union.
It is frequently used by Russian authorities as a disparaging way of referring to Ukrainian officials with supposedly nationalist views.
She said the man who pointed her out said: "It's because of those kinds of people that the war broke out", adding: "She's the wife of a soldier."
"I understood that they were watching me so I quickly left the shop. I just had time to get into my house. The two Russian soldiers came in through the door after me. I didn't have time to get out my phone to call for help or to do anything.
"Without a word, they pushed me onto the bed. They held me down with a rifle and stripped me," said the young woman, breaking down in tears.
"They didn't say much. Sometimes they called me 'banderovka' or they said 'your turn' to each other. Then, at 4am, they left because it was their turn to be on duty" at their camp.
Elena said she had not spoken to any doctor or therapist about the ordeal, or her husband.
"I am a midwife. I treated myself," she said.
"I will find everything I need once I reach my destination. I just want to see my children".
Asked about her physical and mental state, she breaks down again.
"Disgusting. Very disgusting. I don't want to live," she said.
Seven cases reported to helpline
Elena's case is far from the only one.
The Ukrainian branch of La Strada, a women's rights organisation, said its helpline had received calls regarding seven cases of rape.
But Alina Kryvoulyak, a representative of the group, told AFP that more women and girls may come forward once the initial shock wears off.
"There could be hundreds or thousands of women and young girls who have been raped," she said.
The first call La Strada received on March 4 was about a "collective rape of a mother and her 17-year-old daughter by three men" in Kherson.
The other cases were in the Kyiv region, she said.
"Russian soldiers have committed sexual violence against Ukrainian women and men, against children and against the elderly," Ukraine's prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said this week.
She recognised, however, the challenges of gathering evidence in a country at war where phone signals and electricity coverage are patchy at best.
For her part, Elena said she believed Ukrainian forces "will take revenge" when they recapture areas currently held by Russian troops.
"I will point the finger at the people who singled me out. I will point them out to my husband."