WARSAW, Poland - It was just before sundown when two soldiers wearing black balaclavas burst into the Mariupol basement where Kateryna had been sheltering with neighbors since the first days of the war.
For a fleeting moment, the 19-year-old hoped the soldiers might be Ukrainian, though she knew that was unlikely in the Russian-held area.
She quickly realized they were Chechen fighters from Russia’s North Caucasus region, part of a force that gained a reputation for particularly harsh cruelty toward civilians who remained in the Ukrainian port city. The soldiers boasted about the superior uniforms given to their units.
They had rifles slung over their shoulders, she recalled, and they seemed drunk.
“We need to check documents,” she remembers one of the soldiers saying to the people huddled in the basement. As she rose to get hers, one of the men stopped her, put his hand to her cheek and complimented her on the definition of her nose. “He asked me what my name was,” she said. She sensed what was going to unfold.
“I’d already guessed deep down,” she later recounted.
Just a week into the war, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba alleged there had been “numerous cases” of Ukrainian women being raped by Russian soldiers. But more than 100 days into the conflict, investigators are still struggling to assess the prevalence of sexual violence - and how many people have stories like Kateryna’s.
Not only is access and information limited in occupied areas such as Mariupol, but trauma, fear and stigma can deter people from coming forward.
“To investigate sexual crimes on the occupied territory, when we are still in the military conflict, is very hard,” said Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova. “It’s very difficult, because the victims are actually scared.”
Polish prosecutors, who have gathered more than 1,000 war crimes testimonies from refugees, say none so far relate to sexual violence.
For the moment at least, Kateryna remains one of the uncounted. She retreated to her cot as researchers logging potential war crimes made their way around the refugee center where she was staying in Poland, having escaped Mariupol on a circuitous route through Russia.
She later volunteered her story to Washington Post journalists as they interviewed another member of her group. But as far as reporting her case to authorities, she said: “I’m not ready yet.”
It’s not unusual for people to be reluctant to file official reports, said Kateryna Cherepakha, the director of La Strada Ukraine, which runs a national hotline for victims of domestic violence and gender discrimination.
“For most cases, those who contacted our hotline aren’t willing to talk to police or prosecutor,” she said. Her organization counsels people on the reporting process so that they can come forward when they are ready. Rape during conflict is considered a war crime, and there is no statute of limitations.
Cherepakha said her volunteers have fielded calls seeking help after 16 alleged cases of rape since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in late February. All but one of the victims were female, and three were minors, she said. The youngest was 13.
The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office has not released its own case counts. Officials say they have only a partial picture of sexual assault in the conflict and don’t want to underplay the issue.
Other Ukrainian officials have been accused of doing the opposite - of using stories of rape to stir emotions. Ukraine’s parliament voted last week to oust human rights ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova, based in part on concerns that she was disseminating unsubstantiated reports and focusing on the most sensationalist details, including of babies being raped.
The U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has been working to corroborate accounts. Of the 124 allegations of conflict-related sexual violence it has received, it was able to confirm 24 - 12 involving Russian armed forces or affiliated groups, five involving Ukrainian armed forces and seven involving unidentified individuals in territory controlled by Ukraine. The United Nations determined that another 44 were impossible to verify and that eight were false or highly unlikely. It continues to investigate another 48 allegations.
Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, called that only the “tip of the iceberg” of “the most constantly and massively underreported allegation.”
Rape has been used as a weapon of war throughout history - whether to subjugate, terrorize or ethnically cleanse populations. Systematic sexual violence has been reported in conflicts from Myanmar to Bosnia, while historians estimate that as many 2 million Germans were raped by Soviet troops as they advanced against Nazi forces in the last days of World War II.
Reports of Russian forces committing rape in eastern Ukraine preceded the current conflict, according to the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict data set.
But human rights officials and advocates told The Post that they do not think rape is being coordinated and directed in Ukraine now. So far, the United Nations has “not found evidence of the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in Ukraine,” said Matilda Bogner, the head of the U.N. monitoring mission.
Officials say they expect to hear about more cases once victims reach safety.
“There have been multiple reports from survivors of Russia’s soldiers breaking down doors to basements where women were sheltering and raping them … done in front of their children” and “filmed by Russian soldiers,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said this week.
She added: “It is on Russia to stop rape, violence and atrocities from within its ranks.”
Russian officials have denied those claims.
“The accusations of sexual violence against the Russian army have become repetitive … but no proof has been provided,” said Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia.
In areas like Mariupol, the major barrier to verifying reports of atrocities remains access.
Mariupol has come to symbolize Ukraine’s darkest suffering, with abuses so widespread that even Russian officials are concerned they may be undermining their claim of being “liberators,” according a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record but cited a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment.
Vadym Boychenko, the mayor of Mariupol, said he is aware of about a dozen reports of rape in the city, but fear and the fact that, for the most part, residents who want to leave can only do so through Russia, means there is little information.
Kateryna told The Post that she had been sitting just inside the door to the basement, with a 75-year-old woman and the lady’s pet Chihuahua, when the Chechens entered on March 26. It was the first time any soldiers had been inside the building since the area was taken by Russian forces a few weeks earlier.
The one soldier told her she needed to come upstairs to be “examined.” The sound of shelling thundered around them, and she told him she was afraid to go up.
But he led her to an empty second-floor apartment and instructed her to bend down and rest her hands on the couch. “He showed me what I had to do,” she said. “I told him that I didn’t want to do it.”
“But he told me that he would kill me.”
She got on her knees and begged for her life.
“But he lifted me up in silence and did what he wanted,” she said.
She had few defenders in the basement that day.
She had been staying in the apartment block with her boyfriend’s family - though he had left to work overseas just before the invasion. As the weeks of subzero temperatures and food shortages continued, it was clear she had worn out her welcome. Her relationship with her own mother had long been strained, and her father had died four years earlier.
Artem, 38, an Azovstal steel plant worker she had befriended, said that when the soldiers arrived, he was at the hospital visiting his mother, who had ventured out and been hit by shrapnel from an explosion. But he corroborated Kateryna’s story, saying he later returned to the basement and heard from multiple neighbors who had witnessed her being taken upstairs.
“There were other men in the basement who could have helped her,” he said, “but they were scared as well.”
On April 25, Kateryna, Artem and three family friends made their escape, risking the journey through Russian checkpoints before crossing into Latvia and then Lithuania and on to Poland. They said they wanted to end up in Norway.
While Kateryna said she plans to report the rape someday, she also said she holds little hope of the perpetrator being punished. She never saw his face, she said, and knows nothing else about him.
“But I hope for it,” she said.