The woman whose case could be the first heard in a war crimes investigation tells Catherine Philp in Kyiv what happened
A destroyed Russian tank near the front line in Brovary, on the outskirts of Kyiv
Natalya speaks in a hushed voice, fearful that Oleksii, her young son, will wake and learn the terrible truth. Of why they had to flee the little house by the pine forest that his father built for them. Of what the men with guns did to her while the boy sat sobbing in the darkened boiler room. Of who the man was lying lifeless in their front yard as they left home for the last time.
“He doesn’t understand much,” she explains down the phone line from the western city where mother and son fled three weeks ago from their village near Kyiv. “In the playground here, he goes up to people and says that we had to leave our house because there was war and there were bandits in the house but that Papa stayed behind. He doesn’t know his father is dead.”
Natalya is not her real name and her son is not called Oleksii, but those are the names she has chosen to tell the story of how their lives were turned upside down by the Russian soldiers who invaded their home, stole from them and shot dead her husband before raping her repeatedly over the course of several hours on March 9.
Ukrainian soldiers walking near the front line. Brovary was one of the early battlefields for Russian troops seeking to assault the capital
The Ukrainian authorities have reported the systematic sexual assault of women by Russian forces since Kremlin forces invaded last month, adding rape to their cruel and archaic arsenal. Dymtro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, has vowed to seek justice through the International Criminal Court, following the landmark recognition of rape as a war crime in 2008.
Natalya’s case may be the first test. Last week Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, announced that the first official investigation had been opened into a woman’s alleged rape by Russian soldiers after they shot dead her husband. The woman, who remains anonymous, was Natalya.
She agreed to tell her story for the first time to The Times to dispel whispers that the reports of rape by Russian soldiers were too shocking to be true.
Natalya, 33 and her husband, Andrey, 35, lived in a small hamlet near Shevchenkove village in Brovary district, outside Kyiv, where the couple chose to build their first home together next to a thick pine forest.
“We were planning a child and we were dreaming about our first home,” she recalls in a long phone call from Ternopil, the city where she is now sheltering. “We wanted to live closer to nature, that’s why we didn’t live in the city. My husband put his heart and soul into building the house and everything was made of natural wood and stone. We even used to go into the forest to pick litter that other people had left behind.”
Brovary was one of the early battlefields for Russian troops seeking to assault the capital, Kyiv. On March 8, after learning Russians had entered the village, the couple hung a white sheet from their gate “to show there is just a family here and no one wants any harm”.
The next morning, they heard a single gunshot outside the house and the sound of the gate being broken down. Coming out of the house with their hands raised, they saw a group of soldiers, one with his rifle still pointed at their dog lying dead in the yard. “They said they did not know there were people here, that they meant no harm,” Natalya said. “All the usual fairytales, ‘we thought we were going training, we didn’t know we would be sent to war’.”
Later the soldiers went looking for petrol for a quad bike they had stolen from their neighbours. The commander leered at Natalya, introducing himself as Mikhail Romanov, saying that if there were not a war on they would surely have a romance.
“There was another guy named Vitaly who asked for forgiveness for the dog. He said back in his home town he and his wife were dog breeders,” Natalya said. “Mikhail at that moment seemed a bit drunk. I asked them to leave, because my son was scared, he’s only four years old. I told them, ‘can you leave, you’ve checked the house and now you are just frightening him’.”
The commander grew aggressive when he saw a camouflage jacket in Andrey’s car and opened fire, shooting it up, before threatening to blow up Natalya’s car with a grenade. She begged him to leave it for emergencies but he snatched the keys, revving the engine and crashing it into a fallen tree trunk before abandoning it and stomping off. After dark, they heard a commotion at the gate and Andrey went out to check what was happening, leaving the door open.
“I heard a single shot, the sounds of the gate opening and then the sound of footsteps in the house,” Natalya said. It was Romanov, who had returned with a different man in his twenties, wearing a black uniform “I cried out, where is my husband, then I looked outside and I saw him on the ground by the gate. This younger guy pulled gun to my head and said: ‘I shot your husband because he’s a Nazi.’”
Natalya called to her son to stay in the boiler room where they had been sheltering from the shelling. “He said ‘you’d better shut up or I’ll get your child and show him his mother’s brains spread around the house’,” she recalled, her voice fading for the first time. “He told me to take my clothes off. Then they both raped me one after the other. They didn’t care that my son was in the boiler room crying. They told me to go shut him up and come back. All the time they held the gun by my head and taunted me, saying ‘how do you think she sucks it? Shall we kill her or keep her alive?’”
After some time, the men left and she went to her son, who was rigid with fear and refusing to move. About 20 minutes later, they returned, and raped her again before stumbling off. “When they came back for the third time, they were so drunk they were barely standing,” Natalya said.
“Eventually both of them fell asleep in the chairs. I crept into the boiler room and told my son we have to run away really fast or we will get shot.” This time he followed mutely into the yard.
Natalya continued: “While I was opening the gate my son was standing next to his father’s body but it was dark and he did not understand it was his father. He said ‘will we get shot the same as this man here?’”
A bridge destroyed near Brovary to halt the Russian advance. Natalya received a report last week that one of the soldiers who attacked her had been killed
Even after their escape across the fields to a neighbour’s house and then to Brovary the next day, and on to the western province of Lviv, Natalya could not bear to break the news of his father’s murder to her son. In Brovary she stayed with her in-laws, who sent her on to a town outside Ternopil where her husband’s sister had already been evacuated with her children. It was she who urged Natalya to report her rape and the murder of her husband to the police.
“I could have been silent but when we got to the police my husband’s sister made me speak up and there was no going back,” she said. “I understand that many people who have been hurt would stay silent because they are afraid. Lots of people don’t believe terrible things like this happen. One of the women I was with afterwards messaged the village group and people were saying ‘stop making up stories’.”
She identified Romanov from social media profiles, later learning he was accused of multiple assaults.
She does not know the identity of the second rapist, only that she is the only victim who might be able to identify him. Last week she was contacted to be told a man believed to be Romanov had been killed by Ukrainian forces in Brovary, “but I still do not know for sure if it is true.”
In Ternopil, when she takes Oleksii to the playground, he tells the other children: “‘My favourite dog was killed.’ He doesn’t know about his dad. Even if we go to the shop he’s asking me to buy a doughnut for him. ‘Buy a doughnut for Papa.’”
April 24 would have been their wedding anniversary. Her husband’s body is yet to be recovered. “We cannot bury him, we can’t get to the village, because the village is still occupied,” she said. Even if it is liberated, she does not know if she will return. “Memories are hard,” she said. “I don’t know how I will live with all of it but I still understand that my husband built this house for us. I would never be able to bring myself to sell it.”
(c) 2022, Times Newspapers