'They took turns raping me': Ukrainian survivors reveal how Russian soldiers use sex attacks 'as a weapon of war'

It is one of the oldest weapons of war.

Russian forces have used widespread sexual violence to frighten and intimidate survivors throughout the Ukraine war with society's most vulnerable - children and the elderly - among those targeted.

Just 154 cases of conflict-related sexual violence have been officially identified but experts believe the actual number of victims is substantially higher.

Warning: Some readers may find this article distressing

A United Nations investigation into war crimes committed in Ukraine found that sexual violence was perpetrated across all genders, with the victims' ages ranging from four to 82 years.

Sexual violence during conflict is classed as a war crime and a crime of genocide.

It can have long-term psychological effects - including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety - as well as physical effects such as sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancies and traumatic injuries.

Experts believe the impacts of wartime sexual violence are worsened by local attitudes to rape - victims often feel unable to talk about the assault.

The sexual violence in Ukraine is so harrowing that First Lady Olena Zelenska warned that Russian forces were using it "systematically and openly" and that it was "another weapon in their arsenal".

Alisa Kovalenko is a documentary film-maker who was assaulted by Russian soldiers in 2014 in the Donbas region. Sky News is able to report her story as she has waived her right to anonymity.

She had been making a documentary about anti-corruption protests when she was stopped at a checkpoint manned by Russian soldiers while in a taxi.

'It was a weapon of war'

The taxi driver incorrectly said Ms Kovalenko was with the Ukrainian army and the soldiers arrested her. She was interrogated for hours before one officer took her to an apartment.

She told the Sky News Daily podcast: "He forced me to take off my clothes and take a bath, but of course keep the door open and he would come in from time to time to the bathroom. He was saying: 'Why are you so shy? You have to wash yourself. You are so dirty because you stay like this in the trenches.'

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"He was saying it in a very arrogant way that he has this power and he can do whatever he wants.

"After he gave me a very tiny towel and brought me to the kitchen and he wanted to talk. He was cleaning his gun just in front of me, enjoying his power, and that I could do nothing.

"Later, he tried to rape me. That's why I think it was a weapon of war because you cannot have a stronger humiliation than this."

Ms Kovalenko was held captive for four days before the soldiers released her.

The Andreev Foundation is a charity that is supporting survivors of rape and sexual assault and recording their testimonies.

The accounts of victims demonstrate the brutality of Russian soldiers against Ukrainians in the areas they occupied.

'I remember very well the creak of the table'

One victim, known as A, said: "I got on my knees and started to unfasten his belt, and he started smiling again and stroking my head, saying that I was a 'good girl'.

"When he finished, he called another soldier, and he spat at me and hit me with such force that I could not hear in my left ear for several days.

"Then the other one dragged me out and told me to leave the car. I tried to wipe my tears so that my children wouldn't see it.

"They stuck a piece of white tape on my forehead and told me to leave, and when we left, they [the soldiers] shot at our car."

Another survivor said: "I remember very well the creak of the table where I was raped, the number of times - five, the smell in the room - smoked sausage mixed with alcohol and sex, the thunder of explosions and the names of books that were on the shelves in front of my face, I read them over and over again while they took turns raping me."

A fourth survivor was threatened with a machine gun.

"The Russian soldiers laughed loudly, pushed me aside, and one of them put a machine gun to my chest and the other said: 'Finish her, there's nothing to do with her'.

"The soldier jerked the machine gun and I even had time to start praying and saying goodbye to my life," she said.

The assault only ended after one of the soldiers received a phone call and the group left.

'They want to destroy us mentally'

Another survivor said: "The physical pain went away, but something worse than that started. As soon as I closed my eyes, I was torn to pieces again.

"Not only could I not sleep, but the feeling of danger, fear, shame and complete hopelessness came even during the day.

"My body was cured - only stitches remained. But I still had pain inside of my soul.

"I didn't know how to go on living, and one day I couldn't take it anymore - I tried to kill myself."

Anna Orel, one of the team working with survivors at the charity, said it is like "a horror, a scary movie".

"They just want to destroy us mentally. Russian forces have used rape as a deliberate tactic to dehumanise the victims.

"Most people who survive through this, they don't want to live on. Our main goal is to return them to their previous life, to help them to hold on and to give them the reason to live.

"It is very difficult to hear these awful things from people that they survived. But we need to struggle to resist and we need to live on to help others.

"Helping others is also our strength. I just can't imagine how difficult for those people who survived through sexual violence. For me, [it is] heartbreaking every time I hear their stories."

Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org in the UK.