Khershon Region, Ukraine (CNN) — Day after day, town after town, a police officer and a prosecutor go door to door in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine. Walking through the muddy streets, past homes damaged by shelling, they look for those who remained. The two men form a specialized unit that traveled from the capital city of Kiev.
A mother and her daughter go out on their terrace. “We are looking for sexual offenses,” says prosecutor Oleksandr Kleshchenko.
Until the beginning of October, this area of the country was occupied by Russian troops. Burned out cars litter the fields. The letter “Z” — the symbol used by Russian forces — stands for walls.
The scars of war are deeply etched here. Russia used sexual violence as a “weapon of war” – a deliberate “military strategy” – in its conquest of Ukraine, United Nations investigators said. They even floated accusations that Russian soldiers were carrying Viagra.
Russian authorities have rejected accusations of war crimes in Ukraine.
In two weeks of work in the Kherson region, the Kyiv team documented six reports of sexual assault. The real number is certainly much higher, they say.
Tatiana, 56, claims to be one of the victims. CNN is not releasing his last name or the name of his city to protect his identity.
Walking over broken glass, she shows us her brother’s house, where, she says, two Russian soldiers broke down her door on August 26.
“They wandered around those rooms,” he says. “One stayed there, and the other, the one who raped me, entered here. He came in, walked around the room a bit and here, in this place, he started groping me”.
“I told him: ‘No, no, I’m not old enough to give you anything, look for younger girls’.”
He pinned her against the closet, she says, and tore her clothes. – I cried, begged him to stop, but to no avail – he says. – The only thought I had was to stay alive.
He warned her not to tell anyone, she recalls. “I didn’t tell my husband right away,” she says through tears. “But I told my cousin and my husband listened. He said, ‘You should have told me the truth, but you kept quiet’.”
“I felt very embarrassed,” she says. “I wish he and his whole family were dead.”
She spent three days at home, in a frenzy, she is ashamed to go out. So, in an extraordinary act of courage, he says he stood up to the commander of the Russian soldier.
“His commander found the head of his unit. He came to me and said, ‘I punished him terribly, I broke his jaw, but the worst punishment is yet to come’. Does this worry you?” I told him: ‘I don’t care, I want to shoot them all'”.
Although prosecutor Kleschenko and police officer Oleksandr Svidro are specifically looking for evidence of sexual crimes, wherever they go they encounter the horrors of the occupation.
In these liberated cities, almost all the buildings were damaged by the war. Many houses were turned into ruins.
At his first stop on the day CNN followed the investigators, in Bila Krynytsya, a crowd waiting for a food delivery surrounded the prosecutor.
The city was behind Russian lines, but was never directly occupied. People shout that they have been abandoned for months, without help from Russia or Ukraine.
“Did they report [de los daños] anyone?” asks the prosecutor. “Who should we have informed?” replies a man in the crowd.
A man in the crowd told investigators that he was held by Russian soldiers and falsely executed. It’s hard to hear, stories about this kind of torture are common here, but that’s not the topic of your work today.
Despite the discontent of these villagers, the Ukrainian counter-offensive in this part of the country raised the hopes of the population that victory would indeed be possible, or at least that Kyiv could liberate key cities under Russian control, such as Kherson.
Starting slowly in late summer and then intensively in early October, Ukrainian forces have recaptured hundreds of square miles of territory Russia had held since the first days of its full-scale invasion.
In Tverdomedovo, a mother and daughter tell Kleshchenko that they have not heard of any sexual crimes in their one-road village.
Her neighbor, Vera Lapushnyak, 71, is sobbing uncontrollably. The Russians were friendly when they first arrived, he says.
“They said they were coming to protect us,” he recalls. – But from whom and why, we did not know.
She was widowed more than 30 years ago — she says her husband was killed in a motorcycle accident — and her son enlisted in the army shortly after the Russian invasion on February 24. He decided to leave, he says, about three months after Russian troops occupied his village.
Months later, after the Ukrainian army liberated his village in a lightning counter-offensive, he returned. The shelling reduced the roof to its rafters.
“Now I don’t know where I would sleep,” she says through tears. – There are no windows or doors, I sleep like a bum.
He shows us the inside. The ceiling of his room completely collapsed. He moved his bed into the only room that still had an intact window.
“I don’t know where to put it so that (the roof) doesn’t fall on my head,” he says. “If he had fallen and killed me, it would have been better, so I wouldn’t have suffered. But I want to see my son again.”
As the sun sets at the end of a long day, the two-man team arrives in Novovoznesens’ke, a town where two more cases of rape, allegedly by Russian soldiers, have been discovered. The next day they return to Kyiv to present their findings.
Of course, many of these accusations will be impossible to prove; many do not even have a suspect. For now, the team is filing their reports, and their investigators are continuing to work, hoping to bring charges in the future.
The United Nations says it has investigated cases of “sexual and gender-based violence” against people between the ages of 4 and 82 in Ukraine. According to the UN, 43 criminal proceedings have been initiated by September.
Police officer Svidro says that most cases of sexual violence remain unreported.
Work takes its toll. “It’s psychologically difficult,” he says. “You understand that every person is in trouble. But it’s important work.”
Reporter Maria Avdeeva contributed to this report.