The withdrawal of Russian troops from some areas of Ukraine has left images of destroyed buildings and dead civilians, but also testimonies of violations. One of the most shocking is the one made by the mayor of Bucha who denounced the Moscow forces for raping 25 girls between the ages of 11 and 14 for a month, whom they kept locked up in a local basement.
A horror story that is not new, that is repeated war after war and that continues to represent one of the most frequent and most invisible crimes of armed conflicts.
These days we have remembered the end of the Second World War and the liberation of the Nazi death camps, but we have hardly talked about the sexual violence suffered by millions of women and girls in Europe. Violations that were never properly documented. We know that in Vienna hospitals reported 87,000 women raped during the three weeks following the end of the war and it is also estimated that at least two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers in the first weeks of occupation. .
One of them was the first wife of the former German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, Hannelore, a victim at the age of 12 of a gang rape that left her with a cervical injury for life. She did not speak of it until she was an adult, but the physical and psychological consequences accompanied her until she committed suicide at the age of 68.
Berlin is one of the places that has most documented sexual violence during World War II. It is estimated that more than 100,000 women and girls were raped there. Of these, some 10,000 died as a result of attacks that were not talked about for decades. The archives of the city districts keep testimonies written in the first person by girls under 12 years old that explain how they were repeatedly raped, sometimes in the presence of their own family. Only in one of them 995 requests for abortion were registered as a result of these attacks.
Antony Beevor, one of the first historians to document sexual violence during the first weeks of occupation in his book Berlin, the fall. 1945 He confirms, after collecting thousands of testimonies, that the Russian soldiers raped all the women in the city who were between eight and eighty years old. The book describes gang rapes of 20 or 30 men and the attack on a maternity ward that doubled as an orphanage where nuns, girls, elderly women, pregnant women and others who had just given birth were raped.
Berlin has not only documented the sexual violence suffered by German women and girls, it has also done a lot to rescue the one perpetrated by the Nazi army from oblivion. In the German Russian Museum it is possible to access graphic testimonies of women murdered in Crimea. The images are always the same: bodies lying on the ground, clothes torn and stained with blood, sometimes with black marks of blows visible on the legs.
One of the first books to delve into sexual violence during World War II is A woman in Berlin. Written in the form of a diary by its protagonist, it recounts the first weeks of occupation, how gang rapes were normalized and how many women agreed to become fixed lovers of a soldier in exchange for protection. What historian Susan Brownmiller describes as “the murky line that divides wartime rape from wartime prostitution.”
The author of A woman in Berlin, who insisted on remaining anonymous, recounts how she herself was betrayed by a group of neighbors who asked her for help to avoid a gang rape and ended up being a victim of predators without anyone doing anything to protect her. The fact that Germany was one of the last countries to publish this book reveals the extent to which the subject has been taboo.
In these pages, the special envoys to Ukraine have described situations very similar to those reported by the author of A woman in Berlin but also the Romanian writer Alaine Polcz in A woman in the frontwhich was raped first by the Germans and then by the Russians.
Mothers who hide their daughters, women locked up for days who are repeatedly raped and who each time wonder if they will also be killed. People caring for some of Ukraine’s victims say most will begin to speak out after months, when they come to terms with what has happened to them. When they overcome the shame or the feeling of being themselves guilty of a war crime that was not classified as such until 2008 by the International Criminal Court and that continues to remain largely silent.