It is along the Ukrainian-Polish borders that the stories of sexual assault are coming to the fore.
(Illustration: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)
(Descriptions of sexual violence. Reader's discretion is advised.)
Oleksandra (name changed), a Ukrainian volunteer in Poland's capital city Warsaw, is confident that the cases of rape and sexual assault by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian women are 'massively underreported'.
Narrating a survivor's account, she says, "I met 29-year-old Olga (name changed) at the Hrebenne border crossing between Ukraine and Poland. She opened up to me when I spoke to her in Ukrainian."
Olga was allegedly sexually assaulted at gunpoint by two Russian soldiers at her home on the outskirts of Kyiv.
She adds that the woman's thighs were still bruised when she first met her.
A single mother, Olga's seven-year-old son is living with her parents in western Ukraine's Uzhhorod.
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the number of cases of women being sexually assaulted in cities and towns across the country is on the rise.
It is along the Ukrainian-Polish borders, however, that the stories of sexual assault are coming to the fore. It is important to note that rape, during a war, is considered a war crime.
Julia, a mother of two, and a native of Kyiv, who had fled the country two weeks ago along with her 71-year-old mother, too, narrated a rape survivor's account to The Quint. On 15 March, she arrived at the border and was waiting in the 'priority line', which first let the elderly, people with disabilities, and women with young children across the Polish border.
"I was standing next to a woman for two hours at the Medyka border, crossing between Poland and Ukraine. She did not speak a word till we reached the reception centre. She told me that Russian soldiers had raped her. She was from Irpin, and has two children. She didn't want to accept help from humanitarian groups in Poland because she was too traumatised," says Julia.
Apart from the trauma that comes with their homes and cities being bombed, staying hidden in bunkers for days and weeks, and leaving behind male members of their families who must fight the war, many Ukrainian women refugees are dealing with the trauma of being sexually assaulted.
Poland's stringent anti-abortion laws and the unavailability of morning-after pills along the Ukrainian-Polish border are pushing doctors and volunteers to mobilise and secretly distribute pills to survivors of rape – at the risk of being imprisoned.
In the past few years, Poland has witnessed massive uproars over its near-complete ban on abortions in the country – one of the most restrictive laws in Europe. Doctors who defy the law face a jail term of three years if they perform an abortion with a pregnant woman's consent.
"At first, we decided to provide these pills to Ukrainian refugees here in Poland but we've now sent the pills to victims still stuck in Ukraine, surrounded by Russians," he adds.
He confirms that it's getting harder for them to distribute these pills as the border control has tightened. He fears that unless the Polish government makes an exception of making these pills available to survivors of rape, there will be long-lasting consequences for these women.
Oleksandra, who has been helping in the distribution of the morning-after pill, says, "In Poland, with abortion not being an option for survivors of rape, it's clear that the lives of women don't matter as much as a cell that hasn't even developed into a foetus yet. It's a huge risk that we're all taking but in the absence of a government that cares for cases like these, the survivors are only left with secret groups like ours who can help."
The photograph was taken at the Hrebenne border crossing.
Poland has received at least two million refugees from Ukraine and the country has been reeling under the pressure of handling this influx. With Ukrainian men staying back to defend their country, most of the refugees are women, children, and the elderly.
An organisation that is working along the Polish-Ukrainian border is Fundacja Ocalenie, a Warsaw-based NGO. Kalina, a humanitarian worker from the NGO, narrates how when her team went to the border, they saw that there was no system in place.
"All the work to assist the refugees was done by volunteers and NGOs, not the government. I fear that with this lack of coordination between agencies and no plan in place, the risk of human trafficking is growing, especially for single mothers. We are dealing with a multitude of issues, such as sexual violence and racial discrimination, among others," she says.
Mirroring MP Kluzik-Rostkowska's comments, Kalina says she hopes they would find a solution for the survivors. On the other hand, the gynaecologist, Oleksandra, and the volunteers are working round the clock to procure not only the morning-after pills but also to set up a team that can deliver life-saving medical equipment to the frontlines in the capital, Kyiv.
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