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In the war on Ukraine, rape has been used as a weapon

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: A warning that this next story centers on sexual violence and war crimes.

In Ukraine, the spotlight is on executions of civilians and targeting of residential neighborhoods. But one type of war crime seems to always get less attention and virtually no accountability - rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon. It's pervasive. It's been a staple of war and ethnic cleansing for centuries on both sides of the conflict.

ARMINKA HELIC: The bottom line is they always say to me, you know, am I not worth anything? Is my life not worth anything? Is that why I can't get justice?

FADEL: That's Arminka Helic. She has been campaigning to create a permanent, independent and international body to investigate and prosecute rape and sexual violence as war crimes. There are horrific reports of rape in Ukraine, including that Russian troops kept 25 women in a basement outside Kyiv and repeatedly sexually assaulted them. We spoke with Helic last week.

HELIC: It is not something that is just happening in Ukraine now; It's something that happened in Bosnia, in DRC, in Iraq, in Syria, in Myanmar, in Central African Republic. You name it, there is hardly a conflict where we haven't seen violence being used, particularly against women and girls, in some cases against men and boys as well.

FADEL: And yet it's the least prosecuted.

HELIC: It is the least prosecuted. And the number of successful international prosecutions for sexual violence in conflict remains in the low single digits. Now, we are kind of at a crossroads here. If we had a body that is funded, in existence, that has forensic trauma and medical experts already available to be deployed or to be approached by the investigators in Ukraine, we would have by now had an opportunity to collect this evidence, either from the internally displaced people or from the people who have crossed the border. And there are so many women that I have met over the years who, actually, in the first couple of days were on the verge of reporting this crime, but as the conflict goes on and worse, as their families get affected, as they lose their husbands or their children get injured, women weigh it, like what is more important? Is it more important that I go and report someone who has assaulted me or that I go and have my child taken to a hospital so they get a new prosthetic leg? But in so many cases, women who have tried to forget it, they never move on.

FADEL: Yeah.

HELIC: It's so difficult because this trauma stays and lingers.

FADEL: You were a refugee from Bosnia, where Serbian forces maintained rape camps with tens of thousands of people, systemically...

HELIC: That's correct.

FADEL: ...Raped. And that led to the U.N.'s first prosecution of rape as a war crime. Is this what led you to take up this cause, this history?

HELIC: So I want to tell you, when I was listening to the reports of the 25 women who were kept imprisoned, it kind of brought back to me reports of what was happening in eastern Bosnia, where the same things were happening. Their women were kept until they got impregnated. And also, they were violated so much that the same message was given to them, that they would be violated so much that they will never want to have children with anyone else. And - because this is a deliberate tactic...

FADEL: Right.

HELIC: ...A way in which you dehumanize, demoralize, terrify and destroy your opponents or an entire ethnic group. You know, when soldiers rape women, they are deliberately inflicting trauma on civilians, creating scars that last across generations. We should stop talking about consequences of the crime, but we should start creating deterrents so that we never, or in very few cases, have these discussions because if we don't find a way of prosecuting this crime, if we don't find a way of flipping it from impunity to accountability...

FADEL: Yeah.

HELIC: ...In years to come, we will have another interview and another summit and another meeting and another communique, another U.N. Security Council resolution, and we will be just talking about something that can actually be addressed. There is no accountability.

FADEL: We discussed the women we've met, sexually violated in war only to return to their communities with shame. Many stay silent.

HELIC: We have managed to get a vaccine for COVID-19 in six months, and that is amazing. The fact that in today's world, where we have technology, we have reporting, we have social media, we have every single tool that can help us, where we couldn't have that help 20 years or 30 years ago and that we cannot do much about it shows me that there is a lack of political will. It's not that it is impossible. Everything is possible. It hasn't been given the importance that it deserves. I think it's a difficult issue to discuss. Quite a few countries don't want to have anything to do with it. On the other hand, there is certain level of population that has been so damaged and traumatized that they are left behind, and I think the success of every peace should be measured by the number of prosecutions, not only for war crimes that we have seen over the last kind of 30, 40 years for the International War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, but also what kind of justice has been achieved and given to the victims of sexual violence because they kind of always remain the last in a row when it comes to delivering justice.

FADEL: Before this war started in Ukraine, at a February news conference Vladimir Putin made a rape joke. He quoted lyrics from a Soviet-era punk song that referenced rape and necrophilia. And I just wonder if you - when you're watching what's unfolding that if you think this rape and sexual violence are being ordered from the top to Russian troops and how unusual that is, if it's unusual at all?

HELIC: Well, it wouldn't be unusual. It's so effective because it's not expensive. It is easy to order and easy to do, and the effect that it has, it is immeasurable because you will never see a woman who is a victim of rape going around with a medal. But you will see someone who has been at the battlefield going around with a medal.

FADEL: Yeah.

HELIC: It is kind of like a crime that is a silent crime that creates circumstances on the ground where the populations, ethnic groups disappear overnight, either because they have heard about that happening in their neighborhood, or it has happened to them, and the whole family leaves.

FADEL: Yeah. Arminka Helic, thank you so much for joining us.

HELIC: Thank you. Thank you for picking up this topic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.