"We did not think that Russians would reach such a point that they would shoot civilians," he said. "We all hoped that at least they would not touch women and children -- but the opposite happened."
When Russian troops invaded Ukraine and began closing in on its capital, Kyiv, Andrii Dereko begged his 22-year-old stepdaughter Karina Yershova to leave the suburb where she lived.
As Russian soldiers surrounded Bucha in early March, Yershova hid in an apartment with two other friends. On one of the last occasions Dereko and his wife, Olena, heard from Yershova, she told them she had left the apartment to get food from a nearby supermarket.
“We did not think that Russians would reach such a point that they would shoot civilians,” he said. “We all hoped that at least they would not touch women and children — but the opposite happened.”
When weeks went by without a word from Yershova, the family became desperate for news. Her mother left a message on Facebook begging anyone who knew what had happened to her to get in touch.
She was told by friends that images of a dead woman with similar tattoos to Yershova’s — which included a rose on her forearm — had been posted on a Telegram group set up by a detective in Bucha who was trying to identify hundreds of bodies found in the town after Russian troops withdrew from the area two weeks ago.
Dereko says the images, seen by CNN, show his stepdaughter’s mutilated body. Police told the family she had been killed by Russian soldiers.
It looked like she was tortured or put up a fight, he said. “They mutilated her. They shot her in the leg, and then gave her a tourniquet to stop her bleeding. And then they shot her in the temple.”
Dereko also believes Yershova was sexually abused by Russian troops. “The [police] investigator hinted” that she had been raped, he said.
CNN has not been able to independently verify this claim. Officers who oversaw the case declined to comment to CNN due to the ongoing investigation. CNN has reached out to Kyiv prosecutors for comment.
The Dereko family’s agonizing wait for answers reflects the rising anxiety amid reports of wartime rape in the country.
Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have been sexually abusing women, children and men since the invasion began, using rape and other sexual offenses as weapons of war.
Human rights groups and Ukrainian psychologists who CNN spoke to say they have been working around the clock to deal with a growing number of sexual abuse cases allegedly involving Russian soldiers.
A report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), released on April 13, found violations of international humanitarian law by Russian forces in Ukraine, noting that “reports indicate instances of conflict-related gender-based violence, such as rape, sexual violence or sexual harassment.”
“Russian soldiers are doing everything they can to show their dominance, and rape is also a tool here,” said psychologist Vasylisa Levchenko, who founded a service that provides free counselling for Ukrainians suffering from war-related trauma.
Levchenko says her network, called Psy.For.Peace, has spoken to roughly 50 women from the Kyiv region who say they were sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers. She told CNN the group is dealing with cases including a 15-year-old and her mother who were sexually abused by pro-Russian Chechen soldiers, and the gang rape of another woman by seven soldiers — while Ukrainian detainees were forced to watch.
CNN has been unable to independently verify the account.
“The weapon [rape] is a demonstration of complete contempt for the [Ukrainian] people,” Levchenko said, adding that it is one which has an impact far beyond the victims of individual attacks: “There are people who feel guilty for not being able to do anything, guilty for surviving, for watching a person dying in front of them.”
Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians since the war began — a claim disproven by numerous attacks that have been verified by CNN and other news organizations. CNN has reached out to the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment.