It is only when Viktoria Martsyniuk feels the soft, gloopy clay running through her fingers that she allows herself to think about what happened to her one awful night in March this year. The invading Russian soldiers had gone on the hunt for women to rape. She was one of their victims. “I like sculpting because it helps keep me calm,” she said. “It’s good to do things with my hands.”
Before the war, if someone had told the 42-year-mother of two that she would one day be in therapy, she would have laughed. It is the kind of treatment people “with lots of money” do, she said, but thanks to the state of Ukraine they are paying for her to process the traumas that she endured when the Russian Army invaded her rural village near the city of Borodyanka, about 60 km outside Kyiv.
Not only was she raped by 19-year-old Dania, a soldier the same age as one of her sons, but one of her neighbours – the husband of the Russians’ second rape victim – was shot in front of her at point blank range.
“I feel a little bit better with the therapy, but I would like to improve and if Ukraine has victory I will feel even better,” Ms Martsyniuk, who has waived her right to anonymity for the first time, says. During our interview she sits by her kitchen window, in the same place where she sat when The Telegraph last visited her four months ago, on the eve of her 42nd birthday.
Back then, the rape was so raw that she shook when she spoke and the tears she shed left her eyes red and swollen. However, even then and testament to her inner strength, she managed to find things to celebrate, such as preparing a chicken to cook for a special meal. Months on since her village was liberated, some things are the same. She chain smokes – swapping between a vape and cigarettes – and she still likes to cook. “Keeping my hands busy,” she said, as she offered out sweet apple vareniki, freshly made that morning.
And yet, so much has changed. The blonde, unkempt hair that seemed to hide her face last time we met has been chopped off into a stylish pixie cut, while the charcoal liner smudged at the corners of her eyes reveals intense blue irises I’d not noticed before. Gone are the baggy clothes that swamped her. Even her nails are painted a sparkly cherry shade. Most significant are that there are no more tears throughout our time together, and she does not shake as she steadily recounts the abuse she suffered.
On March 9, Ms Martsyniuk was dragged from the bed she shared with her husband, Vitaliy, by three Russian soldiers, who ordered her to find women they could rape/abuse – herself included. In the dead of night they went from door to door searching for women to rape. When the husband of their second victim tried to resist, he was killed. The soldiers then marched their two captives to an abandoned house. Ms Martsyniuk was raped on the first floor.
After her sexual violation and abduction, she managed to escape the house and ran all the way back to her home, where she found Vitaliy hiding on the roof. They believe if he had not done that, the Russians would have murdered him. Together, they lay shivering on the corrugated iron until morning.
“It feels like it was a bad dream,” she says. While Ms Martsyniuk has met with prosecutors who are documenting Russian war crimes to present to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, she has struggled with giving evidence. “I can’t remember the face of the man who raped me. It was dark. I know he was this tall,” she says, gesturing to just above her head.
She suspects the double trauma of having seen someone killed in front of her is also why she struggles to recount specifics of that night. “I asked my rapist if he was going to kill me. That was the main thing I wanted to know at the time,” she said.
“But I am trying to remember his face,” she added, before pointing and cooing at the numerous chickens and ducks milling around the yard that her kitchen window looks out onto.
The animals are another thing that keeps her busy. Before the war, Ms Martsyniuk had worked at a sawmill, but it was destroyed by shelling and as a result she lost her job. While there are enough tasks to do at home – from harvesting potatoes, carrots and corn to tending to their livestock – she would like to find a job, although something different “with children”. “I want a good, well-paid job,” she said.
Seeing her therapist once a week has helped her look forward to the future. The conversation between them comes naturally as they “do stuff with our hands”. As well as sculpting, they also draw and at her next session she plans to make “bracelets from woven strings”.
Ms Martsyniuk says that there is no denying being in therapy is working. “The fear that something or someone is searching for me has gone. But if there is an explosion nearby, such as a rocket or because the military are de-mining, that scares me,” she said. To help her sleep she takes prescribed “hypnotic pills”. She introduces us to her rescue dog, an English Toy Terrier – having the puppy helps calm her.
The difference in her confidence from a few months ago is remarkable.
“I have changed in different ways,” she admits. “Before the war when people did something rude to me, I kept quiet. Now, if someone says something rude, I will push back.”
Although, Ms Martsyniuk thinks she knows an even better way to help her cope with her PTSD than seeing a therapist. “If I had a lot of money the best way to keep calm is to go shopping,” she jokes. There is a lot to be said for dark humour in these circumstances.
“The main thing is not to think about the past,” she adds, running her hands through her short hair. “I want to think about the future and be present. That is how I am changing my life.”
It seems then, that even though the Russians tried to break her, they failed.
She smiles. “Maybe.” There is a long pause and another cigarette is lit. “I feel that I am stronger,” she said. “I became stronger.”