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.
But Yershova insisted she wanted to remain in Bucha, telling him: “Don’t talk nonsense, everything will be fine — there will be no war,” he said.
With her tattoos and long brown hair, Yershova stood out in a crowd, her stepfather said, adding that despite living with rheumatoid arthritis, she had a fiercely independent spirit: “She herself decided how to live.”
Yershova worked at a sushi restaurant in Bucha, and hoped to earn her university degree in the future, Dereko said: “She wanted to develop herself.”
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.
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