When Russian troops invaded Ukraine and began to close in on its capital, Kiev, Andrii Dereko begged her 22-year-old stepdaughter Karina Yershova to leave the suburb where she lived.
But Yershova insisted she wanted to stay in Bucha, saying to him, “Do not 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 decided for herself how to live.”
Yershova worked at a sushi restaurant in Bucha, hoping to get her college degree in the future, Dereko said: “She wanted to develop herself.”
When 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 the Russians would reach such a point that they would shoot civilians,” he said. “We all hoped they would at least not touch women and children – but the opposite happened.”
As weeks passed without a word from Yershova, the family became desperate for news. Her mother left a message on Facebook asking everyone who knew what had happened to her to get in touch.
She was told by friends that pictures of a dead woman with similar tattoos as Yershovas’ – 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 town after Russian troops withdrew from the area two weeks ago.
Dereko says the photos, seen by CNN, show his stepdaughter’s mutilated body. Police told the family she had been killed by Russian soldiers.
It looked like she had been tortured or fought, he said. “They mutilated her. They shot her in the leg and then gave her a muzzle to stop her bleeding. And then they shot her in the temple.”
Dereko also believes that Yershova was sexually abused by Russian troops. “That [police] Investigators suggested she had been raped, he said.
CNN has not been able to independently confirm this claim. Officers who monitored the case declined to comment to CNN because of the ongoing investigation. CNN has contacted Kyiv prosecutors for a comment.
The Dereko family’s painful wait for a response reflects the growing anxiety amid reports of rape during the war in the country.
Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have sexually abused women, children and men since the invasion began and used rape and other sexual crimes as weapons of war.
Human rights groups and Ukrainian psychologists with whom CNN spoke say they have been working around the clock to deal with a growing number of cases of sexual abuse allegedly involving Russian soldiers.
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