VLADIKAVKAZ/MAKHACHKALA, Russia -- When 19-year-old Vika sat down recently to list her dreams for her future, the first one read simply: "I want a new life."
Diagnosed along with her two brothers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Vika's life with her single mother in the capital of Russia's North Ossetia region has never been easy. But she says that what happened to her over several months in early 2017, when her mother took her brothers to Moscow for medical treatment, has left her devastated.
"When I returned home, I simply couldn't recognize anything," Vika's mother, Zalina Duduyeva, told RFE/RL. "Everything was broken. Anything of value was missing. The floor was littered with used condoms."
When she asked what had happened, her teenage daughter began to cry.
"I gave her a pen and asked her to write it down," she says.
The story that slowly emerged was the stuff of nightmares.
"They came often and drank alcohol," Vika wrote. "When I didn't want to do that with them" -- she meant having sex -- "they beat me, broke the furniture, threw stuff around."
She described "a neighbor of my friend Lina," a 13-year-old in the area, sending his friends over.
"They forced themselves on me and raped me," Vika wrote. "Then other men started coming over and forcing me to do things like that."
Asked to name the alleged perpetrators, Vika jotted down a list that ran to more than 20 men and boys as young as 16. One of the names belonged to a 35-year-old father of two. Another was that of an athlete who is known and admired throughout North Ossetia.
Over the ensuing months, as the criminal investigation fruitlessly played out, the case was tried on the streets and on social media, with many North Ossetians blaming the victims in apparent bids to preserve the honor of their republic.
After more than a year of investigations headed by no fewer than five lead investigators, the republican Investigative Committee in Vladikavkaz last month ruled it could find no evidence of a crime because the alleged perpetrators did not know that Vika, whose last name and image are being withheld because RFE/RL does not identify the victims of sexual crimes, was incapable of giving informed consent.
The public outcry across Russia over that decision was so strong that the Russian Investigative Committee on May 31 took the unusual step of overruling its local colleagues and ordering the probe reopened.
Because of the decision of the local investigators and the hostile reaction and threats of many neighbors and others in Vladikavkaz, Zalina Duduyeva decided to bring the incident to the public's attention.
Left On Her Own
In January 2016, Duduyeva had to travel to the Russian capital with her two sons, Murat and Ruslan, who were 14 at the time, for medical treatment because there are no clinics for autistic children in Vladikavkaz. She planned to be in Moscow just a couple of weeks and left Vika, who had just turned 18, in the apartment alone. She asked relatives, a close friend, and Vika's father -- who lives separately in Vladikavkaz -- to look in on her and make sure she was OK.
But Murat suffered an unexpected medical setback and Duduyeva was forced to remain in Moscow for several months. She spoke to the North Ossetian deputy prime minister for labor and social development by telephone about providing home care for Vika. The official told Duduyeva not to worry and "to focus on treating her child in Moscow," Duduyeva told RFE/RL.
The first sign of trouble came in the spring. Ruslan was sent home for a period and when he returned to Moscow, he told Duduyeva some alarming things. He said that "someone came to Vika and chased him away after beating him," Duduyeva explained. Duduyeva asked her brother, Maksim, to look in on Vika, but he reported only that "some kids were playing around there."
"You'll come home and clean it up," he said.
One of Duduyeva's neighbors, who asked to be identified only by the first name Leyla, told RFE/RL she tried to warn Maksim. "We told him that [Vika] was bringing unknown people there and he said that it was none of our business, that she was an adult, and that they'd take care of it themselves," the neighbor said. "He told us not to stick our noses in his sister's business."
'Everyone Turned A Blind Eye'
On June 9, 2017, Duduyeva and her sons were finally able to return from Moscow, only to find an apartment that was all but destroyed. The neighbors told her they had tried to persuade Vika's father to call the police, but he refused.
"The neighbors were really surprised. But they just said, 'If the father isn't going to call the police, why should we?'" Duduyeva recalled.
Duduyeva finally called the police, who arrived at the trashed apartment. They took Vika's statement and searched the apartment for fingerprints.
Duduyeva packed up the family and left -- beginning months of living in hotels, with friends, and even briefly in a convent. Now Duduyeva lives in a hotel owned by a sympathetic acquaintance on the outskirts of Vladikavkaz, while Vika has taken shelter in a crisis center for women in Makhachkala, in nearby Daghestan.
Shortly after Duduyeva's return, Vika stopped speaking and refused to eat. Duduyeva found alarming online messages by Vika that seemed to hint at suicide. She found razor blades among Vika's possessions and called an ambulance. Vika was taken to a local psychiatric hospital, where she spent two weeks under observation.
As part of the criminal probe, Vika underwent a medical examination.
"As a result of her mental deficiency, [Vika] does not understand the internal aspects of events (such as the biological significance of sex or its social significance or consequences)," the report stated. "She could not resist the illegal actions taken against her."
"Vika does not understand many social norms," Duduyeva said. "She does not understand that words sometimes have double meanings. All the years that she was with me, she had no real acquaintances or friends. When people took advantage of her, she never complained about anyone. It never occurred to me that if something happened to Vika, no one would do anything to help. The entire building knew that there was chaos in our apartment and that men from practically every corner of the republic were coming by, but for some reason, everyone turned a blind eye."
"My Vika calmly accepts aggression and is not capable of resisting it," Duduyeva added. "Because of her condition, she is malleable. If she is among thieves, she will steal. If she is among debauched people, she'll do what they tell her to do. If you teach her to be a great assistant in a kindergarten, she'll be the best assistant. My children are very good and can function in society if there is a normal society around them."
Duduyeva said Vika understood that she was in a problematic situation but that, like many people with her condition, she did not know how to resist or seek help. Vika said that she wanted to call the police but the men threatened her and beat her to force her to stay silent.
She said her attackers filmed compromising video of her and told her they would post it on the Internet if she told anyone what had happened.
Far from resolving their problems, the opening of the police investigation was only the next step in the family's troubles, Duduyeva said. Authorities opened a probe on charges of "sexual violence" but ignored the accusations of rape, robbery, and destruction of property.
For months, investigators said they had misplaced Vika's list of her accused tormentors. One lead investigator after another took over the case, but nothing was done and no one was arrested.
Meanwhile, Duduyeva began receiving threatening phone calls from the relatives of people named by Vika. Some said the police were extorting money from them and accused Duduyeva of being in league with corrupt cops. One mother said she planned to file a complaint against Vika for allegedly "corrupting" her minor son.
In deciding to close the investigation, the authorities determined that the men involved in the case could not have known of Vika's diminished capacity. They also criticized Vika, saying her testimony contained "idiosyncratic fantasizing, significant changes in her answers, the addition of new details, the inclusion of independent judgments, and a tendency toward contradiction and exaggeration."
They concluded that before Duduyeva's return from Moscow, Vika did not complain to anyone; that she voluntarily had sex with the men in question; and that later, under pressure from her mother, she made up the accusations.
The investigation did not respond to the threats and slanders that Vika and Duduyeva received via telephone and social media. Duduyeva says she is afraid to stay in Vladikavkaz and fears for the well-being of her sons if she does.
RFE/RL spoke to many people in Duduyeva's neighborhood, all of whom had heard of the case. Many said the family should move away for good.
"Stop shaming Ossetia," several said, in one version or another. Several said, without providing examples, that Duduyeva had always been a bad neighbor and would rush off to sue at the slightest problem.
People on social media have written that the incident was Duduyeva's fault for leaving Vika alone. Some wrote that Duduyeva was exploiting her daughter to earn money.
The tires of Duduyeva's car were punctured repeatedly. Once, Duduyeva called police because a neighbor blocked her car and screamed at her that she and her daughter were "prostitutes."
Still Seeking Justice
The public's reaction in North Ossetia wasn't entirely negative, though.
Rights activists have provided Duduyeva and Vika with a lawyer, while a local entrepreneur provided funding for a group of volunteers to carry out some repairs in the family's wrecked apartment.
Duduyeva continues doing everything she can to push for justice for Vika. She has written to every official that she can think of. She has appealed to the North Ossetian justice minister and is in contact with the republic's human rights ombudsman. But no one has been detained.
"Do you want us to throw the whole republic in prison?" Duduyeva recalled one investigator asking her.
Vika is reluctant to return, saying that all her friends have forsaken her. "I had a friend named Liza, but she also blocked me," she told RFE/RL, showing her page on the VK social-media site. "It is awful how many people have unfriended me."
Now Vika is virtually a prisoner in the Machakhala crisis center. She is rarely allowed to go outside, as the center's managers are afraid she'll get into another difficult situation. She sits at home for days on end, only occasionally running out to empty the trash or buy a loaf of bread.
She still dreams of "a new life."