KYIV, Ukraine — There is no escaping that Ukraine is at war — although it is not totally apparent who the Ukrainian military and volunteer vigilantes are fighting in the east: Russian “separatists” or Russians themselves?
No one can definitively say who is who or decide up from down, one of the living puzzles of Ukraine, as it contends with the nearly four-year war in the Donbas region, bordering Russia — its looming, menacing neighbor to the east — as well as the takeover of the Crimea peninsula in 2014. At least 10,000 people have died in the Donbas conflict, which has been intensifying.
The ominous sense of a country at war was revealed through interviews with numerous female activists in Kyiv, a picturesque but rundown capital that in early December permeated with intrigue. Few Kyiv residents know what is going on in the “hybrid war,” as the government calls it, as disinformation and military clashes between Russia and Ukraine go on unabated to the deep dismay of the public.
In one week alone in December, the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, who lives stateless in Kyiv, was pulled from his home to be arrested by Ukrainian officials, then escaped but was caught again (and was since released from jail), while his “supporters” — thugs possibly from Georgia, as some Kyiv residents speculated, or backed by Russia — camped out in heated tents next to the Rada, or parliament, while Saakashvili was briefly imprisoned.
Meanwhile, the Ukraine government itself is not trusted by the general population, as it is widely believed that President Petro Poroshenko, a chocolate-manufacturing oligarch, is corrupt, along with others in his government. An atmosphere of resignation pervades Kyiv, where the grief of people walking through Maidan Square is written across their faces. The square, smack in the center of the capital, is where the 2014 people’s revolt led to the ouster of the president, Viktor Yanukovych, who is now exiled in Russia.
All is not well in Kyiv: lovingly created memorials embellished in the Ukraine flag’s colors — turquoise and yellow — to the people killed by government forces during the revolt line the steep hill to the presidential palace and other official buildings, as if the murders took place the day before.
Behind the scenes, nongovernmental organizations, artists and lone crusaders, like Maria Berlinska, who is famous in Ukraine for her drone surveillance of Donbas, are waging their own campaigns against Russia. (Donbas consists of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or states.) They blame Russia for all of Ukraine’s problems, much how they blame traffic in Kyiv for their late arrivals to appointments.
The goal for some nongovernmental organizations — and the government — is to kick out Russia. The United States, through a special envoy, Kurt Volker, is trying to broker a United Nations peacekeeping mission for the Donbas region, so far unsuccessfully, although Volker is meeting with his Russian counterpart in Dubai on Jan. 26, the State Department said. The bone of contention is that Russia wants a modest protection force while the US wants a broad mandate for peace operations.
Recently, Donald Trump agreed to sell lethal weapons to the Ukraine government to ostensibly help it defend itself in the contested area.
Here is a roundup of women-led nongovernmental groups and female individuals bent on making a positive difference in their country — some call it “peace-building” — from a pharmacologist who offers free home medical equipment to rural residents to a filmmaker who helped rebuild a school in Donbas and documented it at the same time.
The interviews took place in early December in Kyiv, organized by Ella Lamakh, the founder of the Democracy Development Center, a nonprofit group that works with youth in Ukraine on fostering democracy. Recently, it led a mapping project in Ukraine to survey public knowledge of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates equal participation of women in peace talks, among other goals.
The survey, Lamakh said, concluded that “there is little knowledge of peace-building and gender issues” in the country. Hence her group’s recommendation — more training at all levels of society on 1325 — so that “step by step, they have a full picture.”
This article was made possible through a travel grant from the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders.
The emotional power of drone surveillance
Maria Berlinska founded the Air Reconnaissance Support Center, a volunteer organization that teaches Ukrainian soldiers to be drone operators. Berlinska initially found fame in Ukraine for her drone film surveillance (below) of the bombed-out airport in Donetsk in Donbas in 2015, information that she gave to “combatants” and for “public consumption,” she said in an interview with PassBlue. The film was shown in a Kyiv cinema, and evoked tears in the audience because of the stark images of the destroyed airport.
Based in Kyiv, Berlinska travels monthly to the east to keep up her own work and efforts by other volunteers. They operate in fields and forests near the front line, a risky business. What does it take to be a good drone operator?
“An open mind, courage; don’t be afraid to do something new,” she said. It also takes “attention, rapid response and reaction, good hand-eye coordination”: like “driving a car.”
When Berlinska was asked why she persisted with such dangerous work, she answered by posing a question to this reporter:
“Where are you from? Imagine some Russian troops come to New York and take your family, values, territory.”
“It’s my choice,” she added. “I don’t want Russian values here. I want humanity values. I’m a pacifist, I must do what I do.” Berlinska said she wanted to “save the lives of our soldiers and return of our territory” — on our conditions, she added, not that of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. “I want peace for civilians.”
What does Berlinska think of a possible UN peacekeeping mission being set up in the east? She said she wasn’t convinced it would make a difference as Russian troops would not necessarily leave. “We think the difference will be when the global community presses Putin to remove troops” from the Donbas.
Berlinska was also directly involved in making “Invisible Battalion,” a 2017 documentary and research project about women participating in voluntary and official battalions in the war zone (and partly financed by USAID). Women have been actively involved in the military offensive from the start of the war, but they have been officially categorized as cooks or cleaners, putting them at a disadvantage. They lack such basics as uniforms and separate sleeping quarters from men.
A new law is in the works to grant women equal participation in the military, enabling them, for example, to legally join the military in combat roles, including as snipers, medics and tank operators. But Berlinska is not sure these jobs will swing open to women, given that the military remains a “boys’ club.”
Why do women want to be in the military? “It’s very individual,” Berlinska said. “It depends on personal qualities” — similar to why men want to be a soldier or, more illustriously, a general.
Dispatching mobile teams to stop domestic violence
HealthRight International’s priorities in Ukraine are preventing and treating HIV/AIDS, women’s health and the health of orphans and other vulnerable children. The country has few formal health care provisions, as most medical services are done through cash payments — individuals handing an “envelope” over to pay for services, said Anastasia Paperna, the project coordinator at HealthRight International in Kyiv.
The organization has a new project to prevent domestic violence: setting up mobile teams in the border areas of the conflict zone near Donbas and throughout the rest of the country, involving the Ministry of Social Policy. Forty-four mobile teams are made up of three specialists each: a social worker, a team leader (an additional social worker or a psychologist) and one psychologist. The teams are given a car, gas, uniforms and iPads with Internet, phones and various other material like referral instructions.
The goal is to ensure an efficient referral system that involves the police in cases of “dangerous and systemic violence” and “quick and sufficient treatment to victims,” Paperna explained. The teams supplement a national police program on domestic violence. The HRI program is primarily financed by the UN Population Fund.
The teams’ overarching goal is to provide more personal, quality “client” care, especially in cases of gender-based violence, and to include children who may be involved. The team records calls from victims or witnesses of violence and elaborates weekly visits, which are recorded and encoded into software for further referrals, data collection and analysis.
Every third out of five women experiences physical or psychological violence in Ukraine, Paperna said. Quite often, women do not report domestic violence “because cases seldom end up in courts.”
The organization also supports 18 mobile teams in Donbas — Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts — through funding from Unicef. The teams are working in the government-controlled areas, although Paperna said there was limited coverage in the gray zone, or territory controlled by Russia.
The Donbas area is seriously problematic for a range of reasons, besides being at war. Encouragingly, some state services have been systemized in Donbas, such as providing shelters for women and girls, yet data on the health and welfare of Ukrainians in the region remain unavailable if collected at all, Paperna said, so the population’s health status is a big unknown.
The Unicef project places the teams’ focus on child survivors of violence, Paperna said. “This is [a] very sensitive and challenging target due to psychological, legal, mental and some other aspects,” she said in a follow-up email. Until now, state social services were the main providers responding to violence against women and children in Donbas, but they are “understaffed and lack the ability to effectively respond to the problem” because of “impeded” rule of law in the conflict.
HealthRights International does not work in Crimea, the Ukraine region that Russia annexed in 2014. Its work in western Ukraine, where there is no conflict, has yielded information about Donbas because veterans who fought there come home and “sometimes have certain aggression that turns into violence in the families,” Paperna said. Most of the Ukraine’s army, for example, consists of soldiers from western, southern and central Ukraine, since it is “dangerous to get soldiers from Donbas” — a problem of trust for the military.
Pinpointing the nature of violence
Rozrada was developed by Valentyna Bondarovsk as an international network of psychologists in 1996 to help professionals better understand the nature of violence against women and the family.
“The sphere of our work began with women and then expanded with families,” said Olga Kurylenko, the program manager of Rozrada (which means “warmth” in Ukrainian), who was interviewed in the office of the National Union of Women in Kyiv.
We have one direction, she explained: providing consulting to families; sharing information, including on gender discrimination in the workplace; working with courts to explain to judges the nature of violence; and supporting victims.
The type of psychological problems that are most acute in the country, Kurylenko said, is domestic violence that turns physical. When war veterans come home, for example, they may not be coping well and become aggressive in the family. “We started working with psychologists and social workers who work with victims on how to create a relationship again. [We have produced] books for social workers and families who have experienced the conflict and violence,” Kurylenko said.
Rozrada has also started helping internally displaced people — including children, who were having problems in school — in Karkhiv oblast, which borders Russia and the Donbas. Many of the IDPs were also pensioners and women whose husbands were left back home in the war zone. The people who resettled in Karkhiv had trouble assimilating because of stereotypes (they were perceived sometimes as being pro-Russian) and stigma. They were welcomed at first but then were considered burdensome.
When Rozrada came to Karkhiv and Donbas, it began working with specialists from local schools and organizations, taking a holistic approach to assist the newcomers rebuild their lives. “A lot of people had burnout from [living in] the zone, were depressed and it was difficult for them,” Kurylenko said. “Everyone was in bad shape.”
Some displaced people, especially women, want to improve their lives and that of their fellow refugees but have no “leadership” practice, so Rozrada helps them “share good experiences,” such as how to start a business, learn new skills, find a job.
They can overcome their fears of not only looking for a job but also talking about it, as one woman discovered. “After psychological training, she lost this fear, she found a very good job” — becoming a cosmetician — a “big victory for this woman,” Kurylenko said.
Using film to rebuild trust in Donbas
Larysa Artiugina is a film director who documented with others the uprising in Maidan Square in 2014. When the military action started in the east, she continued filming, and with friends they became “volunteer squads” producing films about the war, placing them on the web. Their documentary, “How We Became Military Volunteers,” depicts the civil disobedience in Ukraine that progressed into the uprising in Maidan and culminated with the “proxy war between the pro-Russian collaboraters supported by the Russian army and Ukrainian army from the other side,” as she put it.
Artiugina worked on the front line early in the war in Donbas, she said, asking people such questions as “What is your dream?” The timing was sensitive, soon after the village she was working in, Mykolayivka, was severely shelled in early July 2014, when the Ukrainian army stormed the Russian-backed separatists. When they won back the village, “people there were scared and frustrated, so we took psychologists and specialists to help the people,” she said.
One youngster said that his dream was for him and his fellow classmates to return to their school, which had been “destroyed” by the occupiers — Russian military officers, according to Artiugina, who is also project leader for New Donbass, a nongovernmental organization that does peace-building work in eastern Ukraine.
With other activists, including artists like Artiugina, and relying on outside money, they repaired the school themselves. “We didn’t know what to start with; we invited local teachers and parents and kids to clean up the school. People met us coldly, aggressively — they didn’t trust us.”
They didn’t believe our initiative, she said; they could not “understand we weren’t there for profit.” But the children they worked with were sincere and open, she added, noting that they did not talk about politics, ideology, conflict and aggression. “Up to 90 percent of the locals supported the separatists because they believed [what they saw on] TV.”
And the school now? “It’s fine, it works,” Artiugina said, adding that a film about the project, “School #3,” was a winner screened at a Berlin film festival. “Children tell their story about how they have survived war. Teachers for the first time in the history of the village went to the court and won” to keep the school opened.
“For me this is what peace-building is: direct help and human support. When people started to trust [us], they told their sad stories and began to perceive us as their friends.”
Giving health care where this is none
A former pharmacologist, Lyudmyla Porokhnyak, is the president of the 18-member National Council of Women of Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization. “My interest is in the health of our country,” she said in an interview. “Many villages have no doctors or nurses. Many people in rural areas have no medicine.”
Porokhnyak is helping to organize volunteers from the Council to give medical instruments for home use, like thermometers and massage chairs, so that people can take care of themselves as much as possible amid the dearth of public services.
She is also a crusader for United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which was passed in 2000 to mandate equal rights for women’s participation in peace negotiations, among other demands. The role of women in peace talks in Ukraine has been nil. Porokhnyak began working with women and girls, pensioners and enforcement officers in Ukrainian oblasts to design and distribute posters on 1325, showing how it applies to everyday life. In rural areas, knowledge of the resolution is low (as well as in Kyiv), so through other organizations, her Council is conducting training sessions on 1325, teaching about peace-building.
The work has featured a Ukrainian wrestler who was in the Olympics and now trains women and girls on “how they can protect themselves.”
“A lot of women are depressed,” Porokhnyak said, referring to widows and mothers of dead sons from the war in the east. On her own, she designed something special to give to them: a silver pin of an American woman singer from the Ukraine diaspora. The pin reads “woman, peace and security.”
“This is peace-building,” she said. “A lot of women in Donbas and Crimea are protecting their families, stopping Russian tanks, saying, please stop, don’t come to my home; those are the real peace-builders.”
What is gender?
Larysa Kolos runs the International School of Equal Opportunities, which offers “gender education for all people”: children, youth and civil servants. The project features certificate programs for a range of groups, from teachers’ colleges to psychologists to the general citizenry.
Kolos is versed in gender-equality policy. She worked with a minister of parliament, Mykhailo Kovalko, an academic and specialist in oil and gas resources, who wrote the first draft of Ukraine’s law on gender equality, based on Sweden’s law.
“When [the law] was submitted in 1999, people didn’t understand its importance, why we needed equal rights and opportunities,” Kolos said, so it was declined at first and not adopted until 2005. For Kolos, the law’s significance is clearcut: “To prevent war, we need equality.”
The law has not worked out that way — yet. Kolos’s group is addressing the conflict in Donbas by carrying out a pilot project with a Ukrainian women’s group focusing on UN Security Council Resolution 1325. The project is being carried out in four oblasts, including in Donetsk and Kyiv, and involves such tasks as offering war victims referral services; counting the refugees from Donbas; and assessing war veterans’ needs — an emerging, serious problem for Ukraine — and other social services.
How is the war affecting daily lives? Kolos, throwing up her hands as if the question begged too many answers, said: “Everybody’s heart aches” — more than three million children have been affected by the conflict alone in the front lines, the gray areas and the neighboring regions of Donbas. “We can’t ignore this.”
Understanding the suffering of people from Donbas
To reach Spilka, a national union of women’s groups stemming from the Communist era, this reporter and her translator had to pass through numerous checkpoints in the government ministries section of Kyiv. Sitting in their elegant, old-world style office near the presidential palace on a chilly, gray morning, Leokadiia Gerasymenko and Svetlana Demchak explained how Spilka took a new direction to attract younger women after the Soviet Union collapsed and how it dealt with the conflict in the east.
“When war came to Ukraine, this organization thought about what it could do for women,” said Gerasymenko. So Spilka worked with organizations in 18 oblasts, inviting women from these different regions to come to “one place and start a dialogue.” Every event had 100 women, and over two days, they covered several themes: the women’s first experience of war; what to do in a war; how to support peace in families; and what values unite and separate Ukrainians.
On the latter topic, for example, they discussed the prickly issue of whether the country should revive the national language of Ukrainian or to keep Russian as well, as many Ukrainians speak the latter more than the former.
“We had a lot of interesting situations among women,” Gerasymenko said. “For example, one woman lost a son in the war; another woman was an IDP [internally displaced person] and they talked together about what they should do.” One woman lost her family, her house, everything; widows and mothers of lost sons asked what they should do — one refrain was: “You lost stuff but we lost loved ones,” so conversation was tense.
But after a while, the women started listening to one another and a lot of time was spent speaking, albeit with high emotions. On the second day, these intense feelings receded because the women started thinking about the future, the next step to working together. As a follow-up, participants wrote letters to women in the occupied territory, posting their letters on Facebook, which is heavily used in Ukraine.
Spilka also sponsored a meeting with a women’s group in Moldova early in Ukraine’s conflict. Moldova has been experiencing its own political and military tension through a breakaway region, Transnistra, which is allied with Russia. The Moldovan women, who had also experienced war with Russian-back separatists, offered a single bit of advice: the conflict, they said, will not end quickly.
In Ukraine, people thought it was going to finish quickly, Demchak said. “When the Moldovans said, ‘Be careful because our conflict is frozen,’ that shocked the women from Ukraine.”
Another important point the Moldovan women made was to keep a relationship with women who are still living in the occupied territory — even though some backed the Russian invasion — as “a lot of women need your support,” the Moldovan women counseled. This advice also unsettled the Ukrainian women, who perceived that all people in Donbas were Russian supporters. But they learned that not everybody in the occupied territory was the enemy and that many women needed help.
Nevertheless, “peace-building” work by Spilka battles constant realities, Demchak conceded. When women from the gray zone in Donetsk were invited to dialogue, for example, they rejected the notion of talking about concepts of peace. Instead, they said, we don’t have water, gas or food — nothing — “so we had a big stone between us,” she said.
So the next question, she said, was, What can Spilka do to help? “We started talking about negotiating, what was the next step for our friendship, that we don’t want to push you but we should start to talk.” Their discussion touched on women’s leadership, that “women can do everything, that our history shows us that women can do everything” and “we should start to work together.”
Demchak said that when women from the gray zone went back home, they started to talk with their family, explaining why peace-building was important and to change their mentality. “They started to give them knowledge about listening and talking.”
This article was updated.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.