TEXT AND PHOTOS BY JEREMY BIGWOOD
War isn’t only about bombs, bullets and deaths on the battlefield. It is also about people away from the fighting, struggling to maintain a modicum of normalcy and hope in their daily lives. In Ukraine, where about 70 percent of the population lives in cities, residents lived with intense stress and uncertainty as the unthinkable prospect of war loomed. The actual invasion in February, 2022, triggered a different phase – one of “stay and adjust” or take flight, which lasted a little over a month.
At the end of March last year, when Kyiv, the capital, finally seemed safe from takeover, two other realities emerged: the volatile and hellish combat of the 600-mile “hot zone” and life in the rest of Ukraine. In the latter, the war grinds on in the distance but residents nonetheless face a continual state of emergency – one marked by power outages, water shortages, and the continual threat from missiles and drones overhead.
The war has already lasted 15 months, and on the ground, it feels like an eternity. The days leading up to it were marked by denial and disbelief at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats and denials from his own government that there would be an invasion. The second stage – the invasion – was marked by shock and panic, and the third stage, the nightmare of an ongoing war, is where Ukraine is now. At every stage, these events have buffeted Ukrainians’ mental health.
Some ruminate on what they now view as an illusion of safety before the invasion. In the months before Russia first invaded Ukraine, for example, citizens were advised to be ready – to have bags packed with essentials in case they had to evacuate. Tatyana Koval, a commercial photographer in northern Kyiv, heard that advice, but like many others did not heed it, “because no one believed that the Russians would actually attack!”
“We all said, ‘No, an invasion is impossible; we are living in a civilized world,’” agreed Alla Polishchuk, a Kyiv-based business executive.
Then Russia sent in tanks and armored columns on February 24, 2022, setting off widespread terror. For Tatyana Koval, “the morning started around six o’clock with an urgent call from my neighbors, who told me that Russia was attacking us,” Koval recalled. “I was in shock, in panic, with no idea of what to do. It seemed like a terrible dream that I could not wake up from.”
Many Ukrainians rushed to protect their children by sending them out of the country with a caregiver. Others, like IT specialist Batchko, (not his real name) scrambled to enlist in the Ukrainian army.
The third stage – ongoing war and adapting to a state of endless threat – is exacting a high toll on mental health.
Scroll through the photos above for more images of life in wartime Ukraine.
1. The war begins
The Russian invasion took many Ukrainians by surprise. It eventually produced more than 8 million refugees who fled the country, as well as half million internally displaced people who had to leave their homes and thousands who were forcibly removed into Russia. That’s about one out of every five people. Below are the stories of some of those who remained.
Halyna Kozachenko, banker
“Everything inside me froze”
On the bank of the Dnipro River that divides Kyiv into two, Halyna Kozachenko’s phone was ringing. “When I opened my eyes, the first thing I noticed was that something was vibrating – it was the windows. I answered the phone. It was my friend Veronica. She told me that the war had started. These are the most horrifying words that a person can tell another. Everything inside me froze and I was in complete shock.”
The first thing she thought of was food and water. She dressed and hurried to a small local supermarket, where, in contrast to the panic in other parts of the city, customers were patiently standing in line, “waiting for their turn to pay the cashier,” many masked and social-distanced due to COVID. “Everybody was so nice,” she recalls.
Tatyana Koval, commercial photographer
“For the first time I came to understand that this was not a dream. It was very scary”
“I got the feeling that I needed to do something – so as not to go crazy. In the restaurant of our high-rise apartment building, we opened an area where we prepared food for the Territorial Defense (one of Ukraine’s military organizations supervising checkpoints). I had to drive to look for ingredients, and then after the food was made, deliver it to the territorial’s checkpoints so they could eat. You should know that all of this time, there were constant air raid sirens, and explosions could be heard nearby, so it was not safe. There was a huge risk, but someone had to do it.”
“During that time, all of the days were similar to each other, and I lost track of time. My mental condition became serious, I couldn’t eat or sleep, and I had several panic attacks. I lost eight kilograms in the first three weeks! Every day we breathed bad news. For the first time I came to understand that this was not a dream, it was all really happening. And it was very scary.”
“I tried to write online and appeal to Russian mothers on social media, so they could tell their sons and husbands that this is not their war. I soon realized that this was a complete waste of time. My time and efforts were needed by my countrymen, especially those lonely elderly people who remained immobile in their apartments; they needed help, including food and medicine and many other things.”
Many who stayed and volunteered told me such work became not just a way of defending Ukraine, but a kind of collective self-therapy.
Alla Polishchuk, project manager
After a month in an underground garage,“we cautiously started going out for coffee”
In Kyiv, Alla Polishchuk stayed on the sixth floor of her modern apartment building, rearranging her work and living areas so she could escape to the corridor to avoid flying glass from shattering windows. But serious combat was happening just a few kilometers away, so she started spending more time in the basement’s three-level parking garage, making friends with her neighbors. That is where she mostly remained for a month.
When the Russians left Kyiv, Polishchuk moved from the basement garage to a portion of her apartment. After a month of being below ground, she and others began to do things outside: “Cautiously, we went to the hairdresser, and we went out to drink coffee.” In early spring, people slowly started to return” to the city. Embassies reopened, along with restaurants, supermarkets and shopping malls.
“Batchko” – IT specialist and military volunteer
Video interview with the “Big Guy”
Batchko is a former IT specialist and Ukrainian Army volunteer whose nickname means “big guy” or “boss” in English. I interviewed him near Kherson and he described the early days of the campaign. “In the first few days it was not chaos – but pretty close – and it was really hard because you had all of those volunteers… and you have this rise in awareness…and people doing their duty.” You can hear his full interview below.
2. Air raid sirens: Kyiv’s soundtrack
Away from the front lines, when one hears a siren, the rules are clear: Whether at work or at home, one is supposed to go to a designated air raid shelter – which might be an underpass of a major street or, in Kyiv, a subway station. If that is not possible, people are asked to follow the “rule of two walls and two exits” – move away from the outside wall of a building and stay in a corridor, preferably with two ways of escape in case one of them gets blocked in an explosion. But in the major cities, few adhere to those rules.
Anna, resident of Kyiv
“I became really afraid for my life”
In October 2022, ballistic missiles were still flying into Kyiv, and Anna, who declined to reveal her last name, was still taping over windows and setting up “a couch in the corridor for my mother. We stayed there whenever there were very loud explosions or a siren.”
“We began to slowly get used to the sirens over the springtime and slowly started to ignore the whole thing. Almost all summer there were no alarms in Kyiv, and I began to forget that we had a war at all. But then autumn came. Then rockets really started flying into Kyiv. Shevchenko Park was hit! I got goosebumps and I realized that I was really scared. And the fear was cumulative. I became really afraid for my life. “
These days “the sirens and anxiety have become merely another inconvenient event here in Kyiv to which I have become accustomed. Now it no longer causes awe and fear.”
Nichole Petetska, philologist, translator from Kyiv
“I focus on work”
“Depending on my emotional state, I may or may not start feeling stressed. Most of the time, I keep calm. If I’m working at the moment, I focus on work. Because first and foremost, my psychological health is very important. The Russians want to intimidate us with terror. But we must continue to do what we can for our economy, for the future, for Ukraine to remain Ukraine.”
Mariia Shymkiv, schoolteacher
“Today can be my last day”
“I’m not petrified with fear, but after the last week’s rocketing, people in a Lviv region village died in their beds. My thoughts are pretty much the same as they were during the first few months of the war: today can be my last day. And if I’m at work, it feels better, because I know that it’s unlikely that both I and my family can die the same day.”
Vladyslav Sarodubtsev, a spokesperson for the left-wing Social Movement (Sotsialniy Rukh)
“Nowadays I mostly ignore air raid sirens”
“In the east and the south, they are constantly bombarded. In Kyiv, it is one rocket strike in a week. What is happening is that people get used to the war and it is just a part of their normal life now. It’s really bad, of course, to have such a normal life filled with air strikes and so on, but that is how it is. Nowadays, I mostly ignore air raid sirens, although sometimes, especially when the alarm comes at night, I do think seriously about it, especially since most of the hits over the last three months in Kyiv are in my area and all are not far from me.”
“My right to manage my life is being stolen from me”
All bank employees are required to go to a shelter whenever sirens sound. “It is very exhausting. You have to leave everything you are doing every time. And then there are the long minutes of waiting for something unclear. The war steals our time – a nonrenewable resource, one of life’s greatest values. We don’t own our time, we can’t plan our lives, we are constantly in a state of waiting for the sirens – just to go down to shelter and wait again.
I feel that my right to manage my life is being stolen from me. This only causes anger and rage, because it destroys me as a productive person, and I think about how much good I could do for myself or others during the time I’m sitting in a shelter.”
3. The war at home: Exhaustion, traumatic stress and the occasional chocolate
In late fall of 2022, anticipating a cold, dark winter, Russia upped the ante. Its military used hundreds of missiles and drones to attack electricity and water infrastructure, and on December 13, the UN reported that half of Ukraine’s energy system had been destroyed. Ten million Ukrainians lost electricity and everyone else had to ration. That’s a major hurdle in a place where many live in high-rise apartments. For people nearer the front lines, a very real consequence is traumatic stress and PTSD.
Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova, artist from Kharkiv
“Nightmares usually come after the most immediate danger has passed”
”I was in a train on an upper bunk, and while I was sleeping I had a war nightmare and jumped up, almost falling onto the floor. It is more or less the same reaction as soldiers experience when they come back from the front lines. And it usually comes out after the most immediate danger has passed.”
Lena Mozoluik, IT specialist
“With no electricity, it is impossible to cook or take a shower”
“I live on the fourteenth floor. I often can’t use the elevator because there is no electricity. It is impossible to cook, impossible to take a shower. So you just stay at home. Sometimes the power was off for six or seven hours or longer. No light, you are just at home. It is awful.
I had already gotten used to the sirens so I wasn’t afraid of them anymore. I just said to myself that if something bad is going to happen, it will happen. And there is nothing I can do to prevent it.”
Vika (last name withheld)
On coping with life after torture: “I eat chocolate”
Vika lived under withering shelling in the Black Sea port of Kherson and her town was invaded. Then, early last fall, she was taken prisoner by Russians and tortured.
Freed when the city was liberated, she still lives under occasional bombardment and the possibility of another invasion of her city. Asked how she copes, she smiled. “I eat chocolate,” she said.
“We obviously became stronger, even though we are broken inside”
Multimedia artist Olha Spytsia and her husband Serhii left their home in the port city of Mykolayiv just as Russian tanks attacked the outskirts of the city, and now live in the relative safety of Kyiv.
“Today I caught myself thinking that I forgot how pre-war life was going on. Or is it correct to say, I forgot how it felt to live without the war going on? Peaceful life with no constant inner anxiety feels so far away, like another life.
Before the war, we traveled around the country and abroad often, visited our friends, danced and did yoga. We studied, we organized local events and parties, we had vacations and swam in the Black Sea, we played games, we laughed, we planned, we looked into the future, we dreamt…
Do we plan now? No. There is no point. One week ahead only. Do we dream now? Yes. Mostly about one thing. The whole world knows what it is. That awful thing, that you heard of from your grandparents when you were a kid, but could never imagine…
When days are more or less calm with no air alerts, we still try to do some other pre-war activities. We obviously became stronger, even though we are broken inside. We became more adaptable, even though we are mentally exhausted. We became more stress resistant, even though this wound will never cure or vanish until our death, if not longer.”
Part Two: “Living Under War Tests the Strength of the Psyche and Body“: An Interview With Psychologist Ann Katruk
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