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Ukraine: A Dark Year

Peacebuilding in Times of War

The reports from Ukraine are chilling. One year after the beginning of the Russian invasion, there is still no end in sight to the violence. Despite everything, forumZFD’s partner organisations continue their work – and don’t give up the hopes for a more peaceful future.
Zerstörte Gebäude in Chernihiv
© Oleksandr Ratushniak / UNDP Ukraine (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Oksana Dovgopolova is sitting in the dark. Only the blueish light of her laptop gives a little bit of light. Once again, there is no electricity in Odesa, explains the historian and professor of philosophy. Just like all over the country, the power supply in the port city by the Black Sea is constantly interrupted, as Russia continues its relentless attacks on the Ukrainian infrastructure. It was in April 2022 that I last spoke with the professor. Same as last year, she says today: “There is no point in Ukraine at the moment which is really safe.” Only a few days before our video call, a Russian missile hit an apartment building in Dnipro, over 40 people died, many are still missing.

In Odesa as well there are air raid alarms and blackouts, again and again. Oksana Dovgopolova shows a flashlight which she can put on her forehead. Only for “one wonderful week” at the beginning of this year she did not need the light, when there was electricity without interruption. Since then, there have been many blackouts, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a day. But still life continues – she even visited a concert in Odesa with the flashlight, says the professor. Restaurants, cafés and shops are open as well, adds her colleague Kateryna Semenyuk, not only in Odesa but in many cities all over Ukraine: “The people adapt to the circumstances. They don’t sit around and wait until they die.”

It has been one year now that the Russian army invaded Ukraine. Millions of people have sought refuge abroad or have fled within the country. Now during winter, the living conditions are especially hard. How many people have already lost their lives – no one can tell.

„I could only be amazed“

And still the peacebuilding work continues – even in times of war. “We support the civil society. That is our mandate and we have continued this work also in 2022”, says Zornitsa Popova-Glodzhani, country director of forumZFD in Ukraine. “I could only be amazed: Already on the third day after the invasion, our partners called us. They told us what they needed in particular and made suggestions for projects.” In part thanks to many donations from Germany, forumZFD was able to support its long-standing partner organizations in responding to the humanitarian crisis. For example, partners distributed food and medicaments, turned basements into shelters and installed water pumps, generators, and solar panels. In addition to this emergency assistance, forumZFD also continues the actual peacebuilding work. The most important thing would be to look at what is needed on the ground, emphasizes Popova-Glodzhani: “I would appeal to listen to the Ukrainian voices. They know best what they need right now.”

One of these voices comes from Olena Melnyk. The psychologist and certified trainer in Non-Violent Communication has been working with forumZFD for many years in the Odesa region. She knows what many people in Ukraine now urgently need: empathy and emotional support. “In war, a lot of anger and hate is being born. There are many uncertainties and many people feel as if they are alone with their fears and with their loss. In this situation, staying in connection with others and finding these small islands of warmth – this gives people hope.”

Empathy in a situation of crisis

The project „Empathy Ukraine“ creates such islands of warmth. Already at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, Melnyk teamed up with 25 other practitioners of Non-Violent Communication who wanted to offer support in this crisis. Together with forumZFD they built up a network for psycho-social support. In individual and group sessions, people can share their worries and woes. These are not therapy sessions, Melnyk explains. Instead, the goal is to create safe spaces in which people receive empathy. Through active listening techniques and gentle questions, participants are enabled to cope with their emotions. Until today, Melnyk coordinates the project together with her colleagues Angela Starovoytova and Artem Sivak.

The team of "Empathy Ukraine".

As the team of “Empathy Ukraine” had already built up a well-functioning network by the time the Russian attack began, they were able to respond immediately to the new crisis. Besides the regular sessions, they also developed new formats, such as Circles of Grieving for people who are confronted with loss. The network also cooperates with psychologists and psychotherapists, to whom they can direct participants who need further assistance. The sessions usually take place online so that people from inside and outside of Ukraine can participate. However, there have also already been other cases, Melnyk recounts: “Once during a rocket attack one of our colleagues was stuck in a shelter with 250 people. He organized sessions in the shelter and thereby provided empathy support. Some other colleagues worked in shelters as well.”

The psychologist is convinced of the potential of Non-Violent Communication – not only in order to preserve a humane way of interacting with one another during war, but also for the society as a whole to remain capable of acting. On the local level, for instance, Non-Violent Communication would enable neighbours to find joint solutions for problems. In general, the need for psycho-social support in Ukraine is immense, says Melnyk. In particular, there should be more offers for children. According to Melnyk, another challenge will be working with veterans who need to be reintegrated into civil society after the war. All in all, there is a lot of work ahead for herself and her colleagues.

This huge work load for people in helping professions is an issue that worries forumZFD country director Zornitsa Popova-Glodzhani: “First there was Covid and now the war. Many helpers in Ukraine are close to burn-out. They have their own concerns – family considerations, money problems, stress. They want to help, but they are worn out.” Thus, one focus of forumZFD’s projects in 2023 will be to help the helpers continue their work.

Learning from Kosovo

Another core area of forumZFD is contributing to an inclusive memory culture. Examples from other post-conflict-countries show that war often leaves scars in societies which last for decades – even when the fighting is long finished. Korab Krasniqi, forumZFD project manager in Kosovo, is aware of this issue. More than 23 years ago, the war in Kosovo came to an end, but its aftermath can still be felt in today’s society and politics, says Krasniqi. The events in Ukraine have opened up old wounds in Kosovo: “What we see on television reminds us of our own experiences as children or teenagers. The old antagonistic mind-sets return.” The example of Kosovo underlines the fragility of peacebuilding processes. And it shows that peace organizations need a long breath.

Over many years, the forumZFD team in Kosovo has built up expertise in working with oral history. That is why Krasniqi has been meeting with colleagues from the Ukraine team for some time now to discuss how people’s experiences during war can be documented. In particular, it is important to represent a diverse range of experiences, says Krasniqi. The projects in Kosovo give a voice to people from all groups within society, including minorities. Parameters such as gender, age and socio-economic situation also play a role when choosing stories. “This way we make sure to bring a diverse range of voices into the public consciousness.”


Preserving memories

How will the current war change the collective memory in Ukraine? This is also a question for professor Oksana Dovgopolova and her colleague Kateryna Semenyuk, who is a curator and art expert. We speak about this topic in our video call to Odesa. Both Dovgopolova and Semenyuk are long-standing partners of forumZFD in a project called „Past / Future / Art“, a cultural memory platform which implements educational and research projects. They continue their work even now, in midst of the war.

For example, they conducted interviews with people in Odesa – inhabitants of the city as well as newcomers from other parts of Ukraine who sought refuge there. In another project, the team documented the experiences of artists in Kherson, who developed creative forms of protest during the Russian occupation. Working with oral history would contribute to creating a comprehensive picture of how Ukrainians experience the war, says Dovgopolova. This would help society to deal with these events.

In addition, the two experts engage with the question of how places of commemoration could look like in the future – for example in Butscha, Irpin or Hostomel. These suburbs of Kyiv were temporarily occupied by Russian troops, the images of the atrocities committed on civilians made headlines around the world. On the invitation of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and the State Agency of Tourism Development, Dovgopolova, Semenyuk and other experts participated in consultations on how a memory culture could be established.

There is a strong urge among the population to now erect memorials very quickly, they explain. This is a normal reaction to the traumatic experiences. However, it is important to carefully think about the messages and the exact from of such places of commemoration. “There is not the one right model for each tragedy, each city, each village,” clarifies Semenyuk. “We are also not against monuments. But now this is not the time to quickly put ideas into practice. This is the time to think about it, so that when the war ends we have some ideas and ways to move on.

Oksana Dovgoplova and Kateryna Semenyuk are long-standing partners of forumZFD in Ukraine.

The topic of memory culture sheds light on the fact that there is a huge amount of different experiences which Ukrainians are going through at the moment. Some have left the country, others are internally displaced. Some live in occupied territories, others are fighting. Bringing together all these different experiences will be a challenge for peacebuilding after the war. Many of Ukrainian partner organisations emphasize that at the moment, Ukraine stands united and there is a very high level of solidarity within society. However, war would be a stress test for any society, and it always bears the risk of creating new conflicts. In addition, existing controversies in society – which at the moment have been put on the shelf in order to deal with the imminent need of survival – might return at a later date.

Every war is a stress test

Every war has the potential to create dichotomous patterns of thought, says forumZFD country director Zornitsa Popova-Glodzhani: “In war, everything is black or white, good or evil. This is a normal and understandable reaction. But probably as soon as you start digging underneath, you will see things that fall in neither category.” That would be why it is important now to promote inclusive mind-sets in order to prevent the black-and-white-thinking from being transferred into the time after the war.

Psychologist Olena Melnyk is also aware of these risks: “During war it can sometimes be difficult to accept different perspectives and opinions. Other voices can be perceived as traitors.” That is why empathy is so important in this situation: “We give our participants the feeling of being heard and supported. Over time, this helps them to give empathy to others and to hear other opinions.”

Many Russian-speaking people in Ukraine now decide to switch to Ukrainian. The question of language highlights that the war has triggered a new process of identity building in Ukraine. Related to this is the question of commemoration. By building places of remembrance, many people would want to free themselves from Russia, says historian Dovgopolova: “Many people now want to create memorials in order to bury any nostalgic feelings towards the Soviet Union.”

However, according to Dovgopolova this process is not only about distancing oneself from the aggressor. Instead, Ukraine now starts to explore the numerous layers of its own history and culture, which were for a long time hidden underneath the experiences from the Soviet times: “Viewed through Russian lenses, Ukraine is considered to be a younger brother, not an adult country. Only once we free ourselves from this perspective, we can see the diversity of our country’s history with all its regional and cultural nuances. For example, for a long time Odesa was considered to have been founded by the Russian empire at the end of the 18th century. But in reality, the history of our city dates back much further.”

In Dovgopolova’s opinion, educational and research projects about the past are essential for building mutual understanding within the Ukrainian society. Because Russia would use history as a weapon: “Russian propaganda paints a picture of a divided Ukraine, claiming that the different regions don’t understand one another because they speak different languages. Therefore, our work with the past contributes to the creation of a picture of a common future for all Ukrainians. In Odesa, for instance, we speak hundreds of languages, and all of them are part of our history and culture.”

Preparing the grounds for peace now

forumZFD country director Zornitsa Popova-Glodzhani adds that it will be an important task for peace organizations to make sure that the public dialogue remains inclusive. “Ukraine is a big and diverse country. We will have to wait and see what kind of culture of remembrance and what kind of narratives about the war will pop up from different regions. We want to avoid that people are excluded or vilified because of their origin or opinion. The methods of non-violent conflict transformation can be helpful in this regard.”

She is convinced: Lasting peace and prosperity can only be achieved with the participation of an active and vital civil society. She says that she has big faith in the people of Ukraine: “In more than 16 years of working in post-conflict countries, I have never experienced such an active and well organized civil society, able to respond to every challenge the war poses and bringing to life such a widespread spirit of solidarity among people. This is something we should support and learn from. After the war, Ukraine will be a state in rebuilding – and then this solidarity, volunteerism and active citizens’ engagement will be even more needed.”

"After the war, solidarity will be even more needed.”, says Zornitsa Popova-Glodzhani, Country Director Ukraine of forumZFD.

In the middle of my video call to Odesa, suddenly there is a high beeping noise. At the moment, this is maybe one of the best sounds in the world: The signal that the electricity is back. Oksana Dovgopolova laughs and jumps to her feet. “Now the party starts”, jokes her colleague Kateryna Semenyuk. Laptop in hand, Dovgopolova hurries through the house to turn on the light and plug in the charging devices. In the meantime, she keeps talking. Some years ago, she visited the German capital and went to see the memorial at the Berlin Wall. On a commemorative plaque at the old border strip she read the date on which the last person was shot in the attempt to flee the German Democratic Republic: 5th February 1989. This made her very sad, she shares – had the young man only waited a few more months for the border to fall. But he could not know that this was about to happen, just as today nobody knows when the war in Ukraine will finally end. “We do not know what will happen tomorrow. No one does”, says Dovgopolova. “But we do not give up hope.”

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