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Interview on Ukraine

“What I feel? A sense of injustice in what happens when people suffer and their destinies are ruined”

Interview with Olena Zinenko, project coordinator KRF Public Alternative 

After months of sabre rattling and military rhetoric, we woke up today to: war. As we write these words, Russian troops have crossed into Ukraine, those who can are fleeing, others are taking refuge in bomb shelters in their neighbourhoods. From the East to the capital Kyiv. The situation is volatile, but we have managed to stay in touch with our project partner in Kharkiv, Eastern Ukraine. The fact that our project coordinator wrote back to us within hours of the invasion this morning shows the resilience of women there. And it is the women who are at the centre of our work. It is they we want to be heard.

This week we began our interview with Olena Zinenko, project coordinator with our partner organisation KRF Public Alternative, and senior lecturer in the media communication department at the V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University and the Kharkiv State Academy for Culture. The interview below was therefore conducted within days of the invasion. It does not lose its relevance.

Olena Zinenko speaks about the difficult and tense situation women have been and are facing and she shares messages from some of the women who participated in the ten Women’s Peace Tables (WPTs) we organised with Public Alternative in the region along the contact line last year. These quotes from 20 and 21 February 2022 reveal the spectrum of emotions: from resignation to fear to serenity. Our hearts and thoughts are with them.

Here the interview from 22-23 February:

We are interested in the emotional, social, mental state of women there. Can you tell us, how are these women who participated at the Women’s Peace Tables (WPTs) are affected by the current situation? What are their worries and concerns during these tensions between Russia, the US and other Western nations?

I will let the women speak, who live in the region where the WPTs took place and shared what is happening in their lives:

- Civic activist and youth worker from Severodonetsk, 21.02.2022: "In the North it is still quiet, along the line of demarcation they are shooting quite seriously. We moved the meetings from Stanitsa Luhanska, Shchastia and other communities. People are buying gasoline en masse in case they have to leave. But I do not see much panic, these are standard precautions. Interestingly, a lot of covered spaces were vacated in my parking lot –  more solvent people have left the city."

- Civic activist and businesswoman from Kramatorsk, 21.02.2022: “We keep calm, everything works. We were in a cafe on Saturday, people request Ukrainian songs. I called Donetsk, there was a ‘performance’ with an evacuation. My acquaintances did not believe in it, everyone stayed at home. Classes were cancelled, etc.”

- Lawyer from Pokrovsk, 21.02.2022: “We have long been accustomed to war. It is near. The pumping station for water supply was bombed. Quickly the water supply from another building was connected. Explosions can be heard. Emergency bags were gathered. And so: all the same. In the population, misinformation is spreading.”

- Volunteer, Vrubivka, 22.02.2022: “Overheard today at the bomb shelter in Shchastia [meaning “Happiness”]: A child says: ‘Grandma, I want to go for a walk!’ And Grandma answered: ‘It is impossible to walk now!’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because they are shooting!’ ‘And why do they do it?’ The grandmother says to me: ‘There is nothing to answer.’ And on the street heat, sun, our eastern spring is playing. And ‘Grady’ [a lethal weapon from Russia] – f ** k them – roar.”

- An internally displaced graduate of Kharkiv University. She lived in Donetsk until 2014, now lives in Kharkiv, 21.02.22: “I'm in pain, I'm scared and I'm tired. It was as if a piece of my soul had been taken away from me and thrown away. Will I see my house again? And will it be as I remember it? In time, I want to come back here and realise that I got through this. But now I can't ...”

- Volunteer, Vrubivka, 21.02.22: “We came to Vrubivka to support our friends. We brought goodies and the table game Dixit. We ate mangoes and chips and talked about the future. And then the shelling started, right next door, and we went down to the bomb shelter. It was dark and cold there. Today, I hugged the children in the basement who were trembling and crying. I have too much anger now.”

- A public television journalist reported from Novohnatovka, 21.02.22: “A few days ago a shell hit Tatiana's house (a woman about 70 years old), now she has nowhere to live.” 

According to OCHA, of the almost 3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in eastern Ukraine, more than half are women. Many households are female headed. What are they going through now? What would war mean for their lives, if one were to start?

These people are facing a loss of housing, of jobs and of opportunities to build their lives. Young women and girls are at increased danger of rape. On 16 February an evacuation was announced in the so-called «independent republics» Luhansk and Donetsk. Women with children were removed, some without consent, and men were forbidden to leave because they will be forced to mobilize with the armed forces. Some evacuated women shared with the media that they do not know what to do next. Some of them were then returned to Donetsk. Families, women with children are leaving Luhansk for the Ukraine. The occupiers' administrations are not allowing men to leave. There are daily reports of shelling from the small towns on the demarcation line in Ukraine-controlled territory. Women, old people, especially old women hide in basements with children.

There have been media reports about women participating in training to fire guns and taking self-defence training. Some of the women were quoted as saying that they want to defend their “country, home and family”. As a feminist peace organisation we are careful not to treat “women” as a homogeneous block. Who are these women and what drives them to prepare to take up arms?

Women are looking for a plan to protect themselves and their families. Some learn to shoot because they want to strengthen themselves psychologically in this way, but not all of them are going to be part of military forces. By posting photos on social media, women often just want to show that they are not afraid. Some of them really are serious about defending themselves with weapons in the event of an attack and are undergoing training for that reason.

Women are looking for what they can do if there is war. Many women are taking first aid courses organised by the Red Cross. Many are actively involved in community service. As in 2014, volunteer organisations that assisted internally displaced persons are receiving women and children who have started to leave the occupied territories while the CPVR [checkpoint] is still operating. Volunteer organisations in Kharkiv have announced a fundraising campaign for cash assistance, clothes, and other necessities to help the newcomers. Kharkiv, Lviv, and Vinnytsia, where many women's organisations are active, have announced their readiness to receive internally displaced persons.

Are women’s and peace organisations in Ukraine taking action? If so, can you give us one or two examples. If they are not active at the moment, could you explain why not?

In Ukraine, actions are constantly taking place. This is peaceful communication. In January, there were many cultural events aimed at uniting people. Women and children from the Russia-controlled territories came to Kharkiv with festive performances and traditional songs. Such actions make them feel that people in more prosperous regions are not indifferent to their situation. In February, rallies have been taking place in various cities of Ukraine in support of activists and in memory of the tragic events that took place in 2014, when the war began. On 16 February, when a possible attack on Ukraine was announced, a peaceful patriotic action for unity against Russian aggression was held in Kharkiv, Odessa and other cities.

For 8 March, activists of the feminist movement are preparing actions in many cities of Ukraine. The main demand will be the ratification of the Istanbul Convention – it has still not be ratified by parliament, despite confirmations by the President. NGOs are planning activities to unite women and discuss problem-solving strategies on how to make their lives more safe and peaceful in such a situation, and about how to overcome the impacts of the traumatic experience of living in a war zone.

How do you personally experience this moment in time? Would you share your thoughts with us?

Teaching at the university, my communication and coaching work in the public sector allow me not to focus only on the prospect of war. What I feel? There is a sense of injustice in what happens when people suffer and their destinies are ruined because of the whims and illusions of the leader of the nuclear state. My husband and I discussed several strategies for dealing with Vladimir Putin's attack on Kharkiv. As a public figure, I am in danger, also because of my patriotic stance. Reading Russian news sources, I understand that Russian mercenaries can brand me, my friends, colleagues, volunteers, peacekeepers in the event of an attack, as "Bandera" [after Stepan Bandera, a national hero who fought for Ukrainian independence in the 1930s and 1940s and was killed by Soviet agents], as "nationalist patriots", whether we have anything to do with radical right-wing movements or not.

No one is discriminated for not speaking the Ukrainian language in our country. At my daughter's school, lessons are still taught in Russian, in part because children from Donetsk and Luhansk started attending this school after the start of the conflict in 2014. The school employs teachers from these regions. This year, these children will graduate and enter higher education. We, the parents, would like to be waiting for the end of their time in school, for the entrance exams, but not for war. Yesterday we asked friends, whose child is also finishing school and whose young children are growing up: “How are you?” The mom replied: “We don't know.”

As an expert on media education, a media researcher and as a human rights activist, how do you assess the communication and the media coverage of the conflict from a feminist perspective?

The media discourse is saturated with topics of geopolitics, war and events along Ukraine’s borders. There is a lot of propaganda from all sides, but we are used to separating facts from interpretation, recognising fake news and decoding narratives. My colleagues and I share tips on verifying sources, preventing the dissemination of unverified information and avoiding hate speech in both messages and comments. Ukrainian media show a positive tendency to adhere to journalistic ethics and standards of journalism. My colleagues create news and social media messages, trying to provide information impartially and as comprehensively as possible. We have access to sources that disseminate information in English, German, Arabic and Russian. I am constantly trying to alert various social groups about information that "arrives" from social networks. False information about shelling in the area of the demarcation line are spreading. The number of disinformation attacks has increased, especially on young audiences and children.

In the week leading up to 16 February, Russian-language messages were circulated on social media, especially on TikTok, which could be considered intimidating and were aimed at increasing panic. My children (10- and 17-year-old girls) shared the information with me and said they were scared. Over the last eight years, we have learned not to panic.  23.02.2022

Read more about our programme in Ukraine here.

Here you can read an interview with our Board member Margret Kiener Nellen and programme manager Annemarie Sancar about the Women's Peace Tables that we organised with our partner in Eastern Ukraine in 2021.