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Ukraine: How do you cope in a war zone?

Portrait of woman in winter clothing, standing outside

Olga stands outside a building used by CARE and its partners for psychosocial support activities. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

Olga stands outside a building used by CARE and its partners for psychosocial support activities. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

“When a missile comes flying towards you, it is the whistle sound that you hear first,” says Olga, who lives in Pokrovsk, a small town in Donetsk Oblast in Eastern Ukraine.

It is as if the air is being split apart and then you hear the explosion, she says. The shrapnel is flying in all directions. Windows are bursting. Houses are vibrating and beds are shaking.

It’s a sound of destruction, fear, and despair — a sound that hits you to the core and forces you to react. For Olga and her nine-year-old granddaughter, Darya, it means, “get at least two walls between yourself and the missile to slim the chances of being directly killed, therefore, hide immediately in the small corridor.”

Olga recalls one of the recent attacks, a few moments before midnight on New Year’s Eve: “I grabbed my chihuahua Busya, while Darya started counting and convincing herself at the same time:

‘One, two, three, it’s only fireworks, four, five, six, only fireworks, fireworks, fireworks, seven, eight.’”

On this particular night, seven air strikes damaged 16 houses while injuring a nine-year-old girl and a 70-year-old woman.

According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than 28,350 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the conflict in February 2022, a number the agency says “is likely to be significantly higher.”

Taking shifts

“Since that night, there have been two or three direct hits in our town every single night,” says Olga, holding tightly onto the edge of the table where she is sitting. “We have been taking shifts every night since then, to stay safe.”

The shift schedule means one person stays awake while the others are sleeping to listen to the explosions with the responsibility to wake the others when it is time to run to the corridor or the basement.

“My granddaughter Darya takes the first shift,” Olga says. “She stays up until two in the morning. Then my daughter takes over the next three hours and then she comes and wakes me for the rest of the night.”

Darya tries to distract herself while playing games on the phone.

“Last night was calm; we could only hear some explosions on the outskirts,” Olga recounts. “Those are loud and you can hear it in the air, but we do not need to hide.”

“[But] incoming airstrikes are absolutely terrifying. Two nights ago, the whole house was shaking, and my bed jumped. The strike hit only a few kilometers away.”

A system for survival

The recent attacks have intensified since New Year’s and forced Olga and her family to create a system in which they can survive. Six months ago, the apartment was hit directly. The balcony and windows were destroyed. Recently a CARE partner organization helped restore the windows.

Photo of hands holding a phone, displaying a photo of a damaged building
Olga uses her phone to show the direct hit to the balcony and window of her apartment. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

On Jan. 6, Olga and Darya left the house for the drugstore, needing medicine for Olga’s headaches. “I often get those, as the stress is just too much for me,” she says.

Darya stayed in the car while Olga went inside the store. Then, several airstrikes hit the city center directly. One second, she was talking to someone; the next, an ear-splitting sound shakes the whole building.

“I was so afraid I would never see my granddaughter alive again. I dropped everything and ran as fast as I could back to the car.”

Darya is resilient, and normally copes very well with the constant terror and fear. “But on that day, I found her sitting in the car in a brace position and she was screaming,” Olga says, wrapping her hands and arms around her head and ducking closer to the table.

Eleven people were killed in Pokrovsk that day. Five of them were children, with one only three years old.

“This is now the reality of our life,” Olga says. “It is a constant feeling of uncertainty and there is no hope. I must take several strong sedatives to get through a day, but I am very grateful to have the opportunity to find some support in the community center here.

Image of heavily damaged multi-story buillding
A residential building hit by a direct air strike in Izium in Eastern Ukraine. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

Help with coping

The community center Olga and her granddaughter visit three or four times a week offers free psychosocial support, a project supported by CARE and its partners. There are several individual or group sessions, with activities for children like art classes that distract them from the fear and terror for a little while.

CARE supports a number of similar community centers across Ukraine, though the numbers are difficult to quantify due to constantly changing programs. In addition, many CARE partners have mobile teams of psychologists working with people as needs arise.

Finally, there are currently seven safe spaces for women and girls in Ukraine called Zatyshno-Space, CARE’s joint project with the NGO Vostok-Sos. These are in the cities of Vinnytsia, Zaporizhzhia, Kropyvnytskyi, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Cherkasy. In these spaces, women can receive psychological, legal, and social support.

“Since coming here, I feel much better. I don’t take as many sedatives anymore. It is like a breath of fresh air, and we remember how to live again,” Olga says.

Since the escalation of the war nearly two years ago, there have been no activities for children in her town.

“Here Darya can let out her energy and she can be a child again, even if it is only for an hour,” Olga says while children play in the background. “This helps us to continue. At night we take shifts to listen to the explosions, run and hide, and during the day we learn how to deal with the panic and how to breathe again.”

According to UNOCHA, more than 15 million people in Ukraine are expected to be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2024 as the conflict continues.

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