Volunteers help the people of Ukraine with trauma from the war

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Volunteers help the people of Ukraine with trauma from the war

Ukrainians find it hard to ask for psychological help. But the trauma of the war needs action now. Michiel Driebergen and Alex Masi meet volunteers who are helping them.


Psychologist Valentina Eremicheva in a group therapy lesson in Dzerzhynsk in eastern Ukraine. © Alex Masi

In every street there are damaged or burnt houses. There is no one in the centre of the small town of Maryinka. Marylinka is near Donetsk held by the rebels who support Russia. There are shots fired every night. The few people who live there go to the air-raid shelter, where the ground shakes from the war.

Oksana Miroshnichenko lives in Marylinka. She talks about her nine-year-old daughter, Alissa. ‘When she sleeps, she waves her arms around, When the shooting starts I give her tranquillizer tablets.’

A psychologist visited Alissa’s school. She asked the children to draw around their hands on a piece of paper and fill the drawings with all their favourite things. Alissa drew roller skates, embroidery, and knitting needles. ‘This is what we must do when we’re scared,’ she explains. She puts down her picture and puts her arms around herself. She seems to hold herself together.

Valentina Eremicheva is a psychologist and works with young children. Some of the children are alone because of the war at a centre in the frontline town of Dzjerdzinsk, about 40 kilometres north of Donetsk. ‘They have nightmares, they wet themselves, and every loud noise is a shock,’ she says. 'But they have a way of losing their traumas when they draw.' She sometimes asks them to draw a picture of what scares them. They often draw soldiers and tanks. ‘We then tear up these drawings into very small pieces.’

Tatjana Grida is a psychiatrist and trauma therapist in Kharkiv, the biggest city in eastern Ukraine. She says,’Ukrainians don’t like visiting a psychologist. In the Soviet days, psychiatrists punished people. They said dissidents were mad to try and break them. They gave some dissidents medication. The first thing people say when I offer help is “No thanks, I’m fine!”. Nobody wants people to think they are ready for the clinic.’ But she says that there is always the danger of post-traumatic stress disorder if you don’t take the time to help trauma.


Oleg Tkachenko is a chaplain from the Good News Church in Slovakisk. He prays with soldiers and volunteers after meeting them in Maryinka, eastern Ukraine. Alex Masi

‘You can live trauma again years later. You get flashbacks and you feel it all again as if for the first time. Then you become a danger to the people around you because you will try to defend yourself again. No one understands and people feel depressed and think about suicide. It is a very big problem. Eastern Ukraine has a shared trauma.’

Volunteers such as Tatjana and Valentina, and Oleg Tkachenko give the only psychological help. Oleg Tkachenko is the owner of a metal-processing company and is a part-time Baptist chaplain in Slavjansk.

‘The people have emotional traumas,’ says Oleg. ‘They have children and plans for the future, and then it all suddenly comes to an end. You’re alone. Nobody cares about you any more. And you feel lost.’ During the church services, Oleg prays with those who want to.

‘The Soviet way of never asking for something is very deep here,’ he says. ‘People from eastern Ukraine are not used to saying what they need. It’s impossible to talk about why we feel depressed. We prefer to suffer and not to ask for help.’ Oleg has summer camps for children to help them forget about the war.

In the past year, more than 10,000 children went on holiday trips to the countryside or to the Carpathian Mountains. But he wants to do more for them.

‘We want the children to spend all their holidays away from home,’ he says. ‘After only a few days you can see they feel better.’

Alex Masi is an Italian photographer and journalist. He lives in London, and reports on women’s and children’s living conditions, health and human rights. alexmasi.photoshelter.com

Michiel Driebergen is a journalist from the Netherlands. He lives in Krakow, and writes about Central Europe and Ukraine.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2017/05/01/breaking-the-trauma-taboo/

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).