Katja and Sascha live in the Ukrainian city of Pokrovsk. They wage a daily battle against the shadows of violence on their souls. But there are days when confidence wins
It was mandarins that won her heart with. She only knew the man who sent them to her on Facebook. They had some mutual friends and wrote to each other. At one point, she casually mentioned that she liked tangerines. The next day a messenger came to her office and brought her a box of 30 kilos of the fruit. She later learned that the mandarins had cost him half his monthly wage.
That was the beginning of a love in which only a few moments remained for romance. Ekaterina, called Katja, and Alexander, called Sascha, from the eastern Ukrainian city of Pokrovsk got together when a war that had been going on for four years had already lay like gray dust on people’s souls. A war that displaced 1.5 million people, in which 13,000 died and in which today, seven years since it began, people are killed every week by snipers and by grenades and mines.
A war that has long been forgotten in western Europe, because the violence is sporadic and the positions are frozen – and because the east of Ukraine is far away. In international usage one speaks of a “frozen conflict”. But for those who live with him, this war is as present as a shadow that is always there. No matter what you do, no matter where you flee to.
Not a “frozen conflict”: the war is still there for people in Ukraine
They got married a year after they met. Katja, dark hair, big eyes, always ready to laugh. Something warm and happy emanates from her. And Sascha, narrow, serious and brooding, with melancholy eyes. They were actually still too young, she was 20 years old, he was 22. But he was already at the front and she was afraid he wouldn’t be back. He was given a few days’ leave for the wedding. She got pregnant, he called her every day, but they didn’t see each other for months. He always said that he was fine, that there was nothing special to tell.
When the son was born, he canceled his contract and came home. She was so happy. Because he survived. Because they were family now.
It is summer in the city of Pokrovsk, and flowers are blooming in all gardens and parks. In Jubilejnii Park in the middle of the city families walk with their children, they hold pink cotton candy and balloons in their hands, the ice cream stalls are surrounded by joggers. Katja, Sascha and their now two-year-old son Zachar are playing in a meadow. The little one is fast and adventurous, he repeatedly escapes his parents, blows the spores off the dandelions and runs slalom around the trees. Katja and Sascha take it in turns to chase him, and finally, exhausted, let themselves fall into the grass with him. If you watch them, you will see three happy people.
War in Ukraine: More than a million people have fled
Katja: A few months ago such an excursion would not have been possible.
Sascha: I couldn’t be with people. It scared me.
Katja: You couldn’t even take a bus.
Sascha: All that was on my mind was the war. I could no longer do anything with civilian life. I only saw enemies everywhere.
Katja: Also in me and our child.
If a love story is also a war story, then it’s about love in war. Or from the war in love. For Katja and Sascha it was first one thing, then the other. Because Sascha’s return was not the luck she had hoped for. He was alive, yes, he was unharmed, at least outwardly.
Katja: He was a stranger to me
Sascha: I was a stranger to myself.
Katja: You didn’t talk. At night you screamed in your sleep.
Sascha: I couldn’t find a job. We hardly had any money. And I still felt like a soldier at the front: without meaning or belonging.
At some point he became aggressive towards her, impatient and loud. She asked him to get help. He refused. So she went alone to a psychologist and talked everything off her mind. How lonely she is, how overwhelmed: the baby, the financial worries and this strange, silent man. Who was surrounded by ghosts that scared her. Who did not leave the war behind, but brought it into her life. Also told of her parents, who are on the side of the separatists, with whom she can no longer talk freely because there is always only a fight. About whether Eastern Ukraine, the Donbass region, should not belong to Russia. Your Sascha, he is a staunch Ukrainian and she herself also wants to belong to the West.
Ukraine: The war lives on in people’s minds too
Katja: It was good to say it all out once. And also to say; I can’t do it, I can’t do it alone.
Sascha: I couldn’t do that back then. I had no words for my feelings.
We get to know Katja when she is having one of her therapy sessions. Somewhere in Pokrovsk there is a building in which the organization Malteser Hilfsdienst offers psychosocial support for “the victims of the conflict in Ukraine”. For children with nightmares and panic attacks, soldiers with post-traumatic stress, suicidal thoughts, women with depression, whose husbands vent on them their helplessness, unemployment, their memories of war and their anger. The curve of domestic violence and also of sexual abuse has risen dramatically since the beginning of the war. Add to this alcohol, drug and gambling addiction, unemployment, poverty. Even if life in Pokrovsk is reasonably safe, perceptually it is not. Most of those seeking psychological help have fled the war zones, have lost their homes and often enough relatives. Mortar shells are no longer falling on Pokrovsk, but the city, gateway to Donbass, is defended in third line. Which means: if the Russian military marched in, fighting would take place there too.
In December 2013 , thousands of mostly young people demonstrated on Maidan Square in the Ukrainian capital Kiev against the politics and corruption in their country. The then President Viktor Yanukovych does not want to sign an association agreement with the EU, preferring rapprochement with Russia. Yanukovych sends soldiers against the protesters, more than 100 people are killed. But even this violent demonstration of force by the government cannot stop the protests.
Yanukovych eventually flees to Russia, and Petro Poroshenko becomes president. Its EU-friendly policies, but also the Ukrainian nationalism, which is now emanating from Kiev, meet with alienation in the multinational East and with a strengthening of pro-Russian movements. Many people there only speak Russian and feel that they belong to Russia. In 2014, the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts declared their independence with the support of Russia.
This is how a war begins that continues to this day. Two ceasefire agreements – Minsk I and Minsk II – are not implemented and are now considered worthless in Ukraine. In the spring of 2021, the Russian government is gathering troops in Crimea, which is also occupied by Russia, and on the Ukrainian border. The reason given by Russia: military exercises. Again there are fighting and an estimated 70 deaths. The people in Ukraine do not believe that peace can be guaranteed with a partial withdrawal of soldiers. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also considers a new escalation to be possible. Andrea Jeska
The front also runs through the families. Some are pro-Russian, others pro-Ukrainian, some glorify the Soviet Union, others want to belong to the EU. For some, the separatists are criminals, for others, heroes. And the danger is always present. “The Russians and the separatists are not here, but they can be here any day,” is a phrase that is often uttered. Over these political ideologies, marriages have broken down and parents turned their backs on their adult children.
War in Ukraine: Therapies to make everyday life easier for people
Malteser’s psycho-social project has existed since 2017 and currently employs ten psychologists. 600 people have already received support, most of them through behavioral therapy. The youngest patient was two years old, the oldest 80 years old. “After three months of therapy, 89 percent of our patients feel able to cope with everyday life again and solve their problems,” says the head of the center, Viktoria Solowyova. “We refer the others to psychotherapists.” Sascha refused to accept help for almost a year. And then one evening he suddenly said: Okay, let’s go to the therapist together.
Sasha. I understood that there was something wrong with me and that I was hurting my family. I couldn’t control my aggressions.
Katja: I couldn’t help you, I wasn’t there at the front. I had no idea what it was like, but you were full of it.
Sascha: I was so lonely because there was no one to share my experiences with.
Katja: When Sascha was at war, I read “Nothing new in the west” by Erich Maria Remarque. So that I understand what Sascha is going through. The book scared me, but I also had the feeling that it made me close to my beloved Sascha.
Sascha: The war was much worse than I imagined. I thought I had prepared, but then the reality was completely different.
When Ukraine became independent in 1991, Katja and Sascha had not yet been born. Sascha spent his childhood and youth in the west of the country, in the city of Winiza, 800 kilometers from Pokrovsk, and Katja in Donetsk, close to the Russian border. When the separatists conquered the city, Katja fled with her family in 2014 to escape mortar shell fire. They found a new home in Pokrovsk. Katja finished school and started working as a bank clerk. For Sascha in Winiza, the war was not a reality, just headlines in the media. But he had a patriotic friend who kept telling him that Ukraine had to be defended. So Sascha volunteered and was transferred to the east in the port city of Mariupol. He doesn’t want to say what exactly haunts him into his sleep. No, he didn’t see any of the other soldiers die. But death was always present. With every mortar shell, with every rapid fire.
Help for Ukraine
The project of the Malteser Aid Service for War Displaced Persons in Eastern Ukraine offers low-threshold psychosocial support. The help consists of coordinated offers. In addition to psychologists, social workers and pedagogues, youth protection and other specialists are involved. Therapies take place in individual and group sessions. There are also mobile teams who drive to the villages along the front line and teach relaxation exercises, breathing techniques and so-called life skills in schools and community centers. This includes social interaction, non-violent conflict resolution and avoidance of a negative spiral of thought. The project is supported by the German Humanitarian Aid.
Malteser Hilfsdienst eV
Purpose: Malteser International / Ukraine
Or online: www.malteser-international.org/de/hilfe-weltweit/europa/ukraine.html
It was no surprise to Sascha when a post-traumatic stress disorder was diagnosed during therapy. He had seen these conditions in other soldiers. The panic attacks. The sudden anger. The lethargy and joylessness. He had seen these men’s lives fall apart.
Sascha: I didn’t mean that. There was my wife who was waiting for me, there was my child. Doesn’t it make more sense to be a father? What is a soldier? In the end a lonely man in a lonely fight.
Would he allow himself to be used at the front again? The answer comes without hesitation. “Yes. It was right to defend Ukraine, to fight for freedom. But it is also right to stop doing it again. “
Stay or flee? People are still threatened by the war in eastern Ukraine
The day comes to an end. Sascha and Katja show us the apartment building in which they live. The facade crumbly, the balcony in front of your living room window hangs dangerously crooked. They only want to have the bare essentials repaired, because they actually want to move away from Pokrovsk and to Sasha’s home town of Winitsa. But life is expensive there, and rents are much higher than in the east. On the other hand, they believe that they can no longer bear the constant danger of war. “There is always this question in your head: what if …? We have all the documents in one bag, a packed emergency case and we always fill up our car, ”says Katja.
When the sun goes down over Pokrovsk, the streets are filled with young people. In groups, with coffee-to-go mugs in hand, sitting on benches, they give the impression of a completely normal youth in a completely normal country. You can only see from the people who babble on the pavement that the price for normality is one of the madness of the other. “None of us can only live in a state of emergency,” says Katja. Since Sascha has been in therapy and is no longer afraid of other people, the family has been going for a walk in the city every evening. Everything everyday still seems like a miracle to him.
We stop at a playground. Zachar is about to play in the sandpit, Sascha and Katja nestle against each other on a bench. Are people who live in a war zone what war makes of them? Or does one remain unchanged in the deepest core of it?
Katja: I used to enjoy reading Russian literature so much. Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Lermontov. Now I can’t do that anymore, even though Russian is the language I grew up with, which I still speak.
Sascha: The war made someone else out of me.
What kind of life would they have if there wasn’t a war?
Sascha: I used to want to be a cosmonaut. But nothing would have come of it anyway.
Katja: I always wanted to travel, see the whole world. But one day we’ll do that too. Me, Sascha and the little one.