No Time to Wait: Why Reconciliation in Ukraine Must (And Can) Happen Now

July 27, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Region: Europe Tags: UkraineConflict-ResolutionPolitics

No Time to Wait: Why Reconciliation in Ukraine Must (And Can) Happen Now

"...because internal reconciliation is such a complex task, it need not wait until Ukraine is formally deemed a 'postconflict' society."

Whether it is due to an injury, death in the family, displacement or other trauma, the level of severe emotional stress experienced by military personnel, as well as civilians is devastating. It is crucial, then, that counseling services be widely available to the general public in Ukraine, on both sides of the conflict. Any delay in emotional healing during the war will tend to hamper and even jeopardize victims’ recovery, as they become further trapped in their pain.

The problem with the availability of psychological help in Ukraine is twofold. On the one hand, there is a stigma that unless one has a serious mental disability, seeing a psychologist is a sign of weakness, especially among men. A military psychologist Andriy Kozinchuk was reported saying, “In our country the culture of psychological help is not that well developed. If somebody is having a problem, they don't go to a psychologist as a rule, they normally go to visit a friend and they get drunk.” The second problem is that there are not enough psychological services available. Olena Zhabenko, a Kyiv-based psychiatrist and a researcher at the Ukrainian Research Institute of Social and Forensic Psychiatry and Drug Abuse, noted that lack of psychotherapeutic help, combined with lack of social and peer support significantly hinders timely mental-health assistance. It is therefore critical that in addition to clinical psychologists, more organizations offering peer support are available.

An example of an organization dedicated to helping soldiers and civilians deal with trauma is Wounded Warrior Ukraine. This unique NGO teaches Ukrainians suffering from trauma to relate their suffering to other victims and by doing so help them identify and overcome their own emotional trauma. In my conversation with Roman Torgovitsky, a Russian-born, Harvard-trained, Maidan-inspired founder of Wounded Warrior Ukraine, he stated that when working with veterans from conflicting sides, his priority is to teach them to abstract their minds from their emotions so they can begin to listen to each other. Bringing members of the conflicting sides to such a state of calmness and self-awareness that they can at least acknowledge each other’s fundamental humanity is an essential first step, requiring constant practice.

Despite the researchers’ claims that cessation of a military conflict is primary for internal reconciliation—and the conflict in Ukraine seems far from being over—we can take some immediate steps on the path toward reconciliation. Developing trust and understanding between former enemies is a challenging task even after the war has ended, let alone when it is still ongoing. But exactly because internal reconciliation is such a complex task, it need not wait until Ukraine is formally deemed a “postconflict” society. The healing of the wounds and the restoration of relationships can and should begin now with the government’s recognition of and provision for the innocent civilians’ needs, supporting and cultivating NGOs devoid of political agenda and dedicated to human rights, as well as strengthening and popularizing psychological assistance services.

Olena Lennon is a former Fulbright scholar from Horlivka, Ukraine, currently teaching Foreign Policy at the University of New Haven. Her hometown Horlivka, located in the Donetsk province of Eastern Ukraine (Donbas), has been one of the main strongholds of Russian-backed separatists in the past year. Olena’s work appeared in Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, Higher Education in Europe, and other publications.