Facing the Сhallenges of War as a Ukrainian anthropologist

Author: Anna Oksiutovych

Diese Reihe bietet einmal im Monat einen Einblick in die Forschungsprojekte, die aktuell am HAIT bearbeitet werden. Hierbei können projektbezogene, aber auch themen- und fächerübergreifende Fragestellungen behandelt werden. So bietet die Reihe Raum für Aspekte, die quer zu den Forschungsschwerpunkten am HAIT liegen oder darüber hinausgehen. Dabei reicht die inhaltliche Spannbreite der Berichte von Impressionen aus der Feldforschung über den Einblick in einzelne Quellen bis hin zu Auszügen aus Interviewvorhaben. Im folgenden Beitrag gibt Anna Oksiutovych einen Einblick in ihre Forschung zu Kriegs- und Fluchterfahrungen von Kindern aus der Ukraine unter dem Eindruck der eigenen Flucht aus dem Land.

My story

Starting from Spring 2022 I have been a visiting research fellow at Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies. During my research stay I have been conducting interviews with children who fled the war in Ukraine. In the following text I would like to reflect on the ways in which the war has affected my own research.

From April 2021 to the onset of the war, I worked as a researcher at the Ukrainian department of the War Childhood Museum, documenting the experiences of people whose childhood was affected by war. I conducted interviews with young people who had been forced to flee their homes due to the war in Eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea in 2014. I also interviewed people who had survived the Second World War as children. This had been my everyday work before 2022. Then things changed. When looking back, I recall that shortly before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I had a working meeting on the evening of February 23, 2022. During that meeting, I was recording an interview with a young Ukrainian woman named Olesya, who had become an internally displaced person in 2014. Ever since she had not been able to return home, and she was forced to change her place of residence several times and to move between Ukrainian regions to find a new place to live. I had no idea that this was not just a working meeting but that this meeting was also the beginning of my own story of escape from war. On the next day at 6:23 AM, I was woken up by a call from my sister: “Wake up, the country is being bombed, Russia attacked us!” Soon after, I heard the sound of sirens, shrill and intimidating. It was the first air-raid siren that I would never want to hear again: these were terrible sounds that had already started to shape my reality and the reality of millions and among them more than 14,000,000 people (as of November 22 of 2022)1 who would leave their homes or relatives for a long time. When I went out on the very same day to withdraw cash from the bank, which opened at 9 AM, there were long lines at ATMs and pharmacies. Some people wanted to withdraw money, wanted to exchange Ukrainian Hryvnias for Dollars, and others again wanted to stock up on the most essential medication/drugs. The immediate future looked unpromising. Banks imposed cash withdrawal limits per person, and panic ensued. Only yesterday the coronavirus had been the biggest threat, yet that day it momentarily turned into a minor issue. Public transport wasn’t running.

In order not to be alone, I arranged a meeting with a friend. When we met we talked about the nearest bomb shelter and tried to figure out what to do next. At that very moment my friend got a call: “There are spare seats in a car going to the Polish border” – her friends insisted that it wasn’t safe to stay in the city. I was also offered a seat in the car. I was given the choice. I had one hour to make a decision and I decided to take the opportunity and leave the country. I had one hour to pack my suitcase. The sirens were unbearable. It was a trip to nowhere because at the time I had no idea how to cross the border, where to spend the night, and where I could stay the next day. My work and the sheer number of interviews did not prepare me for my sister’s call in the morning: I was angry at myself, wondering why I hadn’t prepared myself better, why I hadn’t packed my grab-and-go bag. Anyway, how can one prepare for war? Belongings packed in the bags of Ukrainian citizens and in my suitcase stopped being ordinary things and acquired a symbolic meaning. They became an invisible bridge connecting us with home and memories of what had been dear to us. Since the moment I left the country as a refugee, I have often recalled my last interview which I recorded in Ukraine. I experienced the very emotions and feelings my interviewee from Luhansk Oblast had shared with me. One part of me was living my life abroad and dealing with bureaucratic procedures, while the other part was detached and frozen, making me a silent observer. Despite everything, in the meantime, I tried to save the lives of my mother and grandmother. I was looking for volunteers to take them out of the region that had already been surrounded by Russian tanks.

When living my first months as a refugee abroad, I could not talk about what it was like to be a refugee with people who had never been exposed to war. I lacked the words that would help me to explain everything that people who had not been displaced could never understand. It was as if my world had lost its colors. Later, I was lucky to receive support from the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies at TU Dresden, which helped me to continue my research. This is how I ended up in Dresden. And I decided to continue my research on childhood in times of war, however this time with a focus on the most recent war. I shifted my attention to interviewing Ukrainian children and teenagers, their caregivers and relatives who had fled, and the volunteers and activists who help them.

When I speak with children from Ukraine they talk about different things: their studies, about the coronavirus in Germany, them trying to figure out when they would return home, how to support Ukraine and put an end to the war in their own ways. In one interview a teenage girl told me: “…someone should tell Putin that the children want to study.” I then realized that conversations with children become more lively when we speak about their toys, their “treasures,” and the personal things they brought with them. With the help of their own material objects they can talk about themselves and their experiences without getting excessively self-conscious, shy, or worried. To explain what this is about I will now shift my focus to the objects and their importance for children by giving examples from some interviews I conducted.

“I thought we would only go for two weeks”

Vika, a single mom, had lived with her 9-year-old daughter Eva in western Ukraine, in Lviv. She told me that she had crossed the border twice. On the first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion, she had managed to take her daughter to her parents-in-law in a village in the mountains near the Polish border. On the following day, early in the morning, she had attempted to cross the Medyka-Przemyśll border together with her sister pursuing the idea of settling down in Poland and later bringing her daughter Eva abroad. Vika took warm clothes with her. When Vika and her sister arrived at the closest city near the border, she remembered, they had to stand in a line extending to the border for 20 kilometers. After spending twelve hours in the queue while the line only moved forward 8 km, the two women decided to go back to Lviv. When the weekend came, and Vika went to her parents-in-law’ village to stay with her daughter, Vika asked a doctor who wanted to evacuate her son to Poland, to go to Poland with them. She and her daughter spent the next night in the car. Vika started the interview with the following words: “At first I thought we would only go for two weeks, and then I would take my daughter back to her grandparents, and I would return to Lviv to work. I didn’t want to put my child in danger. I could tolerate the sirens, but it would be difficult for her. There is no bomb shelter near us. And then… I realized that I was making a decision considering solely practical and rational reasons. I neglected the emotional component of my relationship with my daughter. Only two years ago her father left the family and she took it very hard. For two years I built a warm relationship with her. I realized that now I could not leave Eva alone.” Vika planned to spend a week, two at most, in Poland. “Now I’m already in my third month here,” – she said. She observes that plans are changing every day, several times a week. “Whole blocks of uncertainty eat up all the energy,” she adds. “At first I didn’t tell my daughter much about the war. But then she went to school and heard other children talking about the war there. One day my daughter returned home from school and suddenly asked ‘Mom, how can one kill Putin?’” Soon Eva began throwing tantrums, angry that they didn’t take the toys she had packed and the book she had written. She demanded to bring the things to her in no time. When Eva was given her handwritten book “The adventure of Sparrow,” which has tremendous emotional meaning for her, her joy was boundless. Eva tells in the interview that this stapled A4 notebook with a bird and a hedgehog on the cover and colorful drawings inside was the first book she had written on November 15, 2021, and she identifies herself with the main character of the book, the sparrow. The sparrow is brown with a white spot. Eva explains: “But I will tell you right away that he’s a child, the same age as me. It’s me but in a different body. He is now 9 years old, just like me.” Eva tells me that sparrows are her “most favourite birds,” that she constantly searches for them when going out, feeds them, and enjoys looking at them as they are “wonderful, hilarious, and never stay at the same place and speedy.” According to her, she can write much better stories. Still, this book is precious precisely because of the creative process: “… my first book, I had this peculiar feeling as if it is my whole life”.

When things are more than just things

While conducting interviews with many Ukrainian children who fled the war I came across various stories about specific objects they had taken from Ukraine and which had accompanied them since their departure. Ustym, a ten-year-old, recalled they had left in urgency: “When we left Kyiv, we didn’t take any toys at all. Already in Berlin mom bought us something at Futurium, and then dad sent us my Lego.” Also Omelyan, a seven-year-old, shares his passion for collecting different things: “I collect pebbles. My mother collects vase splinters, I took it from my mother. My family used to call me Plyushkin.2 In our family everyone is Plyushkin.” Similarly, Eva also regrets that she could not take her pet with her: “We could not bring our cat Vasylko with us. I miss him the most. We took him to the small city to my grandpa and grandma. My mother bought me a toy cat; it’s white and can turn its head and meow.” Marta, a fourteen-year-old teenager remembers „I took my lipstick with me. I purchased it back in Kharkiv, the red one. I thought it was some cheap lipstick, but when I paid for it, I was surprised at how expensive it was. It holds color for a long time, it’s a quality lipstick, not one that doesn’t wash off quickly.” Similarly, Semen, a nine-year-old who recently got his favourite book back, recalls: “I love reading about animals, my grandmother brought me an encyclopedia from Ukraine.”

For the children who were forced to leave their homes, their belongings play a significant emotional role, and are perhaps more important to them than to children who didn’t flee. In times of instability, it is extremely important for children to have a safe haven they can cling to; this can also be an object that is dear to them. These objects inspire children’s imagination, a tool for coping with their new environments.

Personal belongings also play an important role for the parents that brought the children abroad, as the next examples reveal. For Maryna, the connection with her family, her partner, and the entire family history can be found in one object – a wedding ring: “We packed very few things. It is only the wedding ring that comes to my mind, the only thing (aside from the documents, obviously) that I would regret losing. Not because of its price, but because of its symbolism.” Rose says that the most important things she took are the embroidered shirts for herself and her three children: “When we were leaving, I already knew that it would be for a long time. I did not take many things with me, and I packed only my embroidered shirts. They are my connection with home, with my dear Motherland, Ukraine.”

Oksana, a mother of two, recalls: “Of all the things I left at home, I only miss the book written by my son that he didn’t finish and photos on a hard drive that we didn’t have time to take.”

These things are the basis for the future home, which will be built in a new place. They give the feeling that its creation does not start from a blank slate, that there are threads that connect to the past life, maintaining memories and connections with other people. These and many other recollections have accompanied me in the past months here in Dresden. For the first time in my life, I became a part of a discourse I had researched from outside before. Experiencing myself confronted with war and displacement, my own research approach and methodology has changed a lot. During the interviews I no longer raise the topic of past lives or relatives at home. While the war is still going on, the main focus of the research is resettlement and adaption to the new environment.

As a refugee researcher of the war experience I became more empathic; I learned how different refugee experiences can be, depending on the time of escape, the part of the country from which one left, dependent on who accompanied the journey. During the interviews, I regularly refer to my own experiences, which helps creating a space for exchange. I don’t use the words “I won’t understand you, because I have never lived your experience, but I am here to listen to you,” as I could have said earlier during the interviews. Instead, I am saying: “I am listening to you as carefully as I can.” This is how one’s very own experience as a refugee during war changes your research on the experiences of childhood in times of war.

Zitiervorschlag: Anna Oksiutovych, “Facing the Сhallenges of War as a Ukrainian anthropologist”. In: Denken ohne Geländer. Der Blog des Hannah-Arendt-Institut für Totalitarismusforschung e.V. vom 14.12.2022: https://haitblog.hypotheses.org/3821


Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
haitblog (2022, 14. Dezember). Facing the Сhallenges of War as a Ukrainian anthropologist. Denken ohne Geländer. Abgerufen am 24. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/pf1x

  1. More than 15,5 million movements out of Ukraine have been recorded since 24 February. More than 7, 8 million refugees from Ukraine are recorded across Europe. Within Ukraine, over 6,5 million people remain displaced by the war as of November 22 of 2022. https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine. []
  2. Plyushkin – a character of “ Dead souls” of Nikolay Gogol, known for his passion for accumulation of unnecessary things. []

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