Since February 2022, Ukraine has become the cynosure of the world. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, thought he could conquer Kyiv and subdue Ukraine in a matter of days. Instead, eighteen months later, Ukraine is still fiercely resisting and daily life in Kyiv appears deceptively normal.
Despite regular Russian air raids, on a recent visit I saw that there is more bustling activity on Kyiv’s streets than there was in midtown Manhattan during the pandemic. Locals go to work, they shop, and they still sit in the city’s parks to eat lunch. On warm summer evenings, hipsters clog the cafés along Reitarska Street. But as darkness falls, people prepare for another barrage of Russian missiles and kamikaze drones. Bars and restaurants close as the midnight military curfew approaches.
Russia’s nighttime air raids on Ukraine are war crimes – deliberately launched to destroy civilian infrastructure and to terrify or kill people in their beds. They also ruin your sleep. I spent my second night in Kyiv rushing to a hotel bomb shelter as air raid sirens shrieked across the city, and the “Alert App” on my iPhone flashed red warnings of an imminent attack.
My disrupted sleep in the air raid shelter took place alongside colleagues and strangers who patiently waited for the all-clear, only for us to all return, sleepy-eyed, a few hours later when a second wave of Russian attacks was launched. Ukraine’s military later said that they shot down 37 of 63 Russian missiles and Iranian-made Shahed drones launched that night, with most of the damage being borne by the port town of Odessa. By dawn, our four-person team from the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) was weary to our bones. I couldn’t imagine how Ukrainians have endured months and months of this.
The international community has rallied behind Ukraine. It has provided tons of sophisticated armaments, including the missile defense systems that protected us in Kyiv. But behind the frontlines there is another war going on. Ordinary Ukrainians are fighting to hold on to normalcy and digest a steady diet of anguish. It is a battle against perpetual stress, punctuated by the hardships of a war that has killed thousands of Ukrainians and traumatized millions more.
Ordinary Ukrainians are fighting to hold on to normalcy and digest a steady diet of anguish. It is a battle against perpetual stress, punctuated by the hardships of a war that has killed thousands of Ukrainians and traumatized millions more.”
According to the Office of President Volodymyer Zelenskyy, research indicates that “more than 90% of Ukrainians had at least one of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, and 57% are at risk of developing mental disorders.” The First Lady, Olena Zelenska, has made Ukraine’s mental health her priority, describing the battle with grief, stress and trauma as “an invisible front” of the war.
This is especially true for Ukraine’s most vulnerable survivors. In our meeting with Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Andriy Kostin, he described how Russian forces have systematically used torture against Ukrainian POWs and civilian detainees in the areas they occupy. This has been supported by the Mobile Justice Team’s latest report, which analyzed 320 cases from 35 Russian detention centers in the previously-occupied Kherson region. Compiled by international legal experts, the report found that 43% of victims experienced torture, including sexual violence. Russian guards also subjected Ukrainian detainees to waterboarding, suffocation, beatings and “genital electrocution.” For the survivors, the process of recovery will be slow and arduous.
Mr Kostin’s office has about 10,000 prosecutors and other staff who are currently pursuing almost 100,000 active war crimes investigations, including the Kherson torture cases. These extraordinary men and women are exhausted. In Kostin’s words, his prosecutors are working “under an immense workload in precarious conditions, often risking their lives.” The warzone is both their workplace and their home. For Kostin, “strengthening their psychological resilience” is an essential part of the war effort.
Ukraine remains the frontline of the struggle against President Putin’s imperial hubris. The atrocities being perpetrated there are crimes against humanity. But Russia’s defeat will not be measured in regained territory and destroyed tanks alone.
President Zelenskyy argues that success and his country’s “prospects for post-war recovery largely depend on the level of emotional solidarity of citizens and the culture of mental health care.” There is nothing glamorous about funding psychotherapists and trauma counselors, but victory will require strong international support for humanitarian programs that enable the Ukrainian people to maintain their mental health and sustain their hope.