Ukrainian refugees safe, but not at peace, after year of war
The woman was locked up for days, her legs beaten with a hammer. The men accused her of revealing Russian soldiers’ locations. They subjected her to electric shocks and bore down on her feet with the heels of their military boots until two of her toes broke. She heard screams nearby and feared they came from her daughter.
More than once, with a bag on her head and her hands tied, a weapon was pointed at her head. She’d feel the muzzle at her temple, and a man started counting.
One. Two. Two and a half.
Then, a shot fired to the floor.
“Although at that moment, it seemed to me that it would be better in my head,” she told The Associated Press, recounting the torture that lasted five days, counted by the sliver of sunlight from a tiny window in the room. “The only thing that kept me strong was the awareness that my child was somewhere around.”
The Russian officials eventually released the woman and her daughter, she said, and she made her way home. She took a long shower and packed a bag, and the two fled the occupied area — first to Russian-occupied Crimea, then mainland Russia where they crossed by land into Latvia and finally Poland.
Her body was still bruised, and she could barely walk. But in December in Warsaw, she reunited with a son. And she and her daughter joined the refugees who have fled their homes since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Nearly a year has passed since the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion sent millions fleeing across Ukraine’s border into neighboring Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova and Romania. Crowds of terrified, exhausted people boarded trains and waited for days at border crossings.
Across Europe, about 8 million refugees have been recorded, according to U.N. estimates based on data from national governments, and nearly 5 million of those have applied for temporary protection. Experts say those numbers are fluid — some people apply in more than one country — but they agree it’s the largest movement of refugees in Europe since World War II. Unlike refugees from recent conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, the Ukrainians were largely met with an outpouring of sympathy and help.
Yet while the Ukrainian refugees have found safety, they have not found peace.
They suffer from trauma and loss — uprooted from their lives, separated from relatives, fearing for loved ones stuck in Russian-occupied areas or fighting on the frontline. Children are separated from fathers, grandparents, pets. Others have no family or homes to return to.
The woman from Kherson spoke to AP this month at a Warsaw counseling center run in sponsorship with UNICEF. She insisted on anonymity; she fears for the safety of her husband and other relatives in Russian-occupied areas.
She doesn’t like to talk about herself. But she has a goal: For the world to see what Russian troops are doing.
“Even now, I am afraid,” she said, wiping her eyes with her pastel-color nails and fiddling over a tissue. “Do you understand?”
She is among the refugees seeking trauma treatment, most often from Ukrainian psychologists who themselves fled home and struggle with their own grief and loss. No agency has definitive numbers on refugees in treatment, but experts say the psychological toll of the conflict is vast, with rates of anxiety and depression skyrocketing.
At the Warsaw center, psychologists describe treating crying children, teenagers separated from everything they know, mothers unknowingly transferring trauma to their kids.
One patient, a boy from Mariupol, was used as a human shield. His hair has already begun to turn gray. The home of the counselor who treats him was destroyed by a Russian bomb.
Refugee mental health is a priority for aid organizations large and small, even as they work to meet needs for housing, work and education.
Anastasiia Gudkova, a Ukrainian providing psychological support to refugees at a Norwegian Refugee Council reception center in Warsaw, said the most traumatized people she meets come from Mariupol, Kherson and other occupied territories. Those who flee bombing in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia also arrive terrified.
But there’s pain for those even from relatively safer areas in western Ukraine, she said: “All Ukrainians, regardless of their location, are under a lot of stress.”
According to the U.N. refugee agency, 90% of the Ukrainians who have sought refuge abroad are women, children and the elderly.
The psychologists see women struggle to put on a brave face for children, trying to survive in countries where they often don’t speak the language. Many women with higher education have taken jobs cleaning other people’s homes or working in restaurant kitchens.
The luckiest ones are able to keep doing their old jobs remotely from exile or are beginning to envision new lives.
Last January, Anastasia Lasna was planning to open her own bakery in Mykolaiv after finding success with providing other businesses with her vegan foods and healthy desserts. Today she is running a food pantry of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, which has helped some 200,000 Ukrainian refugees, and integrating herself into the southern Polish city’s growing Jewish community.
She has Israeli citizenship, but doesn’t want to live in another conflict-scarred land. Joined now in Krakow by her husband and her 6-year-old daughter, she cannot imagine returning to her former home.
“There is no future there,” she said.
But many refugees still dream of returning home. Their belief that Ukraine will eventually prevail helps them cope.
Last Feb. 23, Maryna Ptashnyk was in the Carpathian mountains celebrating her 31st birthday with her husband and daughter. For months, Russian forces had surrounded her country; waves of anxiety came as she pondered whether there would be “a big war.” So she switched off her phone for her special day.
It was the last night of peace for Ukraine, the last night of normality for Ptashnyk. The next morning, her husband, Yevhen, woke her and told her Kyiv was being bombed.
Now Yevhen is in the Ukrainian army, serving in an artillery unit near Soledar in eastern Ukraine, an area of brutal fighting. Ptashnyk lives alone with their 3-year-old daughter, Polina, in a small suburban Warsaw apartment.
Though Polina is settling well into a Polish preschool, her mother sees the stress.
“For the last year she often asks me about death, about when we will die,” she said.
Polina sees other children out with their fathers, but she’s seen hers only three times since the war began. On a recent visit home, she embraced him. “Daddy’s mine,” she said.
For the woman from Kherson, trying to face the trauma from her torture is just one challenge. She also must find work to afford an apartment in Warsaw, which is now home to more Ukrainian refugees than any other city.
The influx of people has exacerbated a housing shortage and caused rental prices to surge amid high inflation — an issue in many countries welcoming refugees.
The mother finds herself struggling to create a home, a sense of normalcy. The physical pain and scars haunt her, but some days the lack of moral support hurts the most.
Her husband’s family in Russia supports the invasion. Worst of all, he and other loved ones remain trapped in the Russian-occupied territory.
“I am safe now, but it is very dangerous there,” she said. “And I can’t know if they will survive.”
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