The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY)

Ukrainian refugees safe, but not at peace, after year of war

- By Vanessa Gera

Months after Russian forces occupied southern Ukraine’s Kherson province last year, they started paying visits to the home of a Ukrainian woman and her Russian husband. They smashed their refrigerat­or and demanded possession of their car. One day, they seized the wife and her teenage daughter, put pillowcase­s over their heads and led them away.

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 and then to mainland Russia, from 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 the AP this month at a Warsaw counseling center run in partnershi­p 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.

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