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What’s life in wartime Ukraine really like?

  • Opinion

By Josephine Aitken, BA Social Anthropology

When we hear the word ‘war’ we try to draw on our pre-existing knowledge of it, usually of the World Wars we learnt of in school, or conflicts in ‘developing’ countries. From media consumption, the image we construct of Ukraine prior is of a relatively unstable country, despite the fact that many lived a great life before the war. They lived in a free country, full of highly skilled and professional people, with an abundance of beautiful architecture and nature. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe by landmass, and in relation to its vastness, now, in wartime, the West of Ukraine doesn’t live as the East does. Though they still live in uncertainty, attacks in the West are far less frequent, and safety is more assured. Today, throughout Ukraine everyone continues living their life to a varying degree of normality.

Credit: Josphine Aitken

I stayed in Odessa for 24 days this September. Whilst it may not be is not on the frontline, Odesa is more frequently under attack than regions in the West of Ukraine. You could often hear sirens, meaning that Russia had just launched a missile or a rocket into the region. However, most people have become desensitised to these sirens, and the majority don’t go to bomb shelters when they hear them. Ukrainians would comfort me by saying that the Odessa region is larger than the whole country of Moldova and that the likelihood of getting hit by a car is higher than being struck by a rocket. However, you wouldn’t be hit by a car while sitting in your own apartment. I realised that it is impossible to live in a high state of fear for an extended period of time and that the human organism will eventually adapt to a high-stress environment.

Credit: Josphine Aitken

I remember a conversation, very casual in tone, about the possibility of a nuclear attack. If there would be a nuclear bomb strike, this ‘nuclear mushroom’ will be seen by most of Ukraine. If you can cover the entirety of this ‘mushroom’ with your thumb, you will be okay. But equally, if you hold your thumb to the sky and are unable to cover it, it means bad things for you. Again, it was mostly the laidback delivery of this subject which surprised me, the logical thinking around something which inspires such dread and fear.

Restaurants, bars, and salons all work as usual, yet nothing is quite the same. Supermarkets must shut when there is an air raid alert, and you can not buy alcohol anywhere past 8 pm. There is a curfew from 11pm-5am when you cannot be in the streets. This curfew is to protect the Ukrainian people, as Russian spies could be more easily identified after the curfew was imposed. These hours are a time for Ukrainian forces to find and destroy enemy military groups, without the possibility of harming civilians.

It is quite understandable that many don’t desire to fight and possibly lay down their life when only eight months ago, the question would never have even been posed to them.

Now, you will find fewer people on the streets, but mostly fewer women. In pre-War Ukraine I had hung out in groups of all genders, now it was most often myself as the only girl. Many women fled the war, but for men, this is almost impossible as the country needs people to ensure the economy continues – and in case they need more soldiers to be drafted. While all in Ukraine respect and rely on Ukrainian soldiers, everyone reacts differently. It is quite understandable that many don’t desire to fight and possibly lay down their life when only eight months ago, the question would never have even been posed to them.

Sentiment towards Russia in Ukraine was never very positive, but since this February, it has severely and irrecoverably deteriorated. Despite this, they are not afraid of Russia’s mobilisation, they feel supported by the Western world, confident in their army and in their nationwide determination to win. The audacity of enforcing Russian ‘citizenship’ upon Ukrainians in annexed regions has, of course, provoked national rage. Although many who work in the public sector are forced to verbally adhere to this, the unanimous knowledge of true citizenship can always be heard behind words. Despite the hardships they experience now, Ukrainians have bright hopes for the future of their country.

Credit: Josphine Aitken

Of course, everyone thinks of the end. Many constantly check the news throughout the day, sometimes within the same hour. The people in my surroundings knew that Liz Truss became the new PM of the UK before I did because her stance on Ukraine could be imperative to the future outcome of the conflict. Everyone in Ukraine agrees that these eight months of war seem like years, their old lives seem so distant to them. Many have left their country to start a new life in safety, but many also remain in bordering countries, waiting. The desire for the end is felt by all, but it is felt by Ukrainians more powerfully than any other European could cognitively understand.

Featured Photo Credit: Josephine Aitken.


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