24 February 2023 marked one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. On the anniversary, Peace Insight launched 'Portraits from the War in Ukraine', a series of videos highlighting the work and experiences of seven individuals over the first 6-9 months of the war.
The portraits share the stories of those who responded to the war – peacebuilders, volunteers, civil society organisations – as well as Ukrainians impacted by the war and forced to flee abroad.
In light of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, I met with the individuals featured again, to hear their reflections on the first year of war, the needs of conflict-affected Ukrainians and changes in humanitarian response.
Needs of Ukrainians and changes in programs
Overall, since the start of the war, the humanitarian needs of conflict-affected people still remain high. As a positive development, civil society organisations have diversified and increased in number to support people in Ukraine.
At present, in addition to covering the immediate needs of people, there is a need to support Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who were forced to flee within Ukraine to integrate and adapt to the new place.
For example, SpivDiia, a Kyiv-based hub NGO profiled in episode 2, continues supporting IDPs in finding economic opportunities and jobs through consultations and trainings.
Yaroslav Melnik, Head of SpivDiia said, “In general, NGOs have not changed the activities but instead every project has developed and found more partners. Recently, we have opened a new program 'SpivDiia Notebook' to support digitalisation of learning and working. We distribute notebooks to students in schools and representatives of small businesses and civil society organisations in Ukraine”. This program is very relevant now in the security situation in Ukraine, when people might be forced to shift to remote activities at any time.
Yaroslav Melnik, at a SpivDiia hub in Kyiv, 2022.
In the second half of 2022, international humanitarian support to SpivDiia’s programs decreased – it had come predominantly from individuals and they became tired from the provision of aid. “At the beginning of the war, people were motivated and emotionally boosted to volunteer, donate and bring food. But it was rather a sprint, after which philanthropists and activists burned out”. But from Christmas and New Year, the situation stabilised and came back to the same level as before.
Polina Goch, the head of communications of Ukraine Volunteer Service – featured in episode 7 – said that the needs of Ukrainians supported by the Service have not changed greatly, but the number of requests for help diminished. “People continue calling the hotline, but we receive fewer calls now in comparison with the last year. Also, the Service plans to shut down the volunteer hotline chat, as already a lot of information is already available on the Internet, and many specialised civil society organisations started their activities and focus on specific aspects.”
Polina Goch, from the Ukraine Volunteer Service.
Instead, to avoid duplications with other organisations, the Service focused its activities on supporting the needs of volunteers who help Ukrainians on the frontline or in the occupied territories. They scaled up the project “Close” to support volunteers through online courses on psychosocial support, legal aid, learning, and safety training. The safety training that the service has launched recently is very popular, and includes physical, psychological and information safety.
Support across the borders
Over the course of the year, the French and Polish governments mobilised necessary resources and established mechanisms to better support Ukrainians who fled across the borders. Therefore, the local associations and organisations in France and elsewhere partially reduced their activities as the needs of refugees were increasingly addressed by the state.
In particular, as Ukrainians receive financial and other support from French Government, the “Touraine-Ukraine” Association – profiled in episode 3 – has stopped some of its activities, including collecting clothes for Ukrainians hosted in Tours, France.
Elena Velasco, the head of Touraine-Ukraine, said that the Association has made a new partnership with a Ukrainian civil society organisation “Day by Day” to deliver humanitarian packages – including hygiene, canned food, medicines, first-aid kits, generators of electricity and products for children – from France to the places with active military actions and to orphanage houses in Ukraine. One of the last convoys went to Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, where intense flights are happening recently.
Elena Velasco, head of Touraine-Ukraine Association.
In parallel, local people in Tours continue supporting Ukrainians. The Association collects food donated by French people in the markets, and she noticed that people donate now even more than before.
Monika Ekiert, a humanitarian worker from episode 1, had to pause her humanitarian work temporarily, leaving Poland for a while.
For Iliena Svetlana– featured in episode 4 – a refugee from Mariupol, there are not many changes. She dreams to come back to her home in Mariupol as soon as it is de-occupied. In the meantime, she has subscribed to French class.
For the refugee teenagers, Makarii and Liiana – featured in episodes 5 and 6 respectively – who had to flee from Ukraine to France last spring, integration in France is moving forward fast. Both teenagers are improving fast in learning French, are continuing their other studies and they have clear plans for the coming year at least.
Makarii, young professional athlete and refugee from Ukraine.
Reflecting on one year of war in Ukraine
One year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine provokes a lot of thoughts and emotions among all Ukrainians, including our portrait subjects.
Yaroslav said, “I wish we all could fight with Russia’s influence earlier, and avoid the war. Then people won’t need to face such a big tragedy now. The war affected everyone in Ukraine. Almost every Ukrainian has someone whom they will never call again. On 24 February I wanted to text to a friend to ask how he is. Officially, he is among missing, but his sworn brothers saw how he fell from shelling. The chances that he will come back from captivity is very low…”
He adds, “I am ashamed that in several situations I was afraid. For example, I lacked bravery to drive food for people in Irpin last year. For this I am unbearably ashamed.”
For Polina, “On one hand, it is very hard and I feel tired, but on the other hand, it is empowering to understand that we went through this year of war, which seemed impossible at the beginning of the war. I understand that the best is to focus on the things that you can impact and do what you can.”
Elena had not imagined that the war will last for one year. To her, it is not clear what the future brings. “Morally, people in Ukraine are stronger than we are here. They are braver, especially in Bakhmut, and this motivates us to continue to support Ukraine.”
Liiana said, “On the anniversary of one year of full-fledged war, I miss my family and life that I had before the war, and feel even more homesick. I am scared that my home in Ukraine may be destroyed. Unfortunately, as many experts say, the war will last at least one more year”.
Liiana, at her new university in France.
Makarii shared: “Memories are coming to me about the first day when the war started and other events that happened just after. It feels that the war started a long time ago, time flies very fast. I feel sad to realise and recall what happened last February”.
A lot of volunteers and representatives of civil society organisations feel tired and are burned out from the sprint that turned into a marathon. Despite this, they continue fighting on their front to deliver aid to people.
At the same time, many civil society organisations in Ukraine have been established to better support Ukrainians and cover their needs. But all they can dream of is to finish the war, even though it is not clear when it will happen.