‘Psychological torture’: the impossible choices of Ukrainian women fleeing war
By Sara Cincurova
Before she fled her home in Ukraine, Svitlana Tkachenko says she taught her mother how to walk down a ladder quickly « so she could get to the basement when the airstrikes hit ».
It was the night of 27 February when she decided to leave. Fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces was taking place all around Kyiv, only 50km away from her home in Bila Tserkva, while airstrikes rained from the sky. The war that had broken out just days before had already killed dozens of civilians.
“When I decided to flee, my father said to me: ‘I am old, but you are young. I can die here, but you have your life ahead of you: you will get married, you will have children. I will not survive, but you should flee so you don’t lose your life,’” she said.
When she left, her mother could not stop crying.
More than 3.6 million refugees from Ukraine – the majority women and children – have fled to neighbouring countries since the war began, and others remained displaced within the country’s borders.
Men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been barred from leaving, so many of the women who flee must do so alone. They are faced with the impossible choices imposed by the unsparing logic of war.
I was in eastern Ukraine when hostilities broke out on the night of 24 February, catching a night train from Kyiv to Kramatorsk for a press trip. Just after 5am, word began to spread among passengers that fighting was unfolding all over eastern Ukraine. After hearing the news, people rushed off the train at the first available station, desperate to avoid heading further east towards the fighting.
But Nastya, an 18-year-old studying economics in Kyiv, decided to stay on the train to Kramatorsk, knowing that her city was being hit by shells. Kramatorsk is in the Donetsk region, which has been the site of conflict between Ukraine and Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
“I want to spend the war with my family,” she told me. “That is the only thing I care about.”
I never found out if Nastya made it safely, or what has happened to her since.
I eventually arrived in Kharkiv by a small, regional train from Lozova. It was in a state of panic with many queuing to buy train tickets to Kyiv as explosions hit and tanks encircled the city. A massacre was breaking out, and I decided to leave the country alongside thousands of desperate people.
As I left Ukraine for Slovakia, I interviewed women who ended up stuck at its western borders.
Many of those I spoke to told me that the worst aspect of the refugee crisis was when they had to decide whether to flee – departing on a life-threatening journey alone or with their children, leaving male family members behind – or to stay in a war zone.
In early March, I met 39-year-old Irina, who lives in a town close to the Slovakian border. She told me about the dilemma she faced:
“I can either leave the country with my two children, knowing that I have to leave my husband behind – and also knowing that my children might never see their father again. Or I can stay in western Ukraine, and expose my children to war, homelessnes and poverty,” she said.
Irina said making this choice amounted to “psychological torture”.
Nastya, Svitlana and Irina present a common picture of women in Ukraine since the war began: alone, in a vulnerable position, faced with impossible decisions and trying to find a place of safety.
Svitlana, who has now arrived in Prague, told me she was not afraid for her own safety as she fled, but rather for the safety of those who remained. But her journey was also dangerous.
Her cousin gave her a ride out of the country, leaving her alone at the Polish border. Humanitarian organisations have warned of the risk of sexual violence and trafficking on Ukraine’s borders. One man has been detained in Poland, suspected of raping a 19-year-old refugee he’d lured with offers of shelter, AP has reported. Another was overheard promising work and a room to a 16-year-old girl before authorities intervened.
Svitlana managed to find a driver who took her to Warsaw, where Polish volunteers helped her and other women refugees find a safe shelter for the night.
“We slept in a place that looked like a church,” Svitlana said. “There were several beds and a baby crib. One of the women in our room fled with an eight-month-old baby – she could not wash or feed the baby properly for three days.”
As I left Ukraine after a tough, tiring trip, I strove to understand what the stakes are for women. As both Irina and Svitlana told me, this crisis is not just humanitarian, but also psychological and emotional.
“There is only one thought that Ukranian women refugees have on their minds right now,” Svitlana told me. “We hope that the last time we hugged our families who stayed behind was not the last time we saw them.”
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement, Mythili Sampathkumar and Steph Williamson.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
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