Ukraine at War: Continuity and Displacement

FACULTY Q&A

More than 2 million people have so far fled Ukraine to other European countries since the start of the Russian invasion, according to the United Nations. The UN Refugee Agency expects around 4 million refugees this week, while the Red Cross estimates around 7 million are internally displaced.

“It’s a very intense feed on the international community,” said Greta Uehling, an anthropologist and senior lecturer in international and comparative studies at the University of Michigan. “We are dealing with a humanitarian population of approximately 11 million people displaced from their homes. And that doesn’t include military casualties or other people who will need help. »

For Uehling, who studies the subjective experience of military conflict and forced displacement in Ukraine, “it’s a story of continuity, not change. They are people who will do whatever it takes to nurture and maintain a livable world with the people they love.

It has been almost two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine. Historically, how long ago did this conflict begin?

Great Uehling

From the Ukrainian point of view, this is the eighth year. It all started when Crimea was occupied in 2014. At that time, the response from the international community was weak. Nobody wanted to antagonize Russia with our other internal problems and issues. It is therefore essential to recognize that what began a few weeks ago is a dramatic escalation of a process that began eight years ago.

Moreover, it is important to know that the people displaced from their homes are mainly women, children and the elderly because the men have been asked to stay and fight to defend their country. Many of these people have been displaced once or possibly twice in the past eight years due to these initial conflicts in Crimea as well as the ensuing conflict in the eastern region of the country known as Donbass.

I worked on a project on internal displacement in Ukraine for three years and interviewed about 150 internally displaced people in Ukraine from 2015 to 2017.
What is interesting is that everything that is happening at the moment is consistent with my central findings of those years: what I found was a place with political upheavals, military conflicts in residential areas and armed saboteurs which was paradoxically also a place where people had a very strong moral compass and ethics thrived.

I have studied the practices that people have developed to restore a livable world. I use the term daily warfare to describe how civilians ended up trying to keep the peace with each other as much as possible, but also ended up participating in the conflict. There is a deep quality of resilience that surrounds all of these activities.

How do you view the actions of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

President Zelenskyy rose to this challenge and refused to be dominated or cower in any way. What do you do if you have a leader in the neighboring country who will not bow to your pressures and demands? This is very threatening for a country like Russia which wants to reinforce its values ​​and its main priorities in Ukraine.

The remains of a store in Sloviansk, Donetsk Republic.  The city of Sloviansk is where the very first shots were fired in 2014. The photo was taken in June 2017, proving that the city was still recovering.  Photo credit: Greta Uehling

The remains of a store in Sloviansk, Donetsk Republic. The city of Sloviansk is where the very first shots were fired in 2014. The photo was taken in June 2017, proving that the city was still recovering. Photo credit: Greta Uehling

I admire a lot of his statements. One of them said, “I need ammunition, not a round. He rose to this challenge magnificently. He galvanized a lot of support. We saw a civic identity flourish around the 2013-2014 revolution. This idea of ​​Ukrainian identity is based on a civic nation that unites people of different ethnicities, languages ​​and cultures around norms and values ​​of democratic governance. This is very powerful in Ukraine at the moment, and this is precisely what threatens the Russian authoritarian regime.

How should the West react in the future?

How the West proceeds is a very delicate question. I am 100% in favor of maximizing humanitarian aid to the civilian population. The number of refugees is increasing every day. If I understand the current situation correctly, there is not a problem of stock but of distribution.

What is needed is a very strong and coordinated distribution of clean water, food, medicine and shelter across the country. It is difficult because the communication is not effective. The Internet goes in and out, so does electricity. This reality complicates the distribution of humanitarian aid.

Another element of that is really what happens to people who are traumatized; it’s a complex answer. One of the things I’ve found in my research is that over time the bar of tolerable changes. They can tolerate a lot, and it’s not necessarily psychologically healthy if the violence normalizes.

A child's drawing on the wall of a café thanking the soldiers who defended the country for their service.  Photo credit: Greta Uehling

A child’s drawing on the wall of a café thanking the soldiers who defended the country for their service. Photo credit: Greta Uehling

How do you see this third round of talks between Russia and Ukraine?

I am not very optimistic that these peace talks will bear much fruit. It will be more effective if Ukraine stands up to Putin and defends itself in a way that proves it cannot win. The Ukrainian people will never give up. Putin can’t make them Russian, no effort in the world. He would face 100 years or more of resistance.

The younger generation has embraced the leadership of their country, its European heritage and its values. They have their own literature, their own history and their own language. They have their own cultural traditions.

It is a tall order, but I hope that Ukraine, with its own resources and those provided by others, will push the Russian army back to its old borders. It is important to acknowledge the losses and sacrifices being made at this time. This may be an opportunity for scholars and politicians to come to a more accurate understanding of the region’s history and the value Ukraine represents to the rest of the world.

Uehling has a forthcoming book titled “Everyday War,” based on his research in Ukraine.