2. anniversary of the war in Ukraine: Olena Zinenko: “It is our job to make demands for life”

In February 2022, we had just finalised an interview with our programme coordinator Olena Zinenko in Ukraine. Two days later, the Russian army attacked. As the second anniversary of the war of aggression approaches, Olena recalls her state of shock in those early days and months of the war and the journey she has taken since then. She also explains why talking about peace in Ukraine can create divisions and how women need to be the driving forces for a forward-looking “life agenda”.

How do you talk about peace with our different understandings? We need to look beyond the propaganda and talk about life.

“I was in shock. And I behaved like a shocked woman. I was constantly in a hurry. I was just doing.” At the time of the attack on 24 February 2022 she was working as a senior lecturer at the V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University and the Kharkiv State Academy for Culture. As project coordinator for our Ukrainian partner KFR Public Alternative, she began working for us in eastern Ukraine in 2021. The war upended her life, as well as that of millions of Ukrainians.

She and her daughters first moved to Krakow in Poland, while her husband, a biologist, left Kharkiv for Lviv in Western Ukraine. Since April 2022, she has lived in Frankfurt (Oder). She currently is a guest researcher at the Institute for European Studies of the European University Viadrina. After being in motion for so long, settling in Frankfurt gave her the chance to reflect on “what has changed in me”. It was only then that she began to comprehend and address the shock she experienced.

“I had no resources left inside me”

The first anniversary of the attack brought on a sense of deep disappointment. The war had not, as hoped, ended. “I had no resources left inside me. I was empty, burned out.” In the second year of the war, she realised that she needed help. When a colleague asked her “Are you alright?”, she could finally answer: “I am not.” The colleague recommended a psychologist based in southern Ukraine. Olena questioned herself: “How can I need psychological support? I should be OK.” Here this psychologist was living “in a place of war”, while she was not. The psychologist told her, it was alright: “It is your situation, and it is my situation.” And so the work began.

The psychologist helped her find the resources she needed to move from reacting to strategizing – to plan her life and look to the future. Today she says, “I am not in a hurry, but I am overwhelmed with work.” She continues to give online lectures to her students from Kharkiv while researching disinformation on social media in the ongoing war and working with PeaceWomen Across the Globe as coordinator of the Ukraine programme.

Drawing strength from women

At the end of 2023 she and her 12-year-old daughter decided to visit Kharkiv. Her mother continues to live there, and her daughter wished to see her friends. They arrived by train at 5 am on 29 December and entered the subway. The shelling began that would last for several days. When a rocket hit nearby, her body instantly reacted and she sat down. No one else around her did either. “Everyone could tell, ‘You haven’t experienced shelling.’” Her hometown was cast in darkness while the area she was living in and the streets she used to walk every day, were bombed. “Before, I ran and was scared. This time I was angry. How dare they do this to my home? There is no logic to this. It is evil. Really evil.”

The main reason for her decision to leave on 1 January was to protect her daughter. But a sense of fear did not leave her when they returned to Germany. “I need to work hard to be free in a place where I want to be for my family,” she says. “How can I be strong?”

She draws much of her strength from the women she stays connected with in Ukraine. “It’s very important for me to know the situation they live in. They are very very brave.” She is visibly awed by these women’s activism: crowdsourcing for humanitarian aid, supporting women with children living in unsafe places, providing education and health care, volunteering to offer much-needed services, launching small businesses and organising cultural events. “These women are involved in supporting life.”

Building a connection with the future

Supporting life: That is where she believes the focus should lie in this time of war and destruction and where her thoughts and efforts are concentrated. In her training for public relations specialists and journalists, she tries to steer them away from focusing on political, war and “security” narratives towards narratives of peace “in order to build a connection with the future”.

However, in this work and in the work she does for PeaceWomen Across the Globe with conflict-affected Ukrainian women, the pitfalls of divergent understandings of words like “peace” or “victory” in Ukrainian and Russian have become evident. In the Ukraine, “peace” is tainted because the Soviet Union claimed to provide a protective peace “umbrella” and organised countless so-called peace activities, including during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s when Olena was a schoolgirl. Today, being called a “peace activist” or a “peacebuilder” can divide rather than unify people in the Ukraine, she says.

Talking about peace while bombs fall

“How do you talk about peace with our different understandings? We need to look beyond the propaganda and talk about life. But it is a challenge to talk about life when people are still being shelled.”

She remains convinced that the women are the key to creating a “life agenda”, women who remain in Ukraine and women who went abroad. “President Zelensky talks about defence and security on a political level. That is his work. Women are experts on life – education, health, culture and so on – and peace is about life. It is our work to make demands for life.”

(The interview was conducted between 29 January and 7 February 2024.)

Find out more about our work in the Ukraine.

The picture on the left shows the core group of our Ukraine programme with Olena Zinenko; our director Deborah Schibler; our former programme manager Annemarie Sancar; Olga Larina (from left to right) and Olga Syniugina (seated) from Ukraine. The two other pictures are from Women's Peace Tables that we held with war-affected women from Ukraine in 2023.