Ana Cristina Henriques works for the ICRC in Severodonetsk in Eastern Ukraine. She is an experienced psychologist who has been working in many different war contexts. Almost every day, Ana Cristina goes to contact line villages to support and to stand by elderly people who are living in places where hostilities and shelling occur yet on a daily basis.
What is the major consequences in terms of mental health for people living by the contact line?
Most of the people are suffering from the effects of the hostilities: they are scared, they do not sleep, they are sad… A vast majority of them are above 60. Like in many conflicts, the elderly stayed behind, in those isolated and vulnerable villages where military representatives are often present. Many of them also remember the consequences of the World War II. A 92 years old lady told us he had been captured by the Germans at those time! But these people are also very resilient. So when the weapons fell silent, they try to regain control over their lives and live as “normal” as possible. But whenever the shelling restarts, all the bad memories and fear come back. “I’m scared to die in my basement”, – one told me.
At the beginning of the conflict, many of these villages had been exposed to shelling. Moreover, when the hostilities decrease, people need to cope with the consequences: water and power cuts, military presence and, even more painful, the absence of their families’ members. Many are cut off from their loved ones, who decided to find more secure life elsewhere. The line of contact is not an easy to cross, one needs to have right documents, to queue for hours in the heat or in the cold. What is also difficult is that people cannot access their fields as most of the areas are heavily contaminated with mines and explosives remnants of war.
What does particularly struck you when you work with people there?
Most of these villages are located in the country side. Young people usually leave these places to find the better way in the cities so, during the visits, I see toys on the yard, but often there are no children to play along. Elderly people that I meet and that consist the majority of population in such villages, have a specific view of their current life. They describe the villages as peaceful places, where they could walk, cultivate fruits and vegetables, they mention often they used to collect mushrooms, and go for fishing. They had invested all what they had in making home where they could spend time with their children and grandchildren, but unfortunately now they might not have neither time nor means to rebuild this life.
Another important issue is the fact that these areas seem to have been made out of large waves of migration, originally families came from different regions. I have the impression they have adjusted to many changes, from Soviet times to nowadays. Many of them doesn’t see any sense in the conflict.
Resilience of these people is really being tested. Something which is also very important is their need to recover their dignity. In a place where nothing is as it used to be before, someone paying them a visit is a moment of joy when they can offer some tea, some grapes. Receiving a visitor, even if it’s not their loved one (families, children, grandchildren) brings them some sense of being valued, appreciated and respected.
Who else benefit from your action?
We have two other projects. In some communities we have provided psychological support and training to “helpers” such as doctors, nurses, teachers, Red Cross volunteers and social workers to identify signs of stress in children or people they are taking care of and better support them. These sessions are also organized in frontline villages which are particularly vulnerable.
The last fold of our action is for the families of missing persons. Red Cross volunteers carry the custody of a certain number of families who’s loved one has gone missing due to the conflict. We wish to help them in their daily experiences of their own grief and to provide our psychological support as well as to help them to solve their economic problems.