The quiet war being fought by Ukraine’s mothers

Ukrainian psychologist Oxana Harbolinska with her son Maxim - Stefanie Glinski/The Telegraph
Ukrainian psychologist Oxana Harbolinska with her son Maxim - Stefanie Glinski/The Telegraph

Oxana Harbolinska would have liked to escape Kherson earlier, but it took her weeks to find petrol to fill up her car’s empty tank. She did eventually, via a sketchy contact who agreed to meet one evening on a street corner and sold her smuggled Crimean petrol for almost £3 per litre.

Six weeks – and several panic attacks – into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the 37-year-old mother packed a few belongings, put her two sons –10 and 15 years old – in the car and fled Russian-occupied Kherson. But the horrors the family witnessed in the early days of the war would continue to haunt them.

Now living in neighbouring Moldova, Harbolinska, who is a psychologist and single mum, said that she had come across countless families like hers: mothers battling their own quiet wars of trauma and depression, and children struggling to cope with the brutality seen throughout Ukraine.

She admits that “as soon as we arrived in Moldova, my body gave up. I completely disengaged. I fed my children but I barely ate myself. It took me months to regain my strength.” She only started working again recently and is now offering counselling services to struggling mothers and children.

“The war follows you for a long time, even when you’re in safety,” she told The Telegraph, adding that her psychologist had offered her the necessary emotional support for her own recovery.

Julia, 35, with her two-year-old daughter Tanja and son Maxim, five - Stefanie Glinski/The Telegraph
Julia, 35, with her two-year-old daughter Tanja and son Maxim, five - Stefanie Glinski/The Telegraph

Ukraine is expecting its toughest winter yet. The full-scale invasion has sparked the kind of displacement not seen since World War II, and by the end of November, almost 8 million Ukrainian refugees had been recorded across Europe, with millions more internally displaced, according to Unicef. The agency said that “children continue to be killed, wounded and deeply traumatised by the violence all around them. […] Families have been separated and lives torn apart.”

Liydmila Alexandrovna, an Odesa-based psychologist focusing on trauma counselling, said that while we hear about children being killed and deaths on the battlefield, the often “invisible” wars mothers are fighting aren’t recognised enough. “They escape the brutality of the conflict alone, with their partners staying behind. They fight for both their own emotional survival and that of their children.”

Looking back, Harbolinska admitted that she doesn’t know how she managed to get her children out of “hell.” The weeks ahead of the family’s departure were “horrendous,” but the mother managed to function amidst frequent panic attacks.

‘The trauma still haunts them’

“My children told me they were scared that a rocket would hit the building; that they would die. I told them I’d keep them safe and took them to the basement, but once they were asleep, I organised hammers and shovels together with the other neighbours  in case we’d be buried under rubble after a possible explosion and needed to find a way out.”

She would venture outside in the early mornings, trying to find enough food for her sons, telling herself she had to “be a good mother,” that she had to provide. She’d face her occupiers on the street, but they largely left her uninterrupted. Her sons would go out for fresh air too during the day. There was little to do as schools were still closed.

“One afternoon they returned telling me they had seen a bombed out car, with two burnt corpses still sitting in its seats. The trauma still haunts them today,” Harbolinska said.

“From that day on, I told my children that it’s better to stay in the basement. In the afternoons, the Russian soldiers would get drunk anyway. They had shootouts and accidentally killed each other. It was too dangerous for us to be outside and I knew it was time to leave.”

Survivors share their stories of horror and hope - Stefanie Glinski/The Telegraph
Survivors share their stories of horror and hope - Stefanie Glinski/The Telegraph

They did so in early April, passing through 13 Russian checkpoints, manned with young fighters; cold and hungry. “They were mostly polite, and told me they didn’t even know why they were here,” Harbolinska remembered, then whispered: “One checkpoint was different. The group of Chechen fighters made me get out of the car. They did a full bodycheck, touching me everywhere before letting us pass.”

In Moldova, after months of counselling, Harbolinska has decided to share her own story, saying it helps other mothers relate. “Many of them have gone beyond the imaginable to endure their children’s physical survival. Now it’s time to help them – both mothers and children – cope with the emotions.”

Julia is one of the mothers Harbolinska is working with. She escaped Ukraine’s Odesa Oblast in late March, leaving behind her husband on the frontline.  “Daddy is at work. He can’t be with us right now,” her son Maxim, five, said.

Asked for her last name to not be revealed, Julia said that her young boy has been struggling ever since the start of the war. He keeps to himself and barely talks to other children; he can’t hold eye contact with anyone.

Julia with her two-year-old daughter Tanja - Stefanie Glinski/The Telegraph
Julia with her two-year-old daughter Tanja - Stefanie Glinski/The Telegraph

“When we were still in Ukraine, Maxim urged me to hide in the basement with him, otherwise the Russians would ‘kill us and cut us into pieces’, he told me. I never discussed the news in front of my children and made sure they didn’t watch TV. I was shocked to see how my five-year-old had matured in a matter of days; how he’d almost lost his childhood,” Julia said.

She sits in the small room she now calls home, fitted with donated furniture and her unpacked suitcases pushed into the corner. They grabbed whatever they could when escaping, but most of their possessions stayed back in Ukraine.

“I’d like to go back to our apartment there, but I’m choosing to stay away for my children,” Julia said, her two-year-old daughter Tanja resting by her side.

“She’s too young to understand the war, but it has changed her anyway. She barely leaves my side, and she started breastfeeding again because she’s searching for comfort. I worry about her and about Maxim, who is struggling with stress and depression.”

Part of Harbolinska’s work is telling mothers like Julia to not give up. “Many of my clients tell me they now identify with being depressed; that they are almost scared or feel guilty to be happy when the war is raging,” she explained. “I tell them that we can heal together, that we can overcome our own personal wars.”

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