What happens to pictures of peace during armed conflict? This story is a kind of retrospective, a checking in, and a visioning, a looking forward. What propels us through darkness? Maybe, as poet, songwriter Leonard Cohen (1992, v.2) says, it is “the cracks, the cracks in everything” through which the light comes in.
A bit of Ukraine’s history
The territory of Ukraine was divided and occupied by series of regimes over the centuries (Flaherty, 2012). While some Ukrainians agitated for independence before and during Soviet times, others thought that would never happen, hoping instead for a different relationship with the Soviet Union (M. P. Flaherty 2016). The Independence granted Ukraine near the end of 1991 came as a surprise for many, more as a result of the chaotic dissolution of the Soviet Union than careful negotiations.
In the painful growth years that followed, Ukraine struggled towards true democracy. Citizens worked, however, to survive, most expressing a deep desire for a truly independent Ukraine, connected to a better, more secure and supported standard of life. Sometimes this desire was expressed in mass protest like the 2004 Orange Revolution or the Revolution of Dignity also centred in Kyiv in 2014. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a Russian-backed takeover of sections of the eastern-bordered Donbass region of Ukraine also marked this period. Had Russia ever fully accepted Ukraine’s independence?
In fall 2021, Russian troops numbers were mounting on the borders, and Vladimir Putin was voicing openly about his dream to“re-unite” the territories he saw as disjointed fragments of his Soviet empire. On February 24, 2022 Ukraine awoke to what has become a full scale war by Russia against Ukraine.
History of friends and collaborators
Liliya, Nina, and Sofiya were born and raised in Soviet Ukraine. Mariana was born in Ukraine following Independence. Maureen, from settler folk during the cold war in Canada was introduced to Ukraine on her first trip across the ocean in 1999 as part of a Canadian International Development Agency project, Reforming Social Services: Canada-Ukraine. This collaborative project founded the Department of Sociology and Social Work at L’viv Polytechnic National University (DSSW) and united all of us. Our relationships have grown and deepened over the years as we share research, teaching, and friendship.
Ukrainian colleagues supported Maureen’s PhD research in Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) in Ukraine, made possible only with Sofiya’s skillful interpretive work. Together, we completed four studies looking at individual life stories of people across the country, how people cope with hardship, and their pictures of peace (Flaherty, 2012; Flaherty & Stavkova, 2012; Flaherty, 2014; Flaherty 2017). The final study, post-2014, included internally displaced young people (IDP) and their age mates already living in L’viv. Across studies, participants from different landscapes in Ukraine shared a vision for Ukraine united in peace. While many desired Ukraine’s membership in the European Union, all envisioned a country with reliable government and infrastructure, a stable secure place where all can work, where all languages can be safely spoken, and where mothers can sing lullabies in whatever language they choose. Many voiced the importance of conscientiously combining and acknowledging all disparate histories of a Ukraine divided by different oppressors, including the Soviet Union. Only on this foundation could Ukraine fully bloom.
Colleagues at LPNU’s DSSW teach mediation and conflict resolution along with more standard social work courses, and the attached International Integration Centre (IIC) focuses strongly on accessible education and social inclusion of former military personnel and families. Our joint research shares those foci, also considering mental health in all these spheres in both Canada and Ukraine—peacebuilding work. In fall of 2021, we were all together again in L’viv focused on teaching and researching during COVID 19. Still, at the end of November people began openly voicing concern about Russian troops amassing at the border, fearful that full scale military aggression could commence after the Winter Olympics. People in Ukraine are very familiar with strife, conflict. However, few could imagine what is happening now.
February 2022 and following – the now times and where we are
L’viv oblast is about 70 km from the Polish border. At least 6.5 million people have been displaced within Ukraine, fleeing home for their lives. Even those leaving the country often flow through L’viv on their way (Filo and Parrish 2022). Those who leave, for whatever reason, carry the trauma and vigilance that comes with leaving close ones behind. Whether at physical worksites or working remotely, people forge ahead, fighting for their lives and the life of Ukraine the country. War impacts people differentially as people are called and able to serve in different ways according to age, gender, and resources (personal and communal) as well as physical/geographical location. Some men and women are active military people, while others in brigades guard places that should not be at risk but need protection: schools, hospitals, nursing homes. In addition to regular work, all toil to support refugees and other citizens through different means: providing basic needs, transportation, counselling, teaching children, caring for animals, fundraising. It is hard to do all this when sirens sound multiple times a day and places nearby are shelled and destroyed. It is also hard not to feel guilty because some of us are at least temporarily safer than others.
Pictures of peace in times of war
Some say peace can come about by bringing people together against a common enemy (Volkan 1994). Others say peace must be a common goal and process (Lederach 1997), people working together, with hope (Flaherty, 2012). Our research has shown Ukrainians across the country share much in a vision for peace. We are brought together to find and re-focus that common vision, seeing it through the cracks in despair.
It is hard to take a philosophical or theoretical stance when air sirens must be heeded multiple times a day. War makes a person become real, awaken, and understand what is truly important to them. On February 24, 2022, all other problems disappeared, and people realized how well they had been living. Many Ukrainians, raised in both Ukrainian and Russian cultures, now feel betrayed, physically realizing the words of the Ukrainian National anthem, “We will lay down our souls and bodies for our freedom.” People ask what Russians are fighting for and with whom, with such cruelty and unfathomable violence towards civilians of all ages. Who do they see as the enemy?
Seventy years of the 300-year struggle for Ukrainian independence was a little more subdued, through a time complicated by USSR hypnosis trying to impose a unified identity across Soviets. During that time, some Ukrainians lost sight and memory of their own history because it was implied out of existence. With the declaration of Ukraine’s independence, what did it mean to be Ukrainian? Currently, Ukrainians also ask themselves what they are fighting for.
As women who would like to consider ourselves pacificists, it has become more about being warriors, though not at the front. Everything is a battlefield when one’s country is under attack. With these threats across the country, knowing at different levels that unimaginable atrocities on fellow Ukrainians are being committed, everyday life, work, sunrises are battles. To bring back peace, Ukrainians must first fight merely to survive. One must be alive to continue to work, to go on, to live. Even one’s mind has been occupied by the aggressor, and a fight must ensue to reclaim it, to refocus. The world has become a battlefield.
How do people survive and carry on? In the first days while people fled for their lives, citizens in L’viv and other places rallied to assist refugees while scrambling to help those fighting and living in the east. This work continues along with basic survival work, and the jobs, the employment that must be done to carry on. Why carry on? Because we share a vision of peace.
Putting one foot in front of another, now, and after war, after victory, Ukrainians will work together to build a peaceful life based on Ukrainian democratic values. We will love, respect, appreciate life without evil and violence, rebuild cities and adopt all children with parents taken by war. As Peggy Chinn suggests, we must remind ourselves that no helpful action is too small for the people power needed to build peace together (Chinn 2013). There is strange comfort knowing conflict is not new and conflicts can be transformed (Ury 1999) when people work together. In those moments and hours, we can muster these thoughts, they, along with the love for our dear ones are what sustain us. We hope for them, for their future. These thoughts bring glimmers of light in better hours.
This war will not be forgotten. The memory will be passed on to children and to their children’s children, added to our shared history. Only by remembering even these darkest times can peace be protected and strengthened.
Chinn, Peggy. 2013. Peace and power: New directions for building community, eighth edition.
Cohen, Leonard. 1992. “Anthem.” Canada: Stranger Music Inc. .
Filo, Elise, and Frankie Parrish. 2022. “Conflict in Ukraine: What do we know about the internal displacement situation so far?” Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Flaherty, M. P. 2017. “Peace talk with youth in Ukraine: Building community with internally displaced people.” Society Under Construction: Opportunities and Risks, Vol. 2.
Flaherty, M. P., and S. Stavkova. 2018. “Pedagogy for social development: Building capacity through participatory action research.” in progress.
Flaherty, M., and S. Stavkova. 2012. “Conversation with an interpreter: Considerations for cross-language, cross-cultural peacebuilding research.” Peace & Conflict Studies Journal. Vol. 19. Nova-Southeastern University.
Flaherty, Maureen P. 2016. It takes a vision to raise a nation: Peacebuilding with men in Ukraine. Vol. 1, in Society under construction: Opportunities and risks, by P. Baldys and K. (Eds.) Piatek. Bilesko-Baiala: Technical Humanitarian Academy.
—. 2012. Peacebuilding with women in Ukraine: Using narrative to create a common vision. Lanham: Lexington.
Lederach, John Paul. 1997. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.
Reid, Anna. 2003/1997/1985. Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. Basic Books.
Snyder, Timothy. 2010. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Basic Books.
Ury, William. 1999. “Getting to peace.” New York: Viking Penguin.
Volkan, Vamik. 1994. The need to have enemies and allies: From clinical practice to international relationships. J. Aronson.
World Health Organization. 2017. “Health response to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine: Facts and figures.” World Health Organization. August. Accessed April 2018.