Can our experiences contribute to peace activism in Ukraine?

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As part of the Initiative, and at the invitation of women’s organizations from Ukraine, which in cooperation with WILPF organized the workshop Sharing Bosnian and Georgian Peace Building Experience in Ukraine, we visited Odessa from 7th to 11th October 2014. This was not our first meeting with the representatives of women’s organizations from Ukraine since we already met in Geneva in June 2014. However, this meeting was wider in scope and was attended also by Georgian activists and larger group of activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This meeting made us aware of the fact that even though we live in the era of rapid and global communication and information systems, we know very little about each other and each other’s experiences. Regardless of the language barriers, which are not insurmountable, our communication was made difficult due to the varying degrees of experiences of war. While, for example, during a meeting in February 2014, Bosnia and Herzegovinian and Syrian activists quickly established communication of mutual understanding – despite the diversity of contexts, both sides directly experienced the horrors of war crimes and mass destructions – in Odessa, communication and exchange of experiences with activists from Ukraine was more difficult to establish. Activists from Ukraine are currently living the gap between awareness of horrors of war and denial of the war in Ukraine.

We could hear at the meeting the classic notions of the patriarchal discourse full of patriotism and expressing demands for weapons and armament, while the women were represented as helpers of the warriors-soldiers (mothers, wives, etc.) and as those who mitigate the consequences (humanitarian workers, volunteers, etc.). The word aggression was used, but even that state was not perceived as a state of war because of the lack of official declaration of war between Ukraine and Russia. There were talks about peace treaties, but they pointed out that they have nobody to negotiate with, while at the same time they recognize the exclusive right of the president to negotiate and are not aware that peace negotiations represent the momentum in which Ukrainian society’s resources and power might be distributed.

It is also important to mention the constant emphasis on multiethnicity, especially in Odessa. In this way the continuous attempts were made to point out that the war cannot grow into, and subsequently be constructed as, an ethnic conflict. Unfortunately, during our stay in Odessa we read the information about the attacks of neo-fascists on Jews and Jewish communities in the city. Our experience tells us, and in the last twenty years we have been seeing it almost on an everyday basis in other wars, that multiethnicity can be abused to deepen the conflict and to facilitate manipulation of the population in a country. To prevent manipulation of ethnic identities it is necessary to continuously work on peace activism and build a dialogue of tolerance with the communities.

Since the activists we met are not living in the areas under direct war and armed operations, for most of the time our conversation revolved around issues of humanitarian assistance and experiences in dealing with internally displaced persons. As in many other wars, it again comes down to women who take upon themselves the responsibility of humanitarian work and provision of social services. NGOs, particularly women’s organizations, are currently responding to the primary needs of displaced persons from Crimea and eastern Ukraine, provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. During our conversations, we noticed that for now the resolution of the issue of displaced persons is not seen through the prism of return but only in the context of short-term humanitarian work or integration, more precisely achieving integration in all segments – from employment to education and health care. Problems relating to issuance of identity documents and registration of displaced persons were also mentioned, as something needed to be resolved in order to improve access to socio-economic rights. Generally, we have seen many misconceptions about the issues and problems of internally displaced persons, but also a lot of empathy and solidarity for this category and the expressed need for more knowledge on how to help and what is ethically right. We agreed on the basic principles, that there should be no victimization, stigmatization or pathologization and that people who experienced war and forced resettlement need to be treated with respect.

In addition to the issues of humanitarian aid and the difficult conditions in refugee camps, activists from Ukraine underlined the problems of intolerance of local people towards displaced persons, the cultural differences in the education system, and problems of children with disabilities and their inclusion in the education system. The general picture is that the humanitarian crisis is enormous and that humanitarian aid, if any, is inadequate and often even humiliating. Violence against women – such as trafficking in women, increased domestic violence and wartime sexual violence – was unfortunately mentioned only casually and superficially. We are aware that it is difficult to talk about violence, especially sexual violence, but this may not serve as an excuse to avoid the subject of wartime sexual violence at a meeting of women peace activists. If the women of Bosnia and Herzegovina had not spoken of their experiences of surviving wartime sexual violence and if they had not demanded the crimes to be adequately punished, today we would hardly be in a position to have resolutions, statutes and decisions which treat wartime sexual violence as a war crime, require ending the policies of impunity for perpetrators and provide adequate support to survivors.

From our perspective, it somehow seems that the experiences of activists from Ukraine are similar to ours in the beginning of the 1990s. However, we now approach the issues of war and the consequences of ethnicized conflict with more than 20 years of experience. Unfortunately, in the 1990s we did not have the opportunity to hear other experiences that could have opened our eyes and helped us in our peace activism. We had to learn everything by ourselves. We therefore tried hard during our visit to share our bad experiences in order to help activists from Ukraine not repeat of our mistakes and to make them aware of the importance of their meaningful participation in peace agreements and the decision-making processes that deal with power and resources allocation – i.e. the active creation of the kind of society they want to live in. We sincerely hope that our meeting helped the activists from Ukraine and encouraged their reflection on what we shared in order to best use this knowledge in their respective context.