Doubly Displaced in Ukraine: “I’ve seen it all before”
Internally displaced from Russian-occupied Yasinovata, Donetsk in 2014, Olga Olenichenko, social activist, educational and cultural worker, social media manager and entrepreneur, is now tirelessly engaged in supporting and welcoming fellow Ukrainians fleeing bombardments in cities across Ukraine.
Please help Olga to help others and donate to her Go Fund Me.
On International Women’s Day, we honour the solidarity work and social activism that Olga and her friends are doing to support fellow Ukrainians.
March 4th 2022
The conversation below between Olga and Marie Gillespie took place on Friday 4th March. It chronicles Olga’s perspective on the unfolding horror and tragic events across Ukraine as Russia’s brutal attack kills thousands and forces millions to flee in the first week of this unjust war.
Olga was born in Donetsk which in 2014 became “occupied territory” after the Russian army invaded and forced her family to flee. Since then, she has acquired the status of an “internally displaced person” (IDP). She now lives in Ivano Frankivsk with her two sons and husband. Olga is at the centre of a massive humanitarian operation locally, setting up shelters and essential support for the 14,000 IDPs who have fled to Ivano Frankivsk in the last week.
I met Olga in 2018 when we came together during a workshop series that I was running in Kiev – part of Open University research on Cultural Diplomacy projects funded by Goethe Institut and British Council in ‘societies in transition’ – meaning ‘transition to democracy.’ Now clearly such cultural diplomacy projects (as documented in our report Culture in an Age of Uncertainty) are under threat of destruction, like Ukraine itself.
Olga was part of an inspiring digital museum project Luhansk Arts and Facts. This digital archive curated collections of artifacts of cultural life and social activism in Luhansk from 2004 to 2013 – the period between the two revolutions in Ukraine – the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity. This cultural project was very important as the Lukhansk region was accused by Russian political actors as having “no culture of its own” – only Russian culture. To the Russian regime the Russian-speaking minorities in the region signified that Lukhansk belonged to Russia. The Lukhansk museum project showed this to be a gross falsehood. Due to lack of funding, it ceased but continued to inspire other similar projects. Indeed, it inspired our digital archive Covid Chronicles from the Margins.
I was also inspired by Olga’s social activism and knew she would be at the centre of solidarity activities. We decided to get together and chronicle her local experiences as the surrounding rural areas of Ivano-Frankivsk, though deeply affected by the war, is relatively safe. Olga also wanted to raise awareness of how Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine is a continuation of the conflict she experienced in 2014 – a war that has taken over 10,000 lives, injured 24,000 and displaced around 1.5 million Ukrainians. Olga wanted to offer her personal perspective on recent events and with typical modesty she began by saying:
“I don’t do a big job. Just trying to organize for people where to go, search for cars to pick them up and take them to safety, share contacts, talk to them as a psychologist and provide psycho-social support. And, yes, I do everything sitting at home just by phone and laptop. Sometimes feel I should be outside and working in volunteer centre. But I can’t because of my small boy and my goats (now I have 9 of them). And so being a mother and running a small farm is also a big job. Neither my boy nor my goats will understand if say “Sorry guys, but today I won’t be here”. That’s why, I try to help people online and I feel I am also taking part in the Information War against Russian propaganda.“
MG: We last met face to face in happier times in Kiev in 2018 at the Goethe Institut as we researched Luhansk Arts and Facts. I’m so sorry for everything that you and fellow Ukrainians are having to go through – and I know how much you are involved in helping and support internally displaced people – how are you and your family?
OO: This war is of course terrible, much worse than it was in Donetsk in 2014 after the Russian Occupation – we left our homes back then. Now it is full scale war. In 2014 the Russian military were coming after us, so we had to run. First of all we believed we could fight the Russians back but soon realised we were beaten already. So, we took our car and went to Ivano Frankivsk, 1300 kilometres to the west – about as far away as we could run. We drove through the whole of Ukraine from the East to West.
Sometimes, thinking about then and now, it is so hard. But if we are just talking about me, I am an optimist. I am always trying to be positive, trying to do something, try to help people, to build shelters and not get depressed but to act – therefore I don’t feel like it’s hard for me personally now but sometimes of course like anyone I just break down – my friend lost her husband – how could we not weep? We are human.
We need to prioritise. For example, yesterday two young men they came to me, and I printed for them Volunteer ID cards so they can drive through all the roadblocks. (Olga has set up a local print service herself as no such service is available in the village). So, if somebody asked them ‘why are you not at war?’, they can explain why they can’t go to the war and say but they have cars, they can help people. They bring people from danger zones to Ivano Frankivsk.
MG: That’s great Olga. So how dangerous is it where you are? Yesterday you said the sirens started – is there bombing in your area?
OO: No, this is mostly safe, maybe one of the safest places, because we have no strategic targets of interest here for the Russians and we are at the furthest limit from Russia, close to Poland.The other thing that makes me feel safe is that I’ve experienced all this before. The Russians hounded us out of our homes in Donetsk and I’ve observed the Russians closely for 8 years since and somehow, I feel I know Russia very well. I know their tactics. I know how they do things.
“For me, of course it’s horrific but it’s not as terrible as it is for those people who are seeing war, fleeing war for their first time. I have seen it before. I was ready for that but not those who are newly internally displaced. Yesterday it was more than 14,000 IDP people came to Ivano and so it’s much more – it is bigger than it was in 2014 when numbers of displaced people was like 4000.”
MG: Yes and figures of Ukrainians leaving the country across the western border, according to BBC this morning was coming up to 750,000.
OO: Yes, people here are so afraid because this is their first experience of war and maybe because we are so close to Polish border, but I feel quite safe here and confident about our resistance.
MG: On the news in UK they highlight the great courage and bravery of Ukrainians and the challenge they are giving to Putin and the Russian forces who didn’t expect such a big fight back. Equally talking about the numbers of people leaving the country and UNHCR estimates that between 4-7 million people are expected to leave Ukraine and go to neighbouring countries or countries where they have family here.
OO: So many of us were displaced from that first wave – people like us don’t we don’t want to go anywhere anymore. I just want to stay here. Moving home again after 8 years it’s difficult because we are just getting our lives started here.
MG: I understand that, and you know when you think back to your experiences of war and Donetsk – you said you were already exposed to war and Russian attacks and you built up resilience?
“It’s not physical resilience, it’s mental and emotional“.
OO: I guess we developed some resilience because when we left our home place in 2014, my parents stayed there. Being separated, of course, I was hungry for news and every morning, every evening, I was reading and reading the news. That’s why I started to understand more in politics yeah started more analyse all these things – develop my – how do you say – media literacy – so this is my personal experience and it helps me help others. Now that’s why it’s different in Ukraine because now they hear the bombs. This time the Russians want all of Ukraine.
“As displaced people we know how to organise shelters very quickly. We know everything about what to provide, how to talk to people, what they need, so many things and even we guessed and counted how many people would come to Ivano – somehow you understand what they are going through”.
OO: Everybody does what they can. Everybody is doing something. I used to offer online psycho-social support for displaced people. Now I just see what we can do. We help people to find houses here in our village. I talk to Polish hosts who will take those who want to cross into Poland. I have friends there. We inform them about what they need to start buying before the refugees arrive. We also request supplies from Poland and elsewhere – special things for our army – like medicines and so many different things. My young son and friends are sitting the whole night and the whole day in front of the computer and they find clever ways to hack the Russian side.
“We are conducting an information war from our living rooms”.
You know and it’s really good because I see how strong his ideas are, how strong his plans are with his friends they always try to do something cool and then he’ll call me – “mum, mum see what we did!” Some people they don’t know how to use a computer.
“Our kids are so clever – you know – they help the army with geolocation data – they get cars to help people escape, they get food. They care. They have a voice. They get organised here so it’s really great. I am so proud of my people and proud of my son and his friends and proud of this work”.
MG: I’m so proud of you too Olga – so much respect for you because what you’re doing is amazing and I so admire your fighting spirit you’ve got such a brilliant attitude but it must be really, really, tough and you are so exhausted – all of you. But that solidarity that friendship is like gold and it’s so strange that at the most terrible times, sometimes find a friendship and humour even in a way that you never expect or don’t have in ordinary everyday life.
OO: Ukrainians try to make jokes because generally we are a positive people and we can’t live without a bit of humour even during this war, trying to smile, trying to joke to have some a little bit fun with fakes on Facebook – ha ha – giving suggestions to mess up Russian tactics like for the Geo location devices to mess with the Russians to make life more and more difficult. Even our children draw humorous pictures of Russian army as clowns – it’s a way of dealing with the horror. One of my friends’ son drew this:
The mother then wrote this poem:
Children are the nation’s most valuable treasure.
Now – I’m afraid to even imagine their condition…
It is impossible to look into their souls, because they have the right to their own emotions and to keep them somewhere in the far corner of the heart and if necessary, sometimes get out there and listen.
No adult can explain in words what is happening right now.
There is simply no one “calm down” formula for everyone…
What if we just imagined the greatest evil with something very funny?
Kids probably know this curse!!!
In little hearts beside fear lives an unbreakable strong faith!!!
Faith in victory ❤️❤️❤️
Art therapy is working
Portrait of a dickhead in all its glory
MG: That’s so moving Olga. Nowadays I suppose these are new forms of resistance we can make as ordinary citizen like to do now too but your work is something very special. Thank you so much for sharing and talk again very soon.
OO: It’s a pleasure and I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you and share my perspective with your readers.
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