Ukrainian soldiers

The difficult task of erasing the “ta-ta-ta-ta!” that hammers the minds of Ukrainian soldiers undergoing rehabilitation

– Let me try to explain it to you… what does this sound remind you of?

We’re smoking on the patio, right in the middle of a scene that might be the Ukrainian equivalent of a “Spring is here” ad. Despite the cloudy sky, it seems that winter has already given way. Especially here, right in the middle of the forest, where you can breathe spring in the air and hear it in the joyful song of the birds. 

The peace and quiet of this place are sometimes interrupted by the dragging of a janitor’s broom. Two horses are taking a leisurely walk on the path that leads to the rehabilitation center. Here, that rare scene seems very well integrated into the landscape. I strain a little to hear the sound, to which my interlocutor refers. In the background, the drill of an inhabitant of these forests, an ordinary woodpecker, is heard. My brain quickly finds an analogy, and I begin to understand what this “ta-ta-ta-ta-ta” reminds me of.

– The sound of an automatic rifle, I answer.

– Exactly. I hear these “shots”… and I mentally go back to Bakhmut, comments the soldier in his thirties.

Vadym, nicknamed Kinolog, has been in a rehabilitation center for two weeks now, where he went from the Bakhmut front. While we are talking he turns towards the entrance of the building: in this position he gives the feeling that I am distracting him from some very important matter as if he is about to interrupt the conversation at any moment and return to the building. Vadym admits that he doesn’t mind chatting but “open spaces” is one of his triggers From him.

“A perfect pitch” and acquired reflexes are the basis of survival in a combat zone. Soldiers learn to move from one shelter to another, to lie down at the slightest whistle, to be constantly in tension and concentration, ready for a sudden attack… But these same skills are what prevent them from getting out of a war that is now being waged hundreds of kilometers away. While a civilian would barely be able to perceive the work of this woodpecker, the soldier’s brain gives a signal to repel an attack.

Vadym takes out another cigarette and explains that now he can only stay outside for an hour or two. For him, open ground means danger and creates a feeling of anxiety. If he stays a little longer than he should, before he knows it he is mentally back there again, in the middle of the steppes of the Donetsk region. In his flashbacks of him running and bullets whizzing past. He is again one step, maybe half a step, from death. And it’s not a specific moment, the whole experience of him “there” [in Bakhmut] was hard. “Every day and every minute there you realize how real death is,” Vadym says, adding that he sometimes wonders how he managed to survive.

That’s why now he goes out only from time to time to smoke.

Among other reasons, he is in the center because, in the jargon of the soldiers, he couldn’t “take it” anymore, his psychological exhaustion was noticeable. The adrenaline in his veins meant that he did not notice the cold of the nights in the trenches, nor the fatigue of his body. “Little by little I realize that the constant bruises and blows to the head were not in vain. Only in the movies do you cum while shells explode around you. It is very beautiful but it is impossible to run like this in Bakhmut. The blast wave pins you to the wall, you can’t run,” smiles Vadym.

Only in the movies do you cum while shells explode around you. Very nice… but it’s impossible to run like this in Bakhmut

The use of psychological terms like triggers and flashbacks, the story about antidepressants, calm self-reflection, and a clear depiction of emotions immediately betray the work of a professional psychotherapist. In the course of the conversation, we discover that it is not only the sounds of the forest dwellers that bring back memories but also the relaxing video from the fireplace. The idyllic image created by the Virtual Reality glasses, used in the center, did not have the desired effect. “I’m looking at that fire and I have another flashback episode. In one of the houses where we were hiding, there was a stove. Suddenly, virtual reality disappears and I go back to the eastern front,” says Vadym.

On that front, he lost his best friend to a mine. The first day, in January, when he arrived at Bakhmut, he saw many comrades die and also on that front he saw the enemy up close, a few meters away. “The Russians still have an artillery advantage. Ours shoot accurately, they have to save shells. We see the Russians closing in on us and calling for artillery support. They tell us the enemy numbers are insufficient… We have to find a solution quickly, let them get close, within firing range,” continues Vadym.

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Limit, 28 days

For Vadym, as for many, staying in  Lisova Polyana  [the name of the center] cannot be considered a complete transition to a peaceful, civil life. The period of stay in Lisova Polyana is 28 days, after this period the military returns to the front. “Actually I am a border guard in the Lugansk region [partially occupied by Russia], and I was trained to work with dogs. So I hope to return to demining. Not Bakhmut, ”Vadym comments to me and apologizes for the need to return to the building.

Lisova Polyana looks like a sanatorium on the inside, with chess, and billiards in the hall, a sports hall, a recently restored concert hall, and a small shop. The war is remembered here by the walls and the children’s drawings glued to the wall. Tatiana Vasylivna, deputy director of the center, has spent years working with the military to help them process the harshest experiences such as the loss of comrades, body parts, and moral exhaustion at the front.

There are many such experiences. This year, not just among the military. It seems that this year entire Ukraine has been traumatized. People who were under occupation had a hard time trusting others because of whistleblowers they previously considered to be “their own”. Those who survived torture or sexual violence must be taught that people are not completely cruel and that there are still good people in this world. And they must learn to build new relationships with their own body.

Perhaps it is the professional effect of Tatiana, but after the talk in her office, there is a feeling of hope that she can return from the war, at least mentally. She teaches workers at the center how to help the military and explains that some companies whose employees went to the front ask her for advice on how to integrate them when they return. “We must help them return to civilian life because there are highly qualified people there who have acquired new skills as well. War also teaches teamwork, for example. Valuing people in another way, there are no social classes… I hope that all that love for their homeland and their people, that motivation later becomes the work of restoring the country”, comments Tatiana. She already saw it in the veterans of the years 2014-2018.

I hope that with all that love for his homeland and his people, that motivation later becomes the work of restoring the country.

At the end of the interviews, I go to the store in the center to buy a pirog with potatoes. I stay a little pensive without being able to choose what I want. Suddenly, I hear the calm voice of a woman in her 60s who is there as a salesperson: “Honey, don’t worry, don’t be in a hurry. I know it, my girl. I understand everything”. At that moment I remember Vadym’s words: “One of the symptoms of my post-trauma was the inability to choose in the store, I stood there for a few minutes. I didn’t know what I was doing there.” I also agreed that this day I decided to take the gift of a military doctor-her dark green jacket and I patched her. The woman was wrong. But her words had an effect on her. Two sentences changed everything. Someday when the war is over, When those soldiers come back, it’s very important that they find someone who tells them: “Don’t worry, honey. I understand.”

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