In February 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mariia Levchenko was working for an international organization in Kyiv. Like millions of others, she suddenly found herself in the midst of turmoil, facing the harsh reality of inadequate protection of civilians from Russian attacks and subsequent disordered evacuations. Mariia’s firsthand experience serves as a chilling wake-up call, highlighting the dire need for civilians to effectively self-protect and organize themselves to reduce harm at the onset of a conflict despite the obligation of parties to a conflict to fulfill their obligations of protecting civilians.

When the conflict erupted, Serhiy Doma, a Senior Military Advisor at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) in Ukraine, was already working on building the preparedness of Ukraine’s defense and security sectors. However, the true magnitude of the threats posed to Ukrainian civilians only became fully apparent with the onset of Russia’s invasion. After serving as a civil-military cooperation officer with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, he gained further understanding of the urgent need for synergy among military and civilian efforts, emphasizing the critical role both sectors play in protecting civilians during times of war.

 

Mariia Levchenko, CIVIC Senior Protection Officer:

In February 2022, from the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I found myself amidst the chaos of war—a civilian facing the harsh reality of inadequate protection of civilians and chaotic evacuations. Experiencing this firsthand was nothing short of terrifying, highlighting the urgent need for effective protection of civilians and well-organized preparedness measures. It became painfully evident that the absence of a coordinated response to the sudden increase in hostilities and the rising number of civilian casualties went beyond just the local government’s lack of preparation. It extended to international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and even individuals who found themselves paralyzed by the severity of the situation.

Today, as a Senior Protection Officer at CIVIC, I am driven to highlight the critical importance of prioritizing the protection of civilians and advocating for comprehensive readiness to prevent similar tragedies.

My personal encounter underscores the necessity of bridging gaps in protection of civilians and preparedness. When war strikes, it should not fall solely on individuals to secure their safety and escape. Local governments and institutions bear the responsibility of having robust plans, allocated resources, and clear communication channels in place to ensure civilians are shielded effectively.

Through collaborative efforts with local authorities, stakeholders, and organizations like CIVIC, we are actively working to enhance community preparedness. Last July, CIVIC contributed to simulation evacuation exercises conducted in Poltava and Sumy oblasts. The relevance of preparedness in safeguarding the population has been unequivocally underscored by these experiences. Practical exercises conducted by CIVIC go beyond theoretical knowledge, providing participants with invaluable training for real-world scenarios. By immersing participants in lifelike emergency situations with changing elements, these exercises not only refine decision-making abilities but also shed light on the multifaceted challenges associated with evacuations.

A striking revelation during these exercises is the realization by the members of a Community Protection Group (CPG) that, at times, the protection actors responsible for evacuation may be unreachable or incapacitated. This sobering discovery underscores the importance of empowering locals to take the initiative and organize actions when no clear guidance is available. Moreover, these simulations lay bare another concerning reality: the oversight and neglect of individuals with disabilities and older persons. Often, authorities in charge of evacuation plans overlook or forget to include measures to evacuate vulnerable members of the community. This glaring gap highlights the pressing need for local authorities and community members to develop comprehensive and inclusive preparedness strategies that prioritize the safety and well-being of every individual in Ukrainian society. Amidst the challenges, there were notable instances of success during these simulations. The strong collaboration and coordination among various stakeholders, local authorities, and members of the CPG showcased effective communication channels, prompt decision-making, and concerted efforts in the protection of civilians.

While these simulation exercises serve as practical tools for bridging preparedness gaps, we acknowledge that challenges persist. In their longing to restore normalcy in their torn communities following a conflict, civilians and authorities often miscalculate the severity of persistent threats despite no active fighting. Even after participating in multiple simulations of evacuations, many individuals still heavily rely on external assistance and underestimate the seriousness of the situation at hand. So, our commitment to advocating for civilian protection demands continued efforts to educate the public, tirelessly emphasizing the dual importance of individual responsibility and institutional preparedness.

Crucially, achieving effective civilian protection hinges on an empowered civilian population that – with a loud voice – states its needs and collaborates with engaged stakeholders. This alliance includes local governments, emergency response agencies, humanitarian organizations, security, defense actors, and grassroots community groups—especially CPGs. By fostering these partnerships, we can enhance the reaction of the community as a whole to unforeseen crises that require evacuation processes and support systems, ensuring no civilian is left vulnerable in a crisis.

Reflecting on my experience during the tumultuous evacuation in Kyiv, the urgency of fortified protection of civilians and preparedness measures becomes resoundingly clear. The actual evacuation exposed the unpredictable and multifaceted nature of real-life conflict situations, revealing that the chaos, fear, and uncertainty encountered in such dire circumstances cannot be fully captured in a simulation exercise alone. While the reality of a live evacuation undoubtedly brings its own unique set of challenges, it is crucial to acknowledge the valuable lessons we can learn from both real and simulated scenarios. Lessons learned during a real evacuation, with all its intricacies and emotional strain, as well as those garnered from simulation exercises, underline the critical role of raising awareness, delivering proper education to the civilian population, and emphasizing the tremendous value of repetitive practice. Through these experiences, it is clear that readiness at an individual level is paramount. However, it is equally crucial to address the element of community preparedness. The burden of securing civilian safety should not rest solely on the shoulders of local authorities but instead requires collaboration and engagement from all stakeholders and protection actors involved.

 

Serhiy Doma, Senior Military Advisor:

During my five years of service as a Senior Military Advisor at CIVIC before the full-scale invasion of Russia began in February 2022, I had realized the threats looming over Ukraine and the perilous consequences for our population. I worked to build the preparedness of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other defense and security sectors’ stakeholders to implement their military tasks while keeping a focus on the protection of civilians. It was clear, however, that both the military and civilian authorities had not been fully aware of potential disastrous repercussions for the whole fabric of Ukrainian society caused by this terrible war.

In March 2022, I joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine and served as a civil-military cooperation officer in various front-line areas of Ukraine. It was my role to contribute to the establishment of efficient civil-military interactions between military units, their commanders, and civilian authorities at all levels (local communities, rayons [county-size], and oblasts). I quickly realized how important it was to build capacity and ensure synergy among all.

For instance, in February 2023, my command realized that agricultural companies’ personnel would soon begin their spring work in the fields. The landmines and UXO (unexploded ordnance)-related risks were immense. So, according to our CIMIC (civil-military cooperation) group’s recommendations, in early March 2023, the commander issued an order on an algorithm for agricultural companies to receive clearance for their land cultivation activities to ensure their safety. This algorithm included short training sessions for the personnel of agricultural vehicles and descriptions of their routes to the fields to avoid mined areas. As a result, during the spring of 2023, our CIMIC team registered zero accidents when agricultural vehicles were damaged by landmines or UXOs.

Upon returning to my duties as a Senior Military Advisor at CIVIC in July 2023, I wanted to use my firsthand experience to build simulation exercises for the communities that would accurately reflect the harsh reality of the war. In doing so, I hoped to help communities develop adequate self-protection mechanisms and connect them with civilian and military authorities to increase their chances for survival. These exercises, designed to forcefully challenge the civilian authorities and emergency services with extreme but realistic scenarios (missiles’ hits to evacuation rally points similarly to the tragedy in Kramatorsk on April 8, 2022), exposed the urgent need to raise awareness of all those who can and must help civilians properly plan evacuations and implement them. Regular practicing and exercises held by the government authorities, emergency services, and the military in partnership with civil society organizations and communities are essential to raise such awareness. Preparation saves lives. The military, especially commanders and civil-military cooperation officers, could and should help civilian communities in strengthening their preparedness for quick and efficient action in case of a need. Members of a small village community in one of the areas where I served informed a local CIMIC officer that the massive artillery shelling destroyed electric power supply lines a week ago. The officer reached out to the energy company providing services for the community. The company personnel were reluctant to visit the community to repair the lines because of the risks related to shellings and landmine contamination in the area. The CIMIC officer reported to his commander; the commander issued an order on ensuring a safe passage for the company repair team, and the civilians got back the electricity supply to their homes.

This example proves that civilians and the military can—and should—successfully cooperate. Militaries—not only in Ukraine but elsewhere in the world—should do more to help civilians in the conflict zones—both directly and through building networks with local authorities, international organizations, and humanitarian aid. Communities must receive training on how to build their self-protection mechanisms—in coordination with the armed actors. CIVIC has experience both in working with the military and civilian communities. We are ready to share this experience with all those who are interested around the world.

 

The experiences of Mariia and Serhiy, from the chaos of war to the intricacies of civil-military cooperation, reinforce the urgency of fortified civilian protection and preparedness measures in Ukraine. Together, they emphasize the importance of raising public awareness, providing education, and practicing evacuation plans. By instilling a culture of readiness and equipping Ukrainian citizens with the knowledge and skills to respond effectively, we empower civilians and communities to navigate emergencies with confidence. The shared vision is clear: civilian communities must be protected and have their agency in their own protection. Unified, we can strengthen civilian evacuation, leaving no weak points overlooked, and ensure that no one is left vulnerable during times of uncertainty.

 

Image courtesy of Liudmyla Gitsevych
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