The following written account is one piece in a collection on our VOICES blog focused on the gendered experience in conflict and how gender differences should factor into the protection of civilians.
In this entry, guest contributor, Mikayla Goetz, shares a glimpse of her experience working with civilians impacted by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Mikayla is turning interviews she gathered in Ukraine into a feature film.
She is wearing a light blue robe over her jeans and pale-yellow sweater. There is tea boiling in two different pots within a ten-step radius, and she is offering me a vanilla wafer from a small plastic bag. Her son is sprinting back and forth across the short width of the room and screaming with the joy of a three-year old, despite the circumstances. It is below freezing outside, and there is nowhere else for him to express his energy. He runs and plays with a small toy truck on the floor, all the while she looks at him with both exhaustion and pride — beaming with love.
Holding back tears, she tells me she is a single mother now, after her husband died in the conflict in her hometown of Donetsk. Raising a child in an environment of violence and fear, she is now her son’s sole protector and provider. She alone is responsible for his survival. She says to me:
“I dream of a better life for my son… We live close to the war zone, and we still hear the shooting. Everyday people shoot. Near our homes.”
She tells me stories of hearing gunshots from her kitchen and immediately sprinting outside to find her son who had gone to play. Each gunshot reminds her that she is responsible for two lives. In the scariest moments, she sees two futures pass before her eyes.
She has decided to leave this area.
“I cannot stay with things as they are. I have to do what is best for my son.”
She is leaving with nothing and moving to a refugee camp in a neighboring town until she has time to prepare her next move. Her son will soon be turning four.
“When he was a little one…we had less problems,” she says with a pained laugh. Having myself been a teacher to four-year-olds, I imagine the stress of keeping track of a child in an environment where the stakes of a single step – or misstep – increase every day; in a conflict zone, the natural curiosity and behavior of children could become a life and death situation.
We are both hiding the tears in our eyes behind our tea cups. The young boy, who has taken a pause from play, breaks the tension by sneezing directly into my tea. Relieved by the laugher, we now discuss her next steps. As I listen, I hear the common drive behind each decision: a desire to shape the space in which her son will grow up. Whether she decides to leave forever or stay and work toward reclaiming her home the way she once knew it, she is powered by the vision of two bright futures.
I reflect on how incredibly challenging her experience has been – and feel deeply inspired by her response. As a mother, she a has a strong stake in the present and in a future beyond her own, positioning her as a key voice in understanding and healing the wounds of conflict. I wonder why I haven’t heard more voices like hers emerge from other conflict areas.
My attention is drawn away from her plight when the young boy suddenly falls mid-sprint. She rushes over to him. She stands him-up, brushes him off, and gives him a look that I will never forget. In just one look she says, “You are strong. I love you. Run again.” With that look, she and her son hold hands and begin running from corner to corner of the room.
I understand this is the end of my interview, as there is important running to be done now. I never tell her how courageous and enduring I think she is. I couldn’t find the words. As I am leaving, I turn and look at her thinking, “You are strong. I love you. Run again.”
At CIVIC, we know that better protection begins with understanding. Conflict can drastically and frequently change the roles that men and women otherwise play within their families and communities. Women often take on multiple roles, such as that of protector, negotiator, security provider, and community leader, all on top of being the family caretaker and breadwinner. These realities must be taken into account when identifying – and meeting – civilian protection needs.
Learn more about our work to promote the protection of civilians in Ukraine.
“Slumber,” the graphite on paper artwork accompanying this post, was generously contributed by Eric Sanders. Learn more about Sanders Creative Arts.