Olena Dunaieva and her partner Roman first met at the end of 2021. Despite increasingly concerning news reports detailing the thousands of Russian tanks massing on the Ukrainian border, they still found themselves falling in love. Their first encounter had been unique. Olena had an urge to learn how to independently parachute from an aircraft and it was Roman, an instructor, who answered her queries. After training for the event, he travelled with Olena in the plane to calm her nerves and ensure she was doing all the correct manoeuvres to successfully complete a jump. “I always tell Roman that even back then I was able to trust him with my life,” she says.
Their dates revolved around exploring the great outdoors in the Kherson region in southern Ukraine; long walks through forests, strolls by the river and adventures that took them to a nearby abandoned observation tower to get the best view of the woodland. Nights in were spent playing video games; nights out spent at local restaurants. Living just a 15-minute drive from one another meant they could be as spontaneous with their time as they liked.
But in the early hours of February 24, 2022, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine and after just three months of dating, Olena and Roman’s new life together came to a crashing halt. Olena, a 31-year-old designer from Kherson, had to leave her home country and along with more than 170,000 fellow Ukrainians sought refuge in the UK as part of the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (also known as Homes for Ukraine). Roman, bound by Ukraine’s martial law that states men aged 18-60 who are deemed fit for combat cannot leave the country, stayed behind to fight.
“I feel like this war has stolen our relationship,” says Olena. “It has stolen the opportunity to have and create memories together and stolen the opportunity to watch our relationship grow, which normally comes when couples are together.”
Sadly, Olena and Roman’s story is not unique. All over Ukraine couples, new and old, are being separated, as men are turned into soldiers overnight and sent to fight in Putin’s war.
It is a situation that Mariia Stetsiuk, a clinical psychologist who set up a group to support women like Olena, knows all too well.
When Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, Stetsiuk could only watch as a close friend was sent to fight in the Donbas. She understands the fear and agitation experienced by women who aren’t on the front line and when a close friend called her after the invasion, worried about her husband who had gone to war, she set up Girls Who Wait (GWW), a community for more than 1,000 women who once a week come together to discuss their feelings of fear, helplessness and loneliness.
“After that call, I realised how many women abroad and in Ukraine need such support, because they were left alone with their worries and concerns,” she says. “These women often have no one around them who is waiting for loved ones from the war. They find themselves in social isolation, where they are unable to share their worries and concerns. Talking with other women who have the same experience helps them to live through the most critical moments of waiting.”
The sessions are held both online and in-person and are led by a moderator, who lets the conversation run for two hours. It does not just involve talking through their emotions. Alongside the weekly meetings, Stetsiuk posts supportive messages twice daily on the GWW telegram channel while the women also share practical advice that only those in their new-found community could possibly understand. They talk about what to do if they haven’t heard from a husband for an extended period or how to cope as a newly single parent.
Stetsiuk says there is no “universal advice” she gives to women in these circumstances. Instead, she reminds them to take care of themselves and be open in asking for support from others during this period. But most crucial is instructing the women to make “to-do lists”. She tells them to “load yourself as much as possible with tasks while you are waiting for a message”.
Before Olena joined the group, she had been hurt by people who couldn’t comprehend her situation and asked “inappropriate questions” about her relationship with Roman, leaving her feeling “vulnerable and shut out”.
Today, he is somewhere in the Donbas with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but Olena is vague about the details. She is loath to reveal anything that could jeopardise the safety of Roman and the other fighters.
She hears from him semi-regularly, but then there are weeks without communication and all she can do is wait in her flat in east London, some 2,000 miles from the trench he sleeps in. It is a long-distance relationship she could have never foreseen and it’s something she struggles to navigate.
“We have no instructions on how to conduct our relationship at a distance, let alone during wartime,” she says. “When I think about the future it makes me feel a lot of anxiety and despair. I would very much like to know the answers in advance, to know how to react, to feel confident about the future, but at the moment it is impossible.” In blunt terms, the outcome of their relationship depends on how long the war continues.
Nina Mamontova, 30, who acts as a moderator for GWW’s group meetings – and is herself separated from husband Pavlo, 31 – describes the group as a “safe haven”.
“I can be the wife of a military man, where I can come in any emotional state and know that I will be understood and they will be there for me when I need it,” she explains.
The group has become part of her routine. “The first thing I check in the morning is messages from my husband, then from the girls,” she says. “Thanks to the girls and their support, it is much easier for me to live through all the emotions I feel.”
Despite the pain of separation, Nina accepts that life goes on. “I am in the process of developing myself while still living and working, and my husband is doing the same in the army,” she said.
Nina explains that as the war continued, she became more involved in art, as well as studying yoga and how it can have “influence on my body and mind”. She said she shared what she learnt with the girls in the groups. Reading has also helped, particularly books on war and human psychology.
“These things help me not to fixate on the news all the time, not to be constantly in fear, but to explore something new and therefore distract myself,” she says. “In this way, we continue even at a distance to plan for the future, to do whatever is possible at the moment to make our plans come true,” she adds. “And we will do something else after his return.”
This way of living, Stetsiuk says, is a crucial coping mechanism. “Every woman experiences it differently,” she says. “Some do better, some do worse. In my opinion, the ones who experience the most difficulty coping are those who still cannot accept the fact that this war is for a long time. They are on hold, they are frozen in their anticipation, not allowing themselves to live in the conditions we have now.”
One of Stetsiuk’s favourite quotes illustrating the point comes from Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychotherapist who survived a Nazi concentration camp: “The first to break were those who believed it would soon be over. Then, those who didn’t believe it would ever end. Those who survived were those who focused on their own affairs, without expectation of what else might happen.”