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War Trauma, Ukraine 2022

Note: While this post isn’t directly about teaching, it connects to themes in other Hub Blog posts, such as Dr. Mays Imad Keynote, and describes a crisis that has a current impact on faculty and students. For a blog post specifically about teaching, see Anna Muller’s Teaching Ukraine.

This post is guest authored by Wiola Rębecka

As war spread, so too did coldness, cruelty, and hatred. Human nature is built upon the unbelievable ability to love yet simultaneously destroy. The war in Ukraine began when the Russians decided to proceed in 2014. There is already eight years of Ukrainian trauma related to killing, displacement, torture, and rape because of the Russian occupation.

Historically, recurrent themes such as the violence in Ukraine are marked by the many different historical traumatic events such as the Holodomor, the Second World War, and USSR occupations. Civilians are exploited and affected by cruelty, violence, and the oppressive invaders’ unpredictability. Civilians are marked by complex trauma, PTSD, epigenetics changes, and transgenerational trauma.

Trauma is the psychological response(s) one has to the overwhelming experiences. War always brings complex trauma and long-term consequences that we define as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. No one can completely escape war and conflict unscathed. The lasting damage can be witnessed by the survivors’ physical, mental, and emotional scars. We already know that war oppression and trauma determine epigenetic changes and build transgenerational trauma. No one is safe and accessible when the war occurs. To talk about war trauma is to discuss individual personal experiences, individual pain and damage, inhuman levels of cruelty, abuse and torture, and the consequences of these violent acts. The individual and group memory of the past is marked by the many historical events and the new war in 2022 in Ukraine.

According to Van der Kolk, trauma happens when an individual (or a group) is exposed “to an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms the person’s coping mechanisms.

And post-traumatic stress disorder is when the individual relives the trauma experiencing negative physical and mental changes in behavior and mood.

PTSD affects individuals differently. Almost half of women who experienced sexual assault experienced PTSD throughout their lifetime.

This change happens inside oneself, in people’s families, communities, and eventually at the national level.

War trauma is a personal response to organized military violence and to the many different physical and psychological strategies to destroy individual and group lives physically and psychologically.

The stories from Ukraine are stories about war trauma; they are already visible to us by the media and individual sharing. One of the most powerful and effective war strategies determining complex war trauma is rape.

War rape trauma is a response to the invasions and aggression of others to the human body.

Publicly speaking about sexual violence is a challenge. Sexual violence is already used in Ukraine as a weapon of this current war.

However, we tend to deny things that bring us discomfort as humans. Sexual violence creates pain for survivors and all people in general. That’s why it is crucial to listen to them, to every single story of the survivors of sexual violence during the war activity. 

Many war survivors struggle with the experiences they endured and finding the ability to communicate these atrocities with the outside world. Initially, war survivors and rape survivors’ abilities to share their experiences are somewhat limited. They don’t yet know how to share their pain in a manner that audiences will be more receptive to, especially during the active war when people struggle with basic lack of safety and deprivations of their needs.

Effects of trauma due to the Holocaust can manifest much later in life. Yoram Barak et al. discovered that the risk of suicide increases for Holocaust survivors with aging. Elderly survivors face higher rates of depression and PTSD where they relive past trauma, loss, and stress, all leading to a greater risk of suicide.

Children of Holocaust survivors are three times more likely to experience PTSD if one of their parents suffered from it. They also carry physical and emotional effects of their parents’ trauma and may even pass it down to their offspring.

Yehuda found that PTSD or trauma in parents who were survivors of the Holocaust increased the risk of anxiety, depression, and PTSD in their children. Unfortunately, seeing war in Ukraine, we can see war trauma, PTSD, tortures, war rape, epigenetics changes, and transmissions of trauma because of war from the psychological perspective already.

About the Author

Wiola Rębecka is a psychoanalyst, human rights activist, founder of “Rape: A History of Shame” project, and author of the book Rape: A History of Shame, Diary of the Survivors. A credentialed psychoanalyst, she has over 23 years’ clinical experience working with trauma, PTSD, War Rape Survivors Syndrome, and transgenerational trauma, and has conducted field work on the consequences of sexual violence during war in Rwanda, Congo, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.


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Photo by Tina Hartung on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 22 seconds

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