Ukraine Stories #Week22: War’s impact on those living with mental disorders

Historical building in Kharkiv ends up as firewood. (Credit: Stanislav Kibalnyk)

In this live blog, at the heart of our project we’ve called “Ukraine Stories”, Ukrainian and Russian journalists write about the harsh living conditions that the Russian invasion has inflicted on them. We cannot always verify the events described in their articles, but their short reports and feature stories describe two countries in the turmoil of war. This blog is also available in Ukrainian and Russian.

Russia is trying to muzzle Wikipedia 

The battle has been going on for months. On 20 July, the Russian federal telecommunications supervisory service, Roskomnadzor, decided to apply new coercive measures. Russian search engines must now inform their users that the online encyclopeadia is violating Russian law by publishing illegal information related to the "special operation". 

In early April, Roskomnadzor had already asked Wikipedia to remove five articles about the war in Ukraine. The platform ignored the request. The Tagansky district court fined the company five million roubles (83,000 Swiss francs). 

The independent media outlet Meduza asked Stanislav Kozlovsky, director of Wikimedia Russia (the local branch of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation which “provides the essential infrastructure for free knowledge”), how Russian authorities are trying to gag the online encyclopaedia: “First of all, they are trying to create an analogue to Wikipedia, called Knowledge. When it was launched, they had already spent 2 billion roubles (33 million Swiss francs). This was for about five thousand articles. In comparison, Wikipedia in Russian has 1.83 million articles. Five thousand more articles are written on our pages every three weeks. All for free. For God's sake, let them do it. I wish them luck”, he added, "I think Wikipedia is more useful in Russia than the Ministry of Science, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture combined”.

Why Russia witnessed fewer births since the start of the war

A total of 318,300 children were born from March to May in Russia. During the same period last year, 345,700 births were registered by Rosstat, the Federal State Statistics Service. The number of births dropped by 8 per cent compared to last year according to the independent media “We can explain” which analysed the data.

In April, less than 100,000 children were born, the lowest rate since World War II. By region, the worst recorded figure was in the Pskov Oblast, where the drop in the birth rate reached  22 per cent. According to independent demographer Alexei Raksha, suggestions to We Can Explain, two reasons are behind these numbers: the departure of pregnant mothers from Russia and the effects of covid or vaccination.

“I didn't expect such a drop - it could be due to women in the later stages of pregnancy leaving Russia. But there is another reason. Just last July we had a real surge in the number of vaccinated people. Therefore, there could have been a sharp drop in conception, which was reflected in the April statistics,” Raksha said.

According to Rosstat, Russians also divorced more often during the first three months of war. There were 172,300 divorces between March and May, compared to 166,300 during the same period in 2021.

Ukrainian fixer: ‘We want to tell foreign media about it. The whole world should know about these crimes’

By Daria Kotielnikova

Serhii Prokopenko on one of the outings (Credit: Serhii Prokopenko)

On 24 February, the Russian army crossed the Ukrainian-Russian border from Belgorod into the Kharkiv oblast. Foreign journalists flooded Ukraine, but to get around, they often work with fixers: reliable locals aware of the security situation and the terrain. Demand for them skyrocketed. In Kharkiv in particular, demand was huge, but fixers were few as the region was previously peaceful.

“I didn’t usually work as a fixer, said journalist turned-fixer Serhii Prokopenko, I just wanted foreign media to be able to talk about the real situation in Ukraine.”

Before the war, Serhii Prokopenko worked in the IT sector and was the CEO and managing editor of the platform Gwara Media. His outlet covered culture, innovation and the new reality of technology. With war, the “new reality” changed altogether, and the journalist began helping foreign colleagues.

At the beginning of the invasion, Prokopenko and his team from Gwara had neither experience working in war zones nor body armours to wear. They ventured outside to film the consequences of war and learned by themselves how to work in those situations.

“At the same time, groups of foreign journalists and professional fixers working in hot spots began to arrive in Kharkiv. They also needed locals to help with logistics and commentary, explained Prokopenko. So I started driving with them, watching how they work, and learned.”

In the four months since the start of the invasion, the journalist worked with foreign outlets such as France 24 and CBC Canada. He and his team also cooperated with independent journalists.

Today, in parallel to his role as a fixer, Prokopenko collects information about war crimes committed by Russians in liberated villages of the Kharkiv region. His documentary “Ukraine: a city under siege”, about life in Kharkiv in the first months of the war, was released in partnership with Al Jazeera.

“There are a lot of war crimes in Ukraine and they must be recorded. The Security Service of Ukraine, the Prosecutor's Office, human rights defenders deal with all of this, and we journalists have to help as there is too much work, said Prokopenko, and added, it is hard work to find these crimes, to describe them, to investigate them.”

Since the start of the war, Prokopenko has heard stories of rape victims in the village of Mala Rohan and witnessed the exhumation of a woman killed by shelling fragments.

Exhumation in Kharkiv Oblast (Credit: Serhii Prokopenko)

On the outskirts of Izyum, 120 km southeast of Kharkiv, Prokopenko spoke with locals. “I spoke with a guy in the occupied territory who was under fire. He said occupiers used expanding bullets”, he explained, referring to ammunition banned by the Hague Convention of 1899. These bullets “open up” after hitting a target, to cause extensive damage to soft tissues.

Serhiy is currently working on a documentary film in which all these horrors will be described based on first person accounts. “We want to tell foreign media about it. The whole world should know about these crimes.”

Russian soldier apologises in Ukrainian

By Mariana Tsymbaliuk

Makariv village (Credit: courtesy)

Bohdan Hulak comes from Makariv, a small village 50 kilometres west of Kyiv that was occupied by Russia in the first days of the war. Our journalist Mariana Tsymbaliuk talked to Bohdan about what happened when Russian soldiers paid him a “visit”.

“Eight Russian soldiers entered our home one day. They started searching through our house and interrogating us,” Bohdan said.

According to him, the soldiers wanted to know whether Bohdan’s family was working for the military. When they couldn’t find any “evidence”, they started provoking the family by asking questions about the Ukrainian government.

Then, all of a sudden, one Russian soldier got on his knees and started crying. He spoke in Ukrainian and said: “I’m sorry that this has happened. It’s my fault… When the war is over, I’ll come here and help you rebuild everything… I will help you if I’m still alive…”

This confession lasted for about half an hour during which the soldier’s hands were shaking. He was sober and he looked sincere, Bohdan noted.

He said that his name was Sasha and he was born in Lviv. His mother is Ukrainian, and his father is Russian. When he was 5, his family moved to Russia but he has memories of Ukraine.

“What is happening in Ukraine now isn’t war, it’s genocide”, Sasha said, adding that he also served in Afghanistan and Libya.

Bohdan’s family remained silent, his mother was crying, scared of the invader’s behaviour. It was scary.

The other seven Russian soldiers were shocked by Sasha’s behaviour, Bohdan said. After remaining silent, they told him to stop crying and leave the house but he continued to sob and repeat: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry… It’s my fault”.

When the seven soldiers’ patience started to wane, they asked him “Why are you sitting here?” and then aggressively said:“Go away!”

But Sasha didn’t move, and repeated “sorry for everything… It’s our fault”, while  soldiers were shoving him outside.

According to Bohdan, Sasha never came to his house again, and the family doesn’t know what happened to him after.

War’s impact on those living with mental disorders

By Anna Dnistrovska

The schedule of the Oboznivka psychoneurological care home is strict: wake-up call is at 6 a.m and bedtime is at 9 p.m. Food is served four times a day. The chef, Olha Troitska, shows us the food she serves:

“A vegetable soup with green peas, barley porridge, and gravy with goulash for lunch. We make 35 litres of this for 100 people,” she said.

17 women with schizophrenia, dementia, mental disorders and intellectual disability were evacuated three months ago from Sloviansk in the Donetsk region to this care home in the village of Oboznivka, Kirovohrad region, 470 km west. They are between 18 and 40 years old.

One of the residents, Svitlana Rasova, remembers the first days of war in Sloviansk: “There were shelling attacks and explosions. The other girls – poor things – were freaking out. I tried to remain calm.”

Another woman, Aliona Shcherbak, said that she hasn’t seen her family for three years. They are unaware of her evacuation.

“My mum and brother are alive. They didn’t even come to see me once over the last three years in Sloviansk. They don’t know [that I was moved]. I’m worried, I cry all the time,” she said.

27-year-old Liubov Kalampar shares a room with two other women who were also evacuated from Sloviansk. Every morning, she brings her portable speakers on the care home’s yard to dance. Kalampar says that she is being treated well by the care home workers.

“Our evacuation was very scary. Bombs were falling everywhere around. Everyone was tense. The staff here help us and make sure we are calm,” she said.

Before the war, the building where they are hosted was an isolation ward and a quarantine room. Today, the 17 women live in two rooms in the building and stay on foldaway beds donated by humanitarian aid groups. Director Oleksandr Dudka says that their goal is to make the women feel as comfortable as possible.

“A separate bathroom was installed with shower cabins, a bath, a storage room, and a desk for the nurse who is here 24/7 in case help is needed for the women,” she explained.

According to Liliya Kulak, the head of the regional department for social protection of the population, 200 residents of care homes and shelters across Ukraine have been evacuated to the Kirovohrad region since 24 February. According to her, the women evacuated from Sloviansk will be able to stay in the current care home until the war ends and more if needed.

Bombing of the university where Russia’s flagship "Moskva" was built

(Credit: Oleksii Platonov)

By Oleksii Platonov

In the morning of 15 July, Mykolaiv was once again the target of a massive Russian rocket attack. Some 15 rockets hit residential buildings, civilian infrastructure and two universities, including the Admiral Makarov National University of Shipbuilding.

The Moskva cruiser which can command several other ships simultaneously was designed in that institution in 1979. Only Russia, the United States, China, Japan and South Korea currently have this type of cruisers known as flagships. The fleet built at that time was equipped with Soviet multipurpose ballistic missile launchers.

At the start of the war, the Moskva threatened to launch an amphibious assault on the Ukrainian coast. Its destruction by the Ukrainian armed forces in April had a decisive impact on the fighting.

Mykolaiv has grown through shipyards since the 18th century. In the twentieth century, during the USSR, it became a Soviet shipbuilding and civil engineering hub and submarines, destroyers, cruisers and battleships were built here using the latest technology.

The destroyed Admiral Makarov National University of Shipbuilding was founded in 1901. It was the only institution in Ukraine to train shipbuilding specialists in accordance with international standards and requirements. During its 100-year history, the university trained over 100,000 shipbuilding specialists. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, Mykolaiv didn’t abandon its speciality and turned to the Western shipbuilding market, including for its educational system. Before the war, over 7,500 students were enrolled in the university’s 14 fields of expertise.

“They blocked our ports and the sea. Now the Russians are destroying the shipbuilding university from which I graduated in 2003. The only one that exists in Ukraine. How would they react if five rockets hit the university in St. Petersburg [the second largest shipbuilding university in the former USSR]?” said Vitaly Kim, the governor of the Mykolaiv region.

Russian servicemen refuse to fight in Ukraine and leave army

On 9 July, 150 contract soldiers returned to their homes in the Siberian Republic of Buryatia, over 6,000 km east of Moscow. By law, contracted servicemen have the right to terminate their agreement whenever they wish to and are not obliged to fight in Ukraine but the reality has been more challenging.

Alexandra Garmazhapova, the director of the Free Buryatia foundation, tells independent media outlet Freedom TV that soldiers are often misinformed, threatened with criminal prosecution, locked up without access to their phones. If they manage to submit their resignation, it is often refused.

“Commanders pretend not to see the resignation letters and file the soldiers who submit them as 'prone to lies and treason' on their system, she says. About 300 to 350 contract soldiers have come to us for help, and there are more every day.”

The army is one of the only economic opportunities for the Buryats, who come from one of the poorest regions in Russia. On 28 June, the wives of Buryat soldiers called on the leader of their region to provide information about their husbands. Some of the women were left without any news since the departure of the men in February. Free Buryatia provides advises them and has been in contact with 500 contracted soldiers since the beginning of the war.

“They all say they do not want to fight. They don't understand what they are doing over there, explains the director. Very often, one person puts in a request for several others because the soldier who contacts us is the only one who has a phone among the group of people he is locked up with.”

Recently, servicemen in the Republic of Tuva, about 4,000 km south-east of Moscow, on the border with Mongolia, have also been trying to resign.

“The servicemen sent their letters three weeks ago, but those were not accepted, says Garmazhapova. About 20 of them are now locked up in an occupied zone in eastern Ukraine. They will probably not be released and are afraid of being sent onto the battlefield without any equipment.”

The director also explains that she is in contact with soldiers who simply do not understand their mission: “I was contacted by a soldier who managed to terminate his contract and he told me: ‘I don't want to be an occupier and I don't understand why Ukraine is being “denazified”. I lived in Moscow for nine years and was confronted with racism and xenophobia. Are you sure Ukraine needs denazification?’.”

Firing squad for Donetsk death row inmates

The death penalty is back in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine. While Moscow and Kiev have had a moratorium on capital punishment since the 1990s, Denis Pushilin, the leader of the separatist territory, signed a decree on 12 July to reinstate capital punishment. Russia withdrew from the Council of Europe on 15 March, but has not announced any policy changes on the death penalty.

According to Denis Pushilin's statements to the official news channel RIA Novosti, convicts from the DPR will be shot by a firing squad. This could be the case for Britons Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin, and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun, if their appeal is rejected.

All three men were accused of mercenary activities for Ukraine and sentenced to death in an expedite trial in the DPR. However, the Ukrainian armed forces consider them as their own soldiers, meaning they should be covered by the Geneva Convention which protects prisoners of war. In June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) called on Russia to ensure that the captured men are not sentenced to death.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday 12 July, the DPR opened its embassy in Russia, the only country to recognise the self-proclaimed republic along with North Korea and Syria.

“We consider that mercenary activity is indeed a terrible crime because people, for a reward, come to another country to kill other people, despite having no personal goals connected to the conflict in question”, said the republic's “foreign minister” Natalia Nikonorova, according to Reuters.

When asked about the reputation of the DPR following the decree, Niokonorova replied: “It is the highest measure of punishment, but it is in our legislation and it is not linked to the further process of recognition of the Donetsk People's Republic by other states.”

Historical building in Kharkiv ends up as firewood

By Stanislav Kibalnyk

On 9 July, a manor built 190 years ago for a family of merchants, the Pavlovs, was targeted by a Russian missile. One of the oldest houses in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, the house was built by architect Andrii Ton in 1832. Since then, it has become a classified building and the Novobavarskyi district administration has set its offices behind the four Corinthian columns that adorn the manor’s yellow façade.

According to the International Criminal Court, the destruction of a historical site is a war crime. By early May, UNESCO had identified 27 damaged or destroyed historical buildings in Kharkiv.

For architect Viktor Dvornikov, who visited the manor a day after it was bombed, 70% of the building is still intact and all is not lost. “The main façade is really damaged, and there are cracks in another part of the building, but any reconstruction expert will tell you that the work that needs to be done is trivial”, he said.

But he added that several city employees are planning to demolish the manor.

“This building is a protected by law, it has withstood revolutions and wars of the 20th century. And now it has even survived a Russian missile, the architect exclaimed. But it seems that the most destructive forces in history and in cities are officials.”

The mansion is located in a central area of Kharkiv, which could be a golden opportunity for the city's property developers.

“People don't understand the long-term benefits and complex effects of heritage preservation, most are only interested in immediate dividends”, says Viktor Dvornikov.

During the dismantling of the wreckage, state emergency service employees tried to carefully preserve all the debris of the main façade, but the architect noticed that an 8-metre-long oak support beam of over a tonne was missing.

“When I asked the officials with whom we had agreed to save the building what they had done with it, they said, 'It's for firewood, we don't know what the winter will be like',” says the stunned architect.

“People have to realise that their identity is not only expressed in slogans and language, but in the continuity of all the historical processes we have experienced and are experiencing, he said. Material monuments serve as irrefutable proof of our journey. By erasing them, we erase a page of our memory, and thus the prospects of future generations”, he concluded.

When Kiev bombs Russian military facilities on its territory

By Svitlana Vovk.

On Monday 11 July, at around 11pm, a muffled explosion resonated in Nova Kakhovka. In this Russian controlled town about 70 kilometres away from Kherson, the sky sparkled but a thick mushroom of smoke quickly engulfed its 47,000 citizens. Kiev had just hit Russian military units and an ammunition depot on its occupied territory with an American Himars rocket launcher. The Ukrainian military administration reported 52 killed soldiers on the Russian side, while Moscow counted “at least seven dead” and about 60 injured after a “terrorist act”.

Ukraine Stories commissioned the following article by Ukrainian journalist Svitlana Vovk. It is entitled: “Resistance to Russia in southern Ukraine. What residents say about explosions in military warehouses.”

A powerful explosion detonates in the temporarily occupied Nova Kakhovka warehouse in the Kherson region. The adviser to the head of the region's military administration, Serhiy Khlan, posted on his Facebook page the same day: “In Novaya Kakhovka, one Russian ammunition warehouse less. (...) People's windows are flying out, but they are still happy… Because it means that the Ukrainian armed forces are close.” He also recommends citizens to remain careful and to refrain from approaching the site of the detonation.

Khlan posts on Facebook again the next day. According to preliminary information, another warehouse containing ammunition and shells belonging to the Russian occupants in Nova Kakhovka has exploded: “Kherson region. Nova Kakhovka, Sokil district... Racists' ammunition and shell warehouses explode again.”

In his Facebook post, the adviser to the head of the military administration thanks "the boys and girls of the Ukrainian army and the Himars", which can hit targets about 70-80 kilometres away.

On 14 July, the adviser reported that at around 10pm Ukrainian armed forces attacked the Russian invaders in Nova Mayachka, 15 kilometres south of Nova Kakhovka: “The occupiers had set up their headquarters and barracks in the premises of the former children's sanatorium”, he wrote on Facebook.

Iryna (name is changed for security reasons) is a resident of Nova Kakhovka. “I am at home. We spend our nights in the basement. I don't have internet, so I go to a relative's house to connect. There is no mobile network anymore either”, she says.

Dmytro (name also changed) has been in Kherson since the beginning of the large-scale invasion. He reports that the explosion of the ammunition depot in Nova Kakhovka was “a firework display for the whole region”. But, he adds, “broken glass is flying everywhere. People are suffering.” The man says he is looking forward to the withdrawal of Russian forces: “Holding on is our personal front! Enduring anxiety, fear and despair... And winning!”