In Buchate, Ukrainian psychologists help heal hidden wounds

People sit on a bench on Energetico Street, which leads to Booker Town Hall and a church where mass graves were discovered after Russian troops withdrew from the Ukrainian city.  (Cassia Streak / Panos photo for the Washington Post)
People sit on a bench on Energetico Street, which leads to Booker Town Hall and a church where mass graves were discovered after Russian troops withdrew from the Ukrainian city. (Cassia Streak / Panos photo for the Washington Post)

BUCHA, Ukraine – Two women pushed a stroller into the street, each holding a handlebar. Around them, everything is green and new – spring in full color.

But in a woman’s mind, the darkest part of her life has played itself out again: her husband rushed to get her baby formula and diapers, and never came home.

He is one of the hundreds of people in this generally beautiful suburb who did not survive the brutal, month-long occupation by Russian troops in March. His body was found by neighbors in a forest clearing blocks from their apartment.

Another woman, Natalia Zaretska, is an expert in repairing broken people.

When Bucha authorities restore public services, recover bodies from mass graves, and repaint bullet holes and blood-stained walls, Zaretska Bukar is rebuilding from within.

For one who has handled dozens of cases of the most psychologically traumatized people in this city, Zaretska, 47, is remarkably chipper. She almost always smiles – and always wears her camouflage-green bandana. But almost every day of the week he stays in Bucha, healing hidden wounds.

“It simply came to our notice then. What people felt here was intense, for a long time, and the people’s home and city became cruel captives, “he said. “I’m helping them understand what happened to them and what they’re doing.”

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Zaretska says going through most of it is a high level of what he calls contraction – not trauma. This is a condition of extreme stress which, he believes, can be eased through radically honest conversations in both on-one and group settings. In Buchate, he estimates that 1 in 3 people out of 4,000 or more needs emergency psychological support.

Zaretska, who has a master’s degree in psychology and is licensed by the Ukrainian military, has already worked closely with 50 of them.

There are currently only a handful of psychologists working in Bucha and its surrounding towns and villages – so little that they are all working together to ensure that at least one Bucha district can be located in the three major cities each day. . Everyone is working with unimaginably high caseloads.

At first, after the Russians withdrew, such support was unavailable. But Booker Public Service Center officials quickly realized that when people were apparently coming for help with practical problems, many had emotional needs. Support

“People came here to cry, to shout or to talk to someone,” said Oksana Mikhailchuk, the centre’s chief administrator. “Everyone here has some trauma – including me.”

Mikhailchuk says he has nightmares where he is running, trying to escape and appears to be flying bullets in the air around him.

Even life in Bucharest is a nightmare these days, despite the hard work of the Russians to clean up the mess. For those who have witnessed the horrors of the occupation, which turned Bucha into an arena of horrific crime after crime, it is now a haunted place, patients say.

Surreal scenes of normalcy seem like dreams. Is this real? Are people really riding their bikes, walking through the swollen trees, pushing their strollers on the sidewalk in the sun? Or am I going to wake up, still hiding in my basement, just not able to feed myself, while the Russian soldiers are roaming the streets outside? Will that fear ever leave me alone?

For Mikhailchuk and others, Zaretskar’s counseling has been a success.

“We were skeptical. In Ukraine, we don’t really trust psychologists, “said Mikhail Chuk.” But Natalia does what she does. I’ve experienced it myself. She helps people breathe.

The faster Russia destroys, the faster Ukraine rebuilds its cities

Less than a decade ago, Zaretska was working on financial crisis management and tax advice. He joined the government after the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, was inspired to become a government employee, and applied his degree in psychology. Colleagues realized his brilliance and he quickly earned a great headline: Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine for the Rehabilitation of Combatants, where he focused on ex-prisoners of war.

A few months before the Russian invasion, he joined Ukraine’s regional defense, which is a mixture of military and civilian reserves that operate under the armed forces. Once the Russians left Bucha and noticed the level of atrocities they had committed there, he offered to help create a response to the city’s mental health crisis.

Jaretska has similarly finished counseling its citizens and officials. He says most of what he is looking for is not comfort or sympathy, but the answer to a difficult question: why did Russia do this to me? For what?

“I believe it’s really the best treatment,” he said after leaving a meeting with a city official who asked him the question.

His answer – the version of his truth – is that Russian citizens and soldiers have been inhumane by the rule of President Vladimir Putin, who, through their relentless propaganda and information control, has confirmed that Ukrainians are disobedient and must be punished.

“Russia is an empire. Its people are not free. Their government uses fear as a tool,” he told patients.

“We have a joke,” he said. “We say Goebbels will return to his grave from the violence in the power of Russia’s psychological control over his people.”

To be fair, Zaretska said, the Booker people need to see how strong they are, how good they are, how independent they are – what they went through was not incomprehensible or inexplicable and did not make them inhumane, but the opposite.

He is not proposing truth and reconciliation, but truth and transcendence.

“Bucha was severely beaten, and being beaten is one of the most effective forms of torture because it gets worse and worse after it is done. But those who survive it can come back stronger,” he said. The biggest victory is to heal from. “

Serhiy Margunov contributed to this report.

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