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‘This War Made Him a Monster.’ Ukrainian Women Fear the Return of Their Partners

by Jessie Williams March 13, 2023

Co-published with TIME

Oksana* recalls waking up in the middle of the night to find her husband’s hands around her neck. Another time, he tried to stab her. Although they had been together for 16 years, he had episodes when he didn’t recognize her, she says. “We were sitting in the kitchen and I was trying to explain to him that I am your wife, and he was just telling me how he will kill me in a lot of detail because I am an enemy.”  

Oksana’s husband was one of the first to be called up to fight for Ukraine when Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago. The army needed experienced soldiers and he had fought in the 2014 war in the Donbas. In May, the company he commanded was ambushed by Russian soldiers in Donetsk and spent five days fighting for their lives. He was one of just a few survivors. After that, she says, “he lost his mind”. 

 A short time later, he left his post and returned to the home in Kyiv they shared with their three children. That’s when the abuse started. 

“Before May he didn’t even scream at me, he was the perfect husband, the perfect father,” says the 40-year-old. “This current war made him a monster.”

Perched on a bunk bed in her room at a women’s shelter on the outskirts of Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, Oksana describes how she left in October, taking only her two younger children. She didn’t tell anyone else where she was going—not even her eldest son, who remained at their home. Her 15-year-old and 10-year-old play outside in the communal living room, where a fire crackles on a TV screen, giving the illusion of warmth on a cold winter day.

A brown bunkbed and a pile of items laying next to it on the floor.
Oksana’s bedroom which she shares with her two children in a women’s shelter on the outskirts of Lviv. (Jessie Williams/The Fuller Project)

In Ukraine, women are fleeing violence—but not just from the Russian armed forces. The war is driving up domestic violence as stress levels rise and traumatized men return to their families after long spells on the front lines. Police reports of domestic violence spiked in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, while a crisis helpline set up for the issue had a record number of calls in August. 

As the war enters its second year, experts say the problem is only going to get worse. But shelters are already full and social services are stretched to their limits in a country where even before the outbreak of war, there was limited help for survivors of domestic violence, an offense that wasn’t officially criminalized in Ukraine until 2019. 

The Fuller Project spoke to two other women, Khrystyna* and Maria*, who fled to women’s shelters after being abused by their partners within the last year. (All names have been changed in this story to protect the women’s identities.) Maria, 32, opens the neck of her blouse to reveal a long scar from her abusive ex-boyfriend, she says. The war put “great psychological pressure” on her relationship, leading to three months of violent abuse that only ended when her boyfriend broke her collarbone, and she decided to leave. “I had very deep feelings for him. I believed that he could change,” she says, as tears fill her eyes.

Studies have shown that domestic violence—which disproportionately affects women— increases during and after war as stress levels rise, families are displaced, and traumatized combatants return home. This can lead to physical, psychological and sexual violence erupting inside the home. It usually goes unreported. With soldiers seen as heroes defending the country, there is a reluctance to criticize those who are also abusers. 

According to police records, calls reporting domestic violence across Ukraine steadily increased in the months after the invasion. There were significantly more calls in the first four months of the year. Records show there were almost 67,000 calls to police from January to April 2022, 40% more than for the same period in 2021, although data for the year as a whole shows a decrease in calls. The reason for this was not immediately clear and police did not respond to queries. Kateryna Cherepakha, who runs a hotline offering guidance to victims of domestic violence, believes cases may have gone unreported as millions of civilians fled the war. She also said an attitude that “domestic violence is not that serious compared to the war” may have affected reporting. 

Cherepakha’s organization, La Strada, saw calls increase over the spring and summer months, particularly in August 2022 when calls peaked at nearly 5,000, over 50% higher than the same month the year prior. 

Vilena Kit, a psychologist who works with soldiers as well as survivors of domestic violence, says soldiers are at a high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental condition triggered by a traumatic event. One of the biggest challenges she found when working with veterans from the 2014 conflict in the Donbas was alcoholism, which increases the risk of domestic violence. Vilena says there was a wave of domestic abuse after soldiers came back from fighting in the Donbas and predicts there will be another big wave once the current war is over. “The worst is still to come,” she says.

Oksana’s husband struggled with PTSD in 2015 when he returned from fighting in the Donbas, but had sought help and got better. This time, he refused to get treatment. When Oksana asked the army to take him back, they refused. “They told me, ‘No, because we don’t know what to do with him, he will damage our soldiers,’” she says.

“I tried really hard to find some help for him, anything—I asked every hospital and military organization,” says Oksana. “They told me they will provide that sort of help only after the war has ended. I called the police several times and they said, ‘There is nobody. Call us when something really bad happens to you. This is not a big deal, especially with the situation the country is in now. You should be patient, he’s a hero.’” (The national police of Ukraine and ministries of interior affairs, defense, and veteran affairs have not yet responded to requests for comment.)

A person stands in front of a poster board with the names and faces of soldiers who died in the Ukraine-Russia War.
In the centre of Lviv, a person reads about Ukrainian soldiers who have recently been killed during the war. (Jessie Williams/The Fuller Project)

Oksana believes the prevailing view of all soldiers as heroes has prevented her from receiving help. It has also made her feel guilty for asking. She says that through the lens of the war, “I am a bad person, and he’s a hero.”

The lack of reporting and investigation of domestic violence committed by soldiers in Ukraine was identified in a 2019 report by Amnesty International, which looked at the impact of the 2014 conflict in the Donbas. In 11 of the 27 cases of domestic violence recorded by Amnesty International, perpetrators were active or former members of the military. Eight out of those 11 cases were reported to the police, and only in two of those eight did the women succeed in obtaining restraining orders from the courts. 

Julia Dontsova, the operational coordinator at Amnesty International Ukraine who worked on the report, believes that the trends they found will persist and probably worsen. The report was conducted in what was a frontier territory in Ukraine at that time, she explains, but “now the entire territory is at war.” 

“With all due respect to our military, we may indeed find ourselves in a situation where a veteran returning from war will be respected and sympathized with to such an extent that such a minor offense as domestic violence may well be forgiven on all levels,” she says. 

Life for Oksana is finally starting to improve. She has made new friends in Lviv and is hoping to move to an apartment with her children. She says she wants a calm life now.

A survivor and her child walk across a bridge during an excursion to the countryside surrounding Lviv, organised by the Centre for Women’s Perspectives. (Jessie Williams/The Fuller Project)

The shelter where Oksana and the other women are staying is run by the Centre for Women’s Perspectives (CWP). Before the war, they only had one shelter for domestic abuse survivors—now they have seven dotted across Lviv, which quickly filled up with people fleeing from eastern and central regions in the first few months of the war, some of whom are still there. 

The Fuller Project spoke to two of CWP’s founders, lawyer Halyna Fedkovych and Marta Chumalo, a psychologist, inside their office in Lviv. It’s an old building with thick walls which they assure is safe if there is a missile strike – “Just stay away from the windows,” says Chumalo, when the air raid siren starts to wail. 

“We faced a major problem at the beginning of the war with access to services and to justice and law enforcement for our clients, because nobody knew what was going on, how long [the war] would last—it was this uncertain situation,” says Fedkovych.

Two women sit across from each other at their desks typing on computers.
Halyna Fedkovych, one of the founders of the Centre for Women’s Perspectives, works in their office, alongside a colleague. (Jessie Williams/The Fuller Project)

Fedkovych and Chumalo are working closely with the police in Lviv to ensure they address domestic violence by soldiers.

Marta Vasylkevych, head of the Lviv police’s domestic violence prevention unit, says her team has been developing new skills in preparation for an even greater increase in violence, such as additional physical education and courses on how to deal with weapons, as well as a special forces squad called “Thor,” which the police can call on for extra help. 

Chumalo says sexual violence committed by Russian soldiers has been made a “priority,” with the General Prosecutor’s Office opening a special unit last year to investigate conflict-related sexual violence, and the media heavily documenting such cases. She hopes this survivor-centered approach will positively influence how they deal with domestic violence cases too. “We will see,” she says.

Many of the women helped by CWP left Ukraine in the early months of the war, after the invasion spurred a new policy that made it possible for people to take their children across the border without needing the other parent’s permission.

After a particularly intense period of shelling, Khrystyna tried to take her 11-year-old son to Poland. Everyone else on the bus was fleeing Putin’s bombs, but Khrystyna, 40, was fleeing her boyfriend and son’s father—an alcoholic who had been abusive even before the war but became more so when the missile attacks started. Multiple failings of the justice system led to her current situation – from the police dismissing her initial call for help as “just family stuff” when she was badly beaten at nine months pregnant with her son 11 years ago, to social services officials who believe her ex-boyfriend’s recent claims that she is the abusive one. 

At the last moment, her boyfriend intervened to prevent them from leaving. The boy now lives with his father, and Khrystyna sees him only on Sundays.

In July, Ukraine ratified the Istanbul Convention, which is widely recognised as the most far-reaching international treaty addressing violence against women. Fedkovych is hopeful the move will improve protections for victims of domestic violence, but says the main challenge is ensuring existing legislation is implemented.

Even if the war does end in 2023, experts speaking with The Fuller Project said Ukraine will face an influx of domestic violence for years to come, as well as a growing number of weapons brought back from the frontlines. “The police can already see it, and we can already see it from our clients,” says Fedkovych. “Many military men will not be very stable mentally, and it’s not a good combination.”

Oksana says action is needed now, particularly for those soldiers who have left the army or who are returning home on rotation. “I’m not sure I need justice, I would prefer that my husband has necessary treatment,” she says. “I understand that I cannot go back [home] for any reason. Our family is dead now.”

*Name changed to protect identity

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