Of Ukraine’s more than 4 million refugees, 90 percent are women and children. Of the 6.5 million internally displaced Ukrainians, 54 percent are women. Men ages 18–60 are required to stay and resist the Russian invasion. And thus it is men who usually tell the public tales of war.
Women are often kept to private forums such as their journals:
32 days of war.
Fall asleep while checking the news on your phone.
See nightmares about concentration camps, bombing, dead people.
Wake up from a nightmare and remember it is not just a bad dream.
Check your phone with the thought, I hope everyone I love is alive.
Kiss a sleeping husband thinking about the fragility of life.
Wash your face. Put your clothes on.
Go to work. Wear a smile as a mask. Distance your emotions from pain. Physically hear pain turn into white noise in your head.
Check on your family during a 15-minute break at work. Cry on your break.
Six seconds: breathe in. Eight seconds: breathe out.
Feel grateful for being away from your phone eight hours a day at work. Feel helpless about being away from your phone eight hours a day at work.
So began the March 27 entry of Tetiana Dyatlik Dalrymple, suffering vicariously from afar in Washington, DC. Her father, Taras, sensed that such female perspectives have been missing from coverage of the war.
As Overseas Council’s regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, he recruited six Ukrainian women leaders who could tell their stories. In partnership with the Eastern European Institute of Theology, ScholarLeaders International, and four affiliated seminaries, they sought to counter the critical observation of Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015:
“Everything we know about war,” Alexievich wrote in The Unwomanly Face of War, “we know with ‘a man’s voice’ … ‘men’s’ words.”
Too few international supporters care to notice the gender gap. The theological educators’ second webinar, “The Russia-Ukraine War: Women Voices,” drew only about 200 registrations yesterday, less than half that of the first webinar, which featured male seminary leaders.
Marina Ashikhmina, vice rector for educational work at Tavriski Christian Institute, said the distinction is patently unfair. Women in war have a “double responsibility.”
Underappreciated in society is their behind-the-scenes work to cook meals, transport aid, and knit camouflage nets. But at the same time, said the licensed psychologist, they are expected to maintain the mental and emotional health of society. Ukrainian children will be the most affected, she said, as the vast majority are likely to experience PTSD or depression.
But though war dehumanizes men, Ashikhmina believes this is impossible for women. The balance of vulnerability and mettle protects them—and even causes them to utter the true sound of conflict.
“War is oppression, abasement, and discrimination, as it stems from a patriarchal worldview,” she said. “And yet, if war had a voice, it would sound like a woman’s lament, a child’s fearful cry, a mother’s quiet prayer.”
This is the service needed and provided by women like Valeriia Chornobai.
“The refugees are destroyed in their inner being; as they come to us, they often are not able to speak,” said the professor of sociology and Christian ethics. “You don’t need to talk to them, but just sit in silence and share their pain.”
She remained with her husband in Dnipro, 300 miles southeast of Kyiv.
Practically every day is the same for her. A truck arrives with humanitarian aid. She helps package it into individual parcels and then distributes the aid to displaced people taking shelter in church basements. Where possible, she helps find employment for those willing to stay.
But amid the emotional toil is joy. Six women slept in what used to be her office; all six accepted Jesus. She even saw God’s healing when she prayed for one woman’s injured leg.
It is Bible reading that keeps her going. But she also avoids pointless debate—too many are arguing about why this happened or about the divisions between Christians, she said. Such discipline helps her balance.
“Stay focused on God’s love, not people’s pain,” Chornobai said. “I want to be with the Good Samaritans.”
So does Olga Dyatlik, Dalrymple’s aunt. An associate regional director at Overseas Council with her brother, Taras, she experienced burnout while helping those who suffered over the past eight years of Russian occupation in the Donbas region. She knows now that she must take care of herself first.
“But how can I,” she said, “when I am flooded with thousands of text messages saying, ‘Please help us’?”
Much of her pain is connected to Russia. Those eight years also involved much effort to strengthen cross-border relationships with fellow evangelicals.
Yet not one of her received texts was a message of apology.
“I then understood, I don’t have Russian friends,” Dyatlik said. “We were building bridges for eight years. Now it is their turn.”
But peace is still needed, said Tetiana Kalenychenko, even if she gets blamed for saying so. A facilitator working for conflict transformation with the Dialogue in Action initiative, she has partnered with Muslims, Jews, and the evangelical seminaries in interfaith peace building.
Still in contact with her Russian colleagues, she admits that a “bridge” cannot be at peace with everyone. But to play its role, it must be at peace with itself—and with God.
She has a dream that Ukraine’s churches will welcome the coming waves of the traumatized, where they can sit in silence and listen for God’s voice. But to be effective, silence is not enough.
“Under shelling, ready to shout, we must be brave and honest with ourselves, and especially in our prayers,” Kalenychenko said. “In anger and grief, we keep our hearts soft enough to feel God’s love.”
But they also keep their hearts firm enough to combat Russian propaganda, said Olga Kondyuk, head of the department of communication at Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary. After evacuating from its campus in Kyiv, she does her best to maintain normal operations online.
“Not only do we have to fight to survive,” she said. “We have to fight to preserve what we have built.”
This refers not just to seminary education but also to the values, economy, and independence of Ukraine. While Russia is doing its best to tear them down, Kondyuk exposes its false rationale.
One frequent idea is that the two Slavic nations are “brothers.” Honorable in concept, it is misused to turn them into one nation and thus portrays Ukraine as having no sovereignty.
Another concept that finds favor among many Christians is that President Vladimir Putin’s “Russian world” ideology is combating the moral degradation of the West. But a simple comparison finds worse rates of divorce, abortion, alcoholism, and crime in Russia.
“Unlike the ‘Russian world,’ Christ saves people through relationship and love,” said Kondyuk. “The job of theology is to root out and condemn such heresy.”
Tanya Gerasimchuk hurts for those taken in.
“People that I used to respect—who are intelligent and well educated—they sincerely believe that what Russia is doing is right,” said the public relations assistant at Odessa Theological Seminary. “I pray that God would open their eyes.”
She was commenting from Moldova, where she evacuated to her mother-in-law’s home. But she is mindful that as the days go by, her status changes from guest to refugee.
“No matter how many good and kind people you meet on your way or how comfortable your conditions are at the moment,” Gerasimchuk said, “the feeling of detachment seems to be the most prevalent one. It gets its hold on you and never leaves.”
But even so, these women are not the classic picture of helpless victims fleeing war. They are active volunteers, helping others and teaching the Bible.
Still, Matthew 24 is a poignant reminder: “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” (v. 19). Such women are present in 1 out of 10 internally displaced Ukrainian families.
Gerasimchuk, at least, is safe. But it is cold comfort.
“You feel helpless, and you feel guilty,” she said, “because you are fine and comfortable, while others are suffering immensely.”
It is a divide that could tear Ukrainian women apart.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult for women to communicate with each other, given the very fundamental differences between their positions,” said Ljuba Pastushenko, Dalrymple’s aunt, a refugee in Poland. “The war cut us to pieces like a pie.”
But it is not simply those who fled versus those who stayed.
Differences have appeared between those who had a backpack and those who left with nothing. Some are with family while others rely on strangers. And of those still in Ukraine, some chose to stay while others had no opportunity to leave.
Suffering the tension, some have cut off communication with each other. But she urges understanding.
“Each of us has her own threshold of sensitivity, her own mechanism of living through panic, fear, and change,” said Pastushenko. “Each of us did the right thing, guided by our heart.”
Weathering the turmoil involves keeping others calm when fear abounds, said Kondyuk. It means talking to journalists and lawyers, said Dyatlik. It even includes making Molotov cocktails, said Ashikhmina.
But whatever voice women give to war, their hearts often need to be expressed in private first. The pressure is tremendous, and journaling helps.
It did for Dalrymple:
Forget to eat. Forget to drink water. Pray for people who don’t have food and water in Ukraine.
Get used to the pictures of dead bodies. Hate Russian murderers. Remind myself there are some good people in Russia. Get a message that my friend’s house was hit by a Russian missile. Feel hate melt into helplessness.
Translate documents for refugees. Send an update to donors.
Call family. Be strong for family. See family being strong for me. Tell my brother I love him. Wish my mom and dad “goodnight.” See them online at 4:30 a.m. their time because of air alerts. Text them: “Please make sure you are hiding.”
Pray the missiles don’t hit my hometown. Read the news that the missile hit my town. Feel scared. Feel angry. Feel numb.
Fall asleep while checking the news on your phone.