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Reach for Humanity in Dark Times: The War in Ukraine

This is an article about the war in Ukraine by Tatyana Bilyik and Lisa Parkinson with the Ukrainian Association of Family Mediators.


Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Tatyana Bilyk was well known as the pioneer of family mediation in Ukraine, accredited over 13 years ago by CEDR in the UK and committed to resolving family conflicts and helping families through times of crisis. Before the invasion, Tanya was training and supervising mediators at the Mediation School, specializing in child-inclusive mediation and in cross-border mediation accredited by Mikk, the German association of family mediators. Four years ago, she founded the Ukrainian Association of Family Mediators, drawing on the national Standards and Code of Practice for family mediators in Ukraine. Now, she is showing her exceptional courage and humanity in delivering food and medical supplies to sick and needy people in Kyiv and providing crisis counselling. Family mediators who work with couples in personal and family crisis are aware that the Chinese ideogram for ‘crisis’ combines two characters, one meaning ‘danger’ and the other, ‘opportunity’. Children and adults trapped in underground shelters in Ukraine face acute danger with no way out and no opportunity. We cannot stand by as helpless onlookers. We must seize this unprecedented opportunity to come together in supporting Ukraine, sending humanitarian aid to Ukrainian people and welcoming them in our homes.

Readers of Tanya’s searing account of living through this terrible war and helping others to survive it cannot fail to be moved by her spirit. Please send your donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal


   Tatyana Bilyk, Kyiv

Just today while I’m writing these lines, the battle for Kyiv is taking place. A high-rise building was shelled at night, from which people have been evacuated all this morning. This building is very close to my house. My parents and brother with his family left their home that night due to the fact that their village had already been captured by Russian troops and military operations were taking place there. My family, my children and I made the decision to stay in Kyiv to support each other and get through this crisis together. Till that time, I have received and continue to receive many worried messages from relatives and friends that I urgently need to leave Kyiv as well. This is the difficult state in which I am now writing this post for the Facebook Page that was made by my colleague from Belgium ( Her initiative to create a page about the events taking place in our country is one of the signs of humanity which is not available to all people. It is not enough just to be born with two arms and legs in order to be a human, a person needs to make a lot of effort to become one.

I thank Karen (editor of a German journal of conflict management) for proposing to make this interview I am grateful for the opportunity to share my perspective as a professional mediator on what is happening in Ukraine, as well as to talk about how the war has affected my life and the lives of other mediators, and whether it has changed my idea of myself as a mediator.

Today is the 19th day of the war, everybody has changed, and those who left and those who remained in the country will never be the same as they were before the war, and it is important to accept this. We are facing with an abyss, fog, uncertainty, no one knows how it will end personally for each of us and for the whole country, but only accepting reality as it is, can give such an important sense of certainty for us.

A huge number of people (today this figure reached 2.7 million people) have left the country. The war has deprived many people of their homes, careers, jobs, and hundreds of thousands of professionals around the world are now faced with the need to start life anew almost from scratch, being in need of money and for many people having lack of language knowledge. This also applies to mediators who have already left the country or have been evacuated from places where hostilities are taking place. And every day the number of professional mediators who have left their homes is growing, as the air raid alert is already sounding in most regions of Ukraine.

I was one of those who, until the last moment, did not believe that the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine was possible. It is so difficult to hear Russian propaganda about their coming to save us and at the same time we are being killed in our own homes. Mass burying of civilians have already begun in the yards of those who used to live there. Russian troops shell hospitals, schools, churches, and houses of civilians. It is unbearable to watch this and there are no words to justify what is happening.

Now I am a volunteer and every day I conduct crisis consultations for everyone who finds themselves in a difficult psychological state, distribute food and medicine for those who cannot leave the house or need help. Now there are many psychological consultations with women who have had to leave to save their children from the horrors of the war; with people who have remained in the country and are experiencing panic attacks, horror and depression from constant tension, hiding in basements and bomb shelters; with those who are tormented between the desire to save themselves, their families and the duty to stay with those who cannot leave, to support the country and the army. Working with these people, I don’t have the strength to help them make decision, to get through something or not to, if they don’t want it themselves, but I know for sure that the resources of the psyche are huge and our ability to survive and experience the terrible is simply colossal. Something simply unimaginable is happening at the moment, which is impossible to watch without tears. Or not even crying, because tears are already some way out, but just looking and feeling nothing. And then spitting, crying out, speaking out during consultations, otherwise a person is torn apart from the inside by a lot of accumulated deep feelings.

Just like my clients, I, being inside the situation, live through all the same stages of mourning from denial to acceptance of reality, filled with strong feelings of fear, pain, anger, disgust, depression, that allow me to stay in contact with the clients, showing empathy and concern for those who seek help. When I understand that I contain too many of my emotions, I turn to those who are dear and important to me for help and support, rest or even leave contact for a while to be able to live my deep feelings, which at other times would be abnormal, but absolutely normal now in the conditions of this abnormal reality. In the most difficult moments, I really want to just disappear and break all contacts, caring only about myself. However, empathy and sympathy for other people is a great value that fills and does not deplete a person at all. Life in a crisis should make sense, then the psyche has an answer how to live when it is unbearably painful and hard.

Conducting psychological consultations, I observe some changes in family relationships, and where there is mutual understanding and common values, this strengthens relationships and the family, and where marriage partners try to cope with intrapersonal conflicts on their own, they move away from each other, exacerbating the feelings of war. When I think about those who have left the country, I assume that not everyone will want to return to the place where their homes are broken, and family relationships are destroyed. For me, as a family mediator working with cross-border cases, this situation can add work, realizing that children will again suffer the most.

Going through this crisis from the inside, I and other family mediators have a chance to understand new meanings of what is happening in family relationships and create new tools for working with these types of conflicts. What we are living through now can give strength and the ability to stay in touch and be present even where before that it was unbearable not only to work, but even to be present.

Personally for me, one of my limitations in the work of a family mediator was the presence of an exorbitant amount of hatred of one side of the conflict for the other, it was extremely difficult for me to maintain a neutral position in such cases and be effective in the mediation process. The amount of aggression and hatred that is now being heard from almost every inhabitant of our country is due to the incredible amount of fear, anxiety, and helplessness that we all face in this war. And this anger helps us defend ourselves against the invasion of the occupants and save our territory. At the same time, when defending from monsters, it is important not to turn ourselves into these monsters, who will then destroy everything surrounding, including our values and freedom, which we are now all fighting together for. And this is one of the most important tasks facing the mediators of our country: how after going through all these sufferings, not to fall into despair? and how can we turn the war that enters us into the peace that comes out of us? We now have a unique opportunity to learn how to live within anxiety so that we can then act as a peacemaker.

Now we are all standing on the edge of the abyss, and all of us face our own thresholds when we are going through this crisis, but only by going through it on our own, and save our humanity, we have the opportunity to become useful to those who will need the help of mediators after the war. This is a process when something immeasurable enters us, passes through unbearable feelings, and comes out already as immense. But the humanity remains. This is some another person, but whole enough to be useful to other people.

War is an invasion into our lives, which we reflexively want to defend ourselves from, but only the humanity of the people around us gives hope for a miracle.

“In the dark times you can clearly see the stars!” Right now, in our dark times of the war, we can clearly see who is next to us and why; what is valuable to us and who we can share our life with. Many of my colleagues mediators from different countries, those who are in touch with me every day, support my volunteer activities emotionally and financially, have lit up for me in the role of such stars. So much humanity around me allows me to go through this crisis, sometimes completely horrible and deadly, to maintain the courage to follow my heart, showing peace and goodness.

This article is dedicated to my family, friends, and colleagues.


Lisa Parkinson

Lisa Parkinson M.A., mediator, trainer and consultant, a Vice-President of the Family Mediators Association in England and Wales, has been involved in developing family mediation since the mid 70s. Still in practice as a family mediator after nearly 40 years! Her book on Family Mediation (3rd edition, 2014, Family Law) is… MORE >

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