“Sometimes a typical day starts with a sleepless night due to air sirens or the sounds of explosions [it’s spent] in your closet, bathroom, or corridor, hiding in accordance with the two-wall rule"
24 February 2023 marks one year since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Since the start of the invasion, UN agencies have worked intensively to scale up life-saving humanitarian operations and expand assistance to all regions of the country from the provision of food assistance and critical healthcare, support for victims of gender-based violence, and education services to reach children who have been forced to flee their homes.
UN DCO speaks to Ana Lukatela, head of the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in Ukraine, and Nadiia Kyzytska, head of the UN Information Centre in Kyiv to learn more about the challenges of working through months of war and to find out what brings them hope during some of the darker moments.
What does your typical working day involve?
Ana: I spend a lot of the day with UN agencies, our government partners, and our development cooperation partners, helping to make connections between everyone’s efforts on recovery and making sure we all are pulling towards the same priorities and responding to what the government is requesting.
Ukraine is struggling under an avalanche of needs, and it is critical that the 20 or more UN development agencies on the ground implementing recovery initiatives are not just chipping away in their own small areas, but rather that agencies team up so that we make a stronger collective impact in reducing the scale of suffering.
Nadiia: One of the challenges of living and working in a country at war is that you must somehow get used to the fact that your plans for the day change. Sometimes a typical day starts with a sleepless night due to air sirens or the sounds of explosions. Maybe another day, might be spent in your closet, bathroom, or corridor, hiding in accordance with the ‘two-wall rule.’
Due to the nature of this work, working days of communication specialists are often out of regular hours. In a situation of war and a kaleidoscope of events around us – this is especially acute.
How do you see the value of your role as a part of the Resident Coordinator’s Office in such uncertain/crisis settings?
Ana: Things change so quickly on the ground, there can be a new pressing issue to address at any time. As the coordinating body we have a bird’s eye view of the situation.
With all this information we can see the linkages, quickly connect stakeholders, and point partners towards opportunities and entry points to increase the impact of our UN efforts. Accurate and fast information-sharing is a key factor to being effective in a crisis setting.
Nadiia: Our goal is not only to inform people about our work and opportunities to receive assistance, but also to use communications to engage more stakeholders in joint action - in helping the victims, rebuilding the country, and ultimately in pushing for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals even in such an environment.
What have been some of the biggest challenges and the practical realities of working in a war zone?
Ana: Here, in Kyiv, we are safely behind the frontlines for the most part but are still threatened by periodic missile strikes and drone attacks. But I think every day about our UN personnel in frontline communities and how hard it is for them and all the civilians they are trying to help.
But Kyiv definitely has its own challenges. The electricity, water and heating can be very unpredictable due to the targeting of critical infrastructure by Russian missile attacks. One second you can be tapping away on your laptop while drinking your morning coffee and the next second the air alarm goes off with its ghostly siren and you are out the door to spend hours underground in a bomb shelter, working from there in your coat and hat, while explosions reverberate above.
Nadiia: I am Ukrainian, so in my case, it's not just about working in a conflict zone, it’s a war that has come to my home, where me, my family and friends have lived our entire lives. Every day I see a lot of deaths and injuries, losses in families, including those close to me. This human dimension of the war- all the suffering is something you can’t adapt to, but as communications professionals, we must be especially sensitive to.
Everything you say or write needs to be sensitive, ethical and not to be guided too much by our emotions, which is sometimes extremely difficult. It's a delicate balance, because in a crisis situation there are so many triggers, and words can become those triggers.
Are there any accomplishments or pieces of work which you are particularly proud of?
Ana: The UN development system came together around many aspects of recovery during 2022. We supported the government to do more than 40 damage and loss assessments across all sectors; to adopt new laws, policies and strategies needed for recovery planning; to reconstruct critical infrastructure – electricity, schools, water, hospitals; to implement new energy savings solutions; to help relocated businesses continue to function; and to help government institutions and leaders pivot and be effective crisis managers and provide their population with basic services during war-time.
All of these efforts had to be sequenced and layered with the humanitarian response led by the UN, which reached 16 million people with lifesaving assistance in 2022 – cash, food, water, medicine and winter supplies. The humanitarian and the medium-term recovery efforts are happening side by side in Ukraine and it is a huge logistical and coordination effort that makes every day a different challenge.
Nadiia: I know that the UN team here in Ukraine, and globally, is making extraordinary efforts in the humanitarian response, as well as in support of the Government of Ukraine's response to the economic and social impact of Russia's invasion and war on Ukraine.
The whole comms team on the ground is doing a lot to support these efforts in the communications dimension. It's a lot of different tasks every day, big and small. I try to put 101% into all of this- to plan in these conditions and act according to the plan, to learn, to share knowledge, to help colleagues in whatever way I can.
You work long hours under these challenging situations, how do you keep going? What keeps you motivated?
Nadiia: Looking around, you just realize that you have no choice but to keep going. People in Ukraine do not think much about the motivation to do something, they just do it. So, do I.
For very practical reasons, I would say that you have to take good care of your health and at least balance your hours of sleeping and eating, which, in the last few months has been especially difficult, given the constant power outages. In the end, you just have to think that you have a home, water, and are even still able to do laundry - a fortune that millions of others are deprived of. So, you just keep going.
Ana: I don’t know a single UN employee here who is not affected by bearing witness to the destruction of the lives of the people of Ukraine. Whether it’s anxiety, lack of sleep, or feeling overwhelmed. It is so important to talk about this with the team. I will never forget the first nightmare I had after being here for a few months. I remember slowly waking and groggily thinking, “So, this is what all those mental health experts were telling us to prepare for…”
What keeps me going here in Ukraine is what got me into the UN in the first place 17 years ago and what got me through each of the past six duty stations where I have worked and lived with my family – I want the world to be a better place for my four kids. I call them at the end of every day and just talking to them gives me fresh motivation for whatever comes tomorrow. I talk to them about justice and human dignity. The world doesn’t have to be this way. We can be better, starting from one person at a time. And I have seen this come to life everywhere I have worked around the world including here in Ukraine where people, in the darkest of times, have demonstrated incredible resilience and solidarity.
It is now one year since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Looking ahead to the rest of 2023, is there anything that gives you hope?
Ana: I am always hopeful. I have always felt that the world can change, one person at a time – and what each of us does individually can make a difference. It is true that times are tough right now, and it is hard to see an end to the horror. But we must keep hope; especially when things around us seem at their darkest.
Nadiia: One of Ukraine’s most famous poets Lesia Ukrainka wrote “Who has not lived in the middle of the storm, does not understand the price of strength”.
People in Ukraine do understand the price. Their unity and strength give me hope.
As they say, “it’s always darkest before the dawn”.
To learn more about the work of the UN in Ukraine visit Ukraine.un.org