The Conversation

When there are no words: Translating wartime trauma in Ukraine

Greta Uehling, University of Michigan

On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one thing is clear: The destruction the war has wreaked upon Ukrainians over the last 12 months is so catastrophic that the country will be dealing with the humanitarian consequences for the foreseeable future. One of the consequences is trauma.

As an anthropologist, I have long sought ways to describe my interviewees’ narratives in ways that are true to what they experienced. This is particularly challenging after shocking, painful or overwhelming experiences, which are often difficult for survivors to describe in chronological order – or sometimes, to describe at all.

Still, abundant research shows that unverbalized memories are not necessarily lost. Often, they return in the form of flashbacks and physical sensations. Survivors may find themselves reaching, consciously or unconsciously, for different ways to describe their experiences.

Ukrainians often described their decision to leave areas of active military conflict as a visceral, rather than cerebral, process. A woman I call “Zhenia,” for example, lived through the epic siege of the Donetsk airport in 2014. Although her family planned to stay, that changed one night when her husband saw a mortar from a missile strike land down the street from their high-rise apartment while he was standing on their balcony.

But they didn’t need to talk about it. Zhenia remembers thinking that her husband’s skin looked almost green from shock. Then, he threw up in the bathrooom. By the glances they exchanged, she knew it was time to pack their bags.

Anthropologists have long debated how best to communicate about pain and violence in a way that honors survivors’ experiences without being voyeuristic. In my 2023 book, “Everyday War,” I address the challenge by giving voice to the embodied language the people I spoke with used, relating their lives to me by talking about their bodies and possessions.

Among survivors of horrific experiences, there is also a tendency to dissociate. Dissociation refers to the sense of detachment from reality that occurs when the ways we typically make sense of our experiences are inadequate to what is happening.

War crimes exemplify humanity at its worst, and ordinary words often feel insufficient to describe what people witness. It is not uncommon for individuals who have survived war and conflict to describe feeling detached from reality and other people. Many experience the world in which they are living as unreal, dreamlike and distorted.

In Ukraine, people I spoke with who had been affected by the war painted a world so uncannily altered by violence that it felt as they were living in a science fiction drama: The previously familiar became very strange.

A woman who had been displaced from Donetsk, “Yuliya,” told me she left after an otherworldly quality seemed to overtake her city. She compared her time in the city to a science fiction movie she had seen about the Soviet Union, in which high-tech sonic waves were used to subdue the population. Others described the Russian occupiers as bestial, monstrous and “zombies.” “Valya,” for example, described the mercenaries who entered her town as an “animal horde” because their activities were so indiscriminate.

When the war ends, Ukrainians may return to the places they had to flee, but both their inner and their outer worlds have changed. This means anyone intent on understanding will need flexible ways to listen. For anthropologists, it is vital to listen to not only what people say, but how they say it.


Categories Opinion The Conversation