Ukraine: News Fatigue, Ukrainian Volunteers & Anti-War Russians

Caitlin Thorn

News fatigue has crept in, in place of the shock of the war against Ukraine that first captured our attention in February 2022. Russian forces aggressively scared millions out of their homes and into neighbouring countries and the rest of the world. But as this became a daily story in our news feeds, the shock of the horrifying nature of Russian crimes wore off and emotions and responses around the world lessened. However, nothing changed for the Ukrainians being persecuted.

Courtesy of Kim Ehmer

In Berlin, Germany when the war began, there was an immediate need to help the new arrivals fleeing their homes. Without any governments or organisations stepping in, volunteers were left to organise themselves and provide support for those arriving at Berlin’s train stations. Amongst the volunteers were people from all over the world, and most significantly, Ukrainians and Russians themselves, who wanted to do whatever they could to help. I spoke to four of these volunteers and these are their stories.

Anna’s Story & The Start of the War

With rumblings of a war erupting, Anna Hochar, from eastern Ukraine moved to Berlin on February 14th 2022, to be near her aunt. After the war began the rest of her family fled to Krakow, Poland. When Anna went to visit them she first encountered the volunteer community at Südkreuz Train Station. That was when she decided to help. “There is no one who speaks Russian or Ukrainian, and it was like if these people have time to help Ukrainians and I'm as Ukrainian, why shouldn’t I stay? Volunteering is exhausting, physically and mentally. Physically, you're standing for hours and helping with luggage. When Ukrainians know that I speak Russian and Ukrainian, they start sharing their personal and private experiences It was really complicated… Even when we talk about the future we cannot say everything will be ok… I feel a great connection with each Ukrainian, no matter from what city, village or whatever. They are my family.”

Polina’s Story & News Fatigue

It’s clear the war against Ukraine received more coverage and more sympathy from western media outlets than concurrent issues in Afghanistan, Tigray, and other conflicts around the world. But it’s also clear that this war, too, has become normalised in news media. The impact has lessened and people's actions speaking out against the war and supporting those who were and are still being impacted have decreased. In some ways, the war was humanised by compelling images of people fleeing with their pets, but young Ukrainians sharing their stories on TikTok, and frankly, by white people seeing white people suffering.

Read more: Ukraine: Refugees, Reporting & Redefining Equality

Polina, is from Irkutsk, Russia but lives in Berlin, and came to help at Südkreuz from the start. “At first in March, I think everybody was so engaged. That's why I kept coming almost every day. But then you have to have some sort of balance, to not burnout… I feel like I would like to say that I'm helping because I'm from Russia, but it's not actually the reason. I just hate the fact that my country is doing the war thing, but also a lot of other countries are doing war things like Turkey is not good. Israel is not kind to Palestine. It's not my personal guilt or anything… We had one angry person who approached me once and said, “all Russian people need to die. If I see a Russian person I will kill them”. But I have never seen anyone from Ukraine like that.” 

Alena’s Story & The Struggle of Anti-War Russians

Over time Russians were also experiencing the implications of the war. While this is entirely incomparable to the horrors Ukrainians were facing, war opponents were and still are being persecuted for protesting the war or displaying any indication of their beliefs going against the Russian government.

Alena Zaichenko from Russia was targeted because of her Ukrainian surname. She lived in Russia her whole life but her ethnically Ukrainian roots became problematic. She was also incredibly opposed to the war. She posted a video of her six-year-old daughter playing with dolls and essentially referring to some Russians as “mindless”. A colleague reported Alena to the police and she was arrested. While in police custody, the police published this video to the public. It went viral and she received death threats While awaiting trial, Alena decided to put on yellow shorts and a blue t-shirt one day. Again, she was arrested.

Alena escaped Russia through Belarus and eventually came to Germany in June 2022. She requested political asylum and is awaiting a decision. That’s when she came to Südkreuz to help. “I still feel guilty. Because I worked in Russia. I paid taxes. And I feel that I did nothing or didn't do enough to stop it.” In July there were still many people from Ukraine arriving every day as new towns and villages were invaded. “Many people from Ukraine are really positive they are great. They are joking. They are laughing and they came here from hell and they are still positive.”

Courtesy of Kim Ehmer

Dasha’s Story & The End of Südkreuz

Dasha Zata moved from Ukraine to Germany when she was 11. She still felt a connection to the incoming refugees and was able to speak their language so came to help. Unfortunately in June and July, many fewer volunteers were coming to help. And efforts at the station were reduced from 24/7 attendance by volunteers, to shorter and shorter daytime hours. Some volunteers had faced burnout in the prior months, and the services being offered at the station were reliant on a regular group of volunteers who had been there for months. As volunteers slowly dropped off or could not commit so many hours anymore, Südkreuz was forced to close, redirecting refugees to other stations. This was a direct result of news fatigue and a lack of interest from the wider public. At first, volunteers were plentiful, even having to be turned away. A donation platform was set up and people would drop off necessary supplies within 30 minutes of saying we needed them. By July, we would be lucky to receive one donation of food or hygiene supplies a day. 

Dasha felt a strong connection to the work being done, and was determined to stay until the end, even if it meant single-handedly helping the incoming refugees. “sometimes you just give them water and they are just so thankful like I realise I did something big… I mean after the first hype, many people volunteered and then it calmed down. But every time there was some news — in another region, something again happened and these people lost homes — and I am home here so I at least can do this little thing to come and help.”

Courtesy of Kim Ehmer

Helping in Your Community

Polina shared what you can do to remain active in the fight against Russia, and actively work against news fatigue by helping in your community. “Try and keep in mind that people are fleeing the war from Ukraine. They are from a different country. They have different habits and it's OK to ask questions and then be understanding, not judgmental. Then if you try to get to know the people you're helping, that's also going to help you a lot because most of the people are really nice. Then you would maybe get an idea of how it feels to be a refugee.

Also, it's really important that we do not really only help the refugees, but we also help people in Ukraine who are fighting the war. They also need a lot of support, so there are a lot of ways to financially support them to donate money. If you find some small initiatives helping people like delivering food or hygiene products or anything that's going to be really helpful. If you see a lost Ukrainian person on the street, maybe just approach them and ask them how they are doing. Show them the way or give them help, but ask first.”

If you are in Berlin, you can help at Berlin Arrival Support, through BEVOS (a new organisation for volunteers in Berlin, where Polina now works full-time), and Schöneberg Hilft.

Caitlin Thorn

"Women’s rights and sustainability are two topics with surprising overlaps that I’m incredibly interested in. Did you know female farmers are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than their male counterparts? And that most underpaid garment workers are women? Overcoming these issues start with women’s empowerment. Taking small steps every day to educate ourselves is the key, and I’m proud of artil’s part in that."
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