Professor Lena Dominelli, Professor of Social Work, Faculty of Social Sciences
Russia’s War Against Ukraine has challenged social work practice fundamentally. Its value base is social justice and the peaceful resolution of conflict. How does a grassroots-based profession engage with its colleagues on both sides of a conflict to promote peace over the cacophony of war? Through my position as Chair of the Disaster Interventions, Climate Change and Sustainability International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), Chair of the Special Interest Group (SPEDI) for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and Social Work for Peace, I have been puzzling over the answer to this conundrum. Along with other social work colleagues, I have been supporting Ukrainian social work educators, practitioners and students since Russia’s attack on Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Until last month, we met with our colleagues in Ukraine via Teams weekly, now it is once a fortnight. During that time, I have struggled to make sense of the kaleidoscope of war and its changing pictures of aggression, to support the people of Ukraine, around 1 in 5 of whom have been internally displaced, and 9.1 million who have sought refuge overseas, mainly in neighbouring countries.
My first recollection of this War is linking up with a mixture of academics, practitioners and students (social workers all) – some in their homes, some in bunkers with their smart phones for light, and the sounds of sirens, bombs and crying children in the background. Initially, round 40 people from across the Ukraine had joined a handful of us living overseas to ask for support. These numbers have halved as many had to escape as Russian incursions into their territory increased, and they had to seek refuge elsewhere. What struck me was these social workers’ dignity and courage in the face of tremendous odds and their determination to support everyone they could. These traits, they have displayed throughout our interactions. Their empathy for fellow citizens, whether they were under immediate attack or not, and understanding of the awful position of the Russians who opposed Putin’s attack were remarkable. The willingness of social workers to risk their lives to deliver services, and especially practical items like food, water, and medicine, to all those in need, and playing dodgems in-between siren calls showed courage and a commitment beyond the call of duty. Social workers, like the soldiers defending their land militarily, were also on the front line, and faced similar awful consequences.
This picture changed over time, and despite the heroic attempts to defend Ukraine from their aggressive neighbour, life in Ukraine became more and more difficult. But never did expressions of despair appear among those in touch with us. Instead, the focus was on practical ways of moving forward. How can you get donations to us so that we can obtain materials to support people (By the way, these continue to be needed, now more than ever, so get in touch if you want to help)? How can you help us support a traumatised population? This highlighted for me a weakness of social work training. Trauma tends to be conceptualised as individualised issue and support occurs on that basis, involving friends and family at most. This was about collective trauma, experienced individually and collectively, and it remains a conceptual and practical concern for us in social work to resolve.
Another conundrum was the shift in attitudes among Ukrainian colleagues. To begin with, they were supportive to and empathetic of the young Russian conscripts who were captured, and for the Russian people who opposed Putin’s war. Initially, they helped the young prisoners of war contact their parents, on Ukrainian phones. Their own phones had been confiscated when they left Russia. I vividly recall one case, where the mother of one of these young men (child, really, aged 18, who hadn’t a clue about what he was doing, where he was or why he was there) disbelieved her son when he rang to tell her that he was well but captured in Ukraine. She simply kept telling her son to stop lying. He had been brainwashed by the Ukrainians because Putin was saying on TV every night that they were not in Ukraine, and all was well both in their exercises and in their ‘limited operation’ in Ukraine. But as the death toll and destruction of their country rose, Ukrainian attitudes hardened. For social workers, a turning point came when the Russian Association of Social Workers came out in support of Putin on their website. Although everyone accepted that people opposing him faced 15 years in prison or worse, some of our Ukrainian colleagues insisted there could be no exceptions – not even for those individuals we knew opposed this War in their own way in Russia. Instead, they demanded overt opposition to Putin’s War against their country. This was where many of us felt thankful for our social work training which enables us to listen to opposing sides, without taking a position, but simply to provide the space for them to talk to each other, even when the matter remains unresolved, at least for now.
Later, specific demands for help turned to training and mentoring so that social workers could be encouraged to support each other and engage in self-care so as not to burnout, so I offered mentorship and training in my areas of expertise. Also, and very impressive to me, was the academics’ insistence that their students whose education had been so rudely interrupted on 24 February, must graduate this year as planned. A number of us in the international community responded by offering mentoring and training in their areas of expertise – gender-based violence during war, masculinity as an issue in war, trauma-informed practice, community development, community social work, and many others.
One of the most difficult sessions (in my view) was the discussion about the relationship between Ukrainians and Russians as the death toll among Ukraine’s civilians became a basic tool of Russia’s attack as Cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction were heaped upon defenceless people seeking refuge in civic buildings, shopping malls and recreational facilities. Even universities were not exempt, especially as they also became places of shelter. Moreover, in places where Russia assumed control of Ukrainian territory, they replaced elected representatives with their own appointees, and universities were not spared this treatment. Entire levels of leadership at various universities were taken away (where to remains unknown for many) and replaced by Kremlin approved appointees. This is total war, culturally, economically, socially and politically, not just militarily.
This total war has another dimension, which I have raised, but which has received limited support. That, is, what price is the earth paying in the form of emissions discharged into the waters, air, and soils of our beautiful planet and accelerating its destruction through climate change. I have agued that this is an environmental crime that should be included in the crimes against humanity. I appreciate it is a complex issue, and one that requires nuanced, if complicated responses. But as I see it, the discharge of military ordinance in civilian areas – and we now have considerable evidence on this – Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine, are amongst the most notable examples of entire areas being wiped out so that some macho-styled warrior can claim victory. But looked at from an environmental justice perspective, the earth has already borne greenhouse gas emissions during the initial construction of built infrastructures once when they were built; twice during their destruction; and thirdly during its reconstruction when the war is over. The tally must be enormous, but I have yet to find a researcher who has been able to tell me what this cost is. This issue is also one that demands an end to War, and the elimination of War as a way of resolving disputes between or among all countries. The United Nations must be strengthened to realise this objective.
At the same time, I have been careful not to blame people for defending their place and space by using similar weapons – if they can obtain them. War can be so one-sided in which might attempts to impose the view that might is right. Blatantly in the case of Ukraine, there is no equity in the military ordinance at their disposal. Yet, being under attack from the most destructive weapons that humans have created is the situation Ukrainians are facing daily, 24/7, and will do for as long as this War lasts.
For me, this situation also begs the question, how can one man be allowed to rip up the international world order with impunity (so far) and make a laughing stock of all the conventions, protocols and laws that have been put in place to prevent such an occurrence. Moreover, what moral legitimacy is there when this international world order has been violated by one of the 5 members of the Security Council of the United Nations that has pledged to uphold peace globally? And yet, the War continues. I have had to look deep into my heart and ask what would I do in similar circumstances? I am a post-WWII child and have been fortunate enough to have lived in peaceful countries all my life. What would I do if I faced an aggressor threatening us in the UK? And my reply – for a person who has always argued against war, did not leave me shocked. When I thought deeply about it, if someone were to invade us and threaten me, my family, my friends, my neighbours, my community, my nation, I would fightback with whatever means I could. Everyone has the right to self-defence. I am still struggling to come to terms with the ethical dilemmas that this response elicits for me as a social worker committed to peace. It exemplifies another conundrum that social work, like other professions committed to peace finds hard to answer, even when we have access to people who have sought to do precisely this, e.g., colleagues in South Africa, East Timor, among others, to find other answers. Even in these places, we are finding that such resolutions are fragile.
I end this blog by asking everyone to work for peace and seek an end to this War and all other wars – there are currently 40 active ones in the world today. Neither people, plants, animals nor the environment can afford to let these continue. They must all end. The costs to all living beings and in environmental degradation are too high if we want a sustainable world and peace to prevail into the future. The peaceful resolution of conflict must be the way forward. That we can achieve this will provide the hope that we need to repair shattered lives.