By Greta Uehling, Lecturer, Program in International and Comparative Studies, University of Michigan
War does more than displace civilians, or kill them. When wars are waged in residential areas, they become part of the calculus of simply getting through the day.
During the war in Ukraine, now reaching its six-month anniversary, my friends and colleagues there have held Zoom meetings between air raid signals. In a recent meeting, I noticed one of them was speaking from a shower stall, the most heavily reinforced area of their apartment. Professors who are defending their country tell me about grading students’ work between military drills, and many more everyday adaptations. Meanwhile, the grim realities of war crimes against civilians continue.
As an anthropologist, I have studied Ukrainians’ experiences amid armed conflict since Russia seized Crimea in 2014. My current research is concerned with the military violence’s effect on daily routines, personal relationships and values.
Between 2015 and 2017, I traveled extensively within the country, participating in daily life and interviewing over 150 people, focusing especially on how people who had been displaced from Crimea and Donbas were coping with conflict.
People told me repeatedly that one of the most troubling features of the conflict was how it disrupted personal relationships. Civilians found themselves reassessing their personal ethics as they struggled to prioritize competing obligations under the most challenging conditions.
Research on war’s implications for civilians has traditionally focused on psychological trauma, not interpersonal outcomes. Yet among the internally displaced people I interviewed, close to 70% had lost a relationship with friends, family or romantic partners, and this was among their top concerns.
The first reason was political: Relationships suffered because people took opposing sides. Take Larysa – who, like all my interviewees, I refer to with a pseudonym over concerns for their safety. Her mother and sister financially supported and ultimately went to work for the separatist governments in eastern Ukraine. She held them responsible for the death of her son, who was shot – by forces under the direction of leaders her mother and sister helped elect, with bullets they helped pay for – after he joined the Ukrainian forces.
The second reason was competing responsibilities to others, such as bringing children to safety versus staying to care for elders who refused to leave. A third reason was physical separation: displacement stressed even strong bonds. And a fourth explanation was that trauma made it difficult to maintain some relationships.
The second most prevalent factor – competing responsibilities – is especially interesting. Couples told me they had to balance the competing demands placed on them by their political convictions with responsibility for aging parents and children, along with the bonds they shared with each other. A concrete example is Luidmila, who sent her children to live with their grandparents so she could run a shelter that she and her husband had established on the front lines. Her husband was a pastor who ministered to the displaced, and they formed a close team. Other couples found it more difficult to find a common pathway through the conflict.
Under conditions of war, people face difficult choices about whom to care for. Philosophers and anthropologists who study how people navigate messy moral dilemmas in real life find they often base decisions based on their obligations to others, rather than general principles about what’s “right” and “wrong.” Ethical imperatives like “if X, then Y” are poorly suited for the decisions civilians face in a war zone.
This theory of relational or care ethics suggests that obligations derive less from rules than from relationships, making them hard to codify. The bottom line, according to these thinkers, is that deliberation is based not so much on abstract principle as on empathy, and that relationships have value that is often neglected in moral philosophy and international relations.
How does this insight help us understand civilians’ lives during the war in Ukraine? My research documents how people found themselves entangled in a conflict that had no sidelines.
I learned of people who made herculean efforts to deliver food and first aid supplies to the front, often using their own personal funds. Of course, this was defensive and nationally motivated, but it is also interpersonal.
Take Oleksandra, whose father volunteered to fight in 2015. The Ukrainian military had issued him rigid leather boots that were too big. Oleksandra worked hard to purchase lighter ones in his size. Then she secured him a bulletproof vest, camouflage, a knife and special night-vision goggles. When we spoke, she was trying to find tactical gloves to prevent the gun from slipping in his sweaty hands and causing self-inflicted injuries. Her daily life was organized around supplying her father.
Oleksandra told me that she was not as concerned about her own displacement or even the conflict’s outcome as about her father’s survival. These decisions are at the basis of “care ethics.” Prioritizing her father’s welfare and that of her nation over her own meant dropping her studies at university and her job search and accepting that, as a sniper, he might be killing former neighbors and friends.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the stakes have only risen. What this looked like for civilians was making homemade Molotov cocktails, assembling roadblocks called “hedgehogs;” and destroying road signs to disorient Russian forces.
All of this is more than nationalism: It points to a recalibration of values and priorities at an everyday level. One example is the Black Tulip or Cargo 200 groups, who retrieved dead bodies from behind enemy lines while the Ukrainian government was unable to do so. As I elaborate in my forthcoming book, “Everyday War,” they were willing to go into rebel-held territory for days at a time to restore the dignity of the dead, despite the costs for their psyches and their families.
Retrieval teams did their work partly out of patriotism. But they also felt an obligation to the noncombatants in Russian-occupied territories. Several years ago, when one humanitarian volunteer I interviewed discovered that authorities in occupied territories in the east weren’t allowing imports of medicines like insulin, he had a thought: What, besides insulin, needs to be kept cool? Dead bodies! He rushed out to buy clean body bags so he could smuggle insulin in vans that were going in empty to bring bodies out.
My main point is not that people like this were altruistic or even nationalistic, but that they balanced their caring for people they had never met with care for themselves and loved ones. Relationships reveal how priorities overlapped, intersected and were continually being reassessed.
Ukrainians who had been forcibly displaced were deeply concerned about their relationships, but they also reported unprecedented levels of care from people they did not know. Paradoxically, places where the military conflict penetrated residential spaces were also places where caring thrived.
Еvgеnіy Malоlеtkа and Dаvіd Gоldmаn