“You say speceba without an accent at all!”
The last time I was in Eastern Europe was over 3 years ago when I filmed in Romania and Moldova, it was then I learned the difference in language not between borders necessarily but also depending on the age of a person. In the former occupied Soviet Union, older generations were more likely to still speak Russian. Such was the case in Ukraine. I found myself proud of being able to pronounce a word in a foreign language perfectly, but at the same time conflicted that the word was spoken in a language of a country that was bombing the Eastern border of the country I was in on a daily basis.
Sorry for the roads.
As we drove the nearly 4 hours from Kharkov to the front line, apologies were made for the poor conditions of the road. That was when I learned when the conflict here began 4 years ago, it wasn’t just one of air strikes or gun fire but in old fashioned soviet standard tanks rolled in to hold the line. The pavement in the roads was never made to hold the weight of tanks, and thus left behind reminders in every pot hole of their presence.
I was in Eastern Ukraine to capture some footage and interviews for a film on behalf of UNFPA, the United Nations Populations Fund, of their humanitarian response. The film is to cover the responses all over the world, five regions in total covering five programs. I have already filmed in four of those regions and Eastern Europe was the last region I had yet to cover. With the help of the UNFPA Ukraine Office, I filmed for three days along the front lines of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine is the ninth largest country in the world in terms of the number of Internally Displaced Persons with 1.5 million IDPs.
Our first stop was with some members of a mobile team who work with survivors of gender based violence, appropriate in some newly created homes out of what in any other country would appear to be mobile homes. The shipping container style shelters shared communal kitchens and bathrooms, and were proudly decorated. After leaving behind everything they knew to seek safety it is no wonder why pride beamed from these handmade trinkets.
A blessing for a new home - a doll made of straw by a survivor.
Next we went to the first shelter that was created in Ukraine for survivors of gender based violence. In the first room I was greeted by a young mother an her toddler who had only arrived a few days before. Both she and her son reminded me of a young mom I would find at home in East London, and yet despite their fair complexions like in fairly tales I knew the reason they were in this room was a story that did not end in happily ever after, and not an uncommon one in Ukraine.
My three day trip seemed like a week or even a lifetime, and through conversations with doctors and survivors I struggled to understand - why in a middle income country were so many women subject to gender based violence? The survivors here are not of civil war or ethnic cleansing like I had witnessed in Bangladesh and South Sudan. So why is Eastern Ukraine different? Afterall, its not the Russians who are crossing into Ukraine and committing these acts of sexual violence. So why?
Violence is contagious.
After hearing different professionals speak on the matter, the conclusion I came to is quite simply - violence creates violence. It is the unfortunate common thread between the other humanitarian crisis I’ve witnessed in regards to gender based violence. The violence from the conflict with Russia has created violence within Ukraine and more specifically within the homes of Ukraine. The last survivor I interviewed in the shelters shared the same name as me, and maybe it was through our shared name that I was finally able to understand the importance of finding peace within a country in order to find it within homes.
An unmarked sanctuary of peace.
My last morning in Ukraine I awoke early to go and visit a breathtaking monastery in the mountains that had by some miracle been spared of any evidence of the conflict. It was stunning. But while I basked in the beauty of this sanctuary at sunrise, I was really thinking of all the sanctuaries I had visited before that were unmarked. These shelters for the survivors of gender based violence are simple places of shared rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms. They help women rebuild their lives through livelihood, psychosocial and legal support. And unlike the monastery, they are hidden to provide anonymity to survivors who seek shelter. Filming inside those rooms I could be anywhere due to their discreet locations and lack of markings, but the one place I always was while inside was at peace.
Lauren Anders Brown is a self-shooting documentary filmmaker working with the United Nations Population Fund, a supporter of #16DaysOfActivisim of violence against women. Follow Lauren on twitter and instagram @LABCollaborate.