The Russian war of aggression is burdening life in Ukraine on many levels. People like Natalia want to respond to this: under the umbrella of a "Community of Practice", they collaborate to help the population overcome their traumas. By doing this, they want to prepare society for the time after the war. We support this initiative.
As so many others, the horrors of war have affected Natalia Bezkhlibna: She fled the capital Kyiv last year to escape the threat of Russian missiles, drones, and bombs. The successful lawyer and mediator left behind parts of her family, many friends and a fulfilling professional life. She currently lives with her children in Estonia most of the time – and faces the challenge of coping with life in a foreign country. Furthermore, there is also the gnawing feeling that she owes something to her home country and the local people – a trauma that other people who have sought safety from the horrors of war also face.
But Natalia Bezkhlibna, together with other Ukrainians, has decided to confront her trauma with action: for several months now, she has been heading the general secretariat of the “Community of Practice of Mediators and Dialogue Facilitators” (CoP), a network of Ukrainian nongovernmental organizations and conflict transformation professionals. Their goal is to help Ukrainians deal with the wounds that war inflicts on their bodies and souls. "As a loose network, the community has existed since 2014, when Russia started the war by annexing Crimea and the Donbass," says Natalia. Members include, for example, veterans' associations, human rights organizations, church actors, refugee advocacy groups, and initiatives that have maintained dialogue across the conflict lines in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
The Ukrainian state is stretched to its limits by the war andneeds civil society support. This realization led to an awareness within the CoP that its own efforts must be increased. People with strong skills as networkers and managers like Natalia are essential in this. The lawyer looks back on a successful career in Kyiv with international companies. "However, I was always also interested in political conflicts, their causes, consequences and possible solutions, and I took conflict studies as a minor in university," she says. Alongside her job, Natalia then trained to become a mediator and networked systematically. Now, her mediation expertise is focused on the war context.
In the General Secretariat, whose establishment and operation is supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation, Natalia is assisted by several full-time and advisory staff. For example Tatiana Grinuova, who was born in the region around the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson and who lives in Kyiv since 2000, and who is responsible for the CoP's external communications.
It's now about shifting the focus to more sustainable forms of helping after the issue of sheer survival.
The CoP's focus since February 2022 has therefore been to support refugees and displaced persons psychologically within Ukraine and bringing them into dialogue with the resident population. "In this way, we aim to strengthen the resilience of local communities and prepare them for the task of rebuilding the country after the end of the war," explains Natalia. To this end, the CoP has so far built ten teams, always made up of mediators, psychologists and people with regional roots. "It was important for us to involve local actors and communities," says Natalia. “This is a basic prerequisite for gaining access to local people and also being able to proactively identify conflicts.”
"Now we are working to scale this approach across the country," Natalia says. She says the teams' successful work has shown that the concept works. "We want to expand this engagement now that the network has a better organizational set-up. It's now about shifting the focus to more sustainable forms of helping after the issue of sheer survival." To do this, the CoP want to gather the knowledge and experience of the existing teams and make it available to all members of the network. In addition, the organization is working on mediation services for traumatized soldiers and schoolchildren.
I want to help our country overcome all the atrocities of this war and become a place of social stability.
Natalia and her colleagues are highly motivated and work according to professional standards. They network digitally across Europe and often cooperate on a decentralized basis. But Natalia leaves no doubt that she would rather be back home. She wants to help make Ukraine a livable place again and preserve its young democratic polity –in order to make Ukraine a home for the future. "I want to help our country overcome all the atrocities of this war and become a place of social stability," she says. This process, she adds, must begin even before a possible cease-fire and peace negotiations. "Otherwise, it will be too late."
Regarding the post-war society in Ukraine, the CoP is also working on "transitional justice" , which essentially means coming to terms with the past. This involves using instruments such as truth commissions, reparation programs, amnesty laws and others to resolve conflicts in society. "This issue is extremely important for us," Natalia says. "Think, for example, of teachers in Russian-occupied territories who are now expected to teach a new curriculum. Is this a form of collaboration that must be accepted by necessity?" To be able to judge that, Ukraine needs rules and principles. But this process, she says, is mostly determined by lawyers, although it is about the whole society. "That's why we would like to be involved here, to also bring in the perspective of our network, that is, that of mediation and dialogue," Natalia says.
For Ukraine, this would mean a big step to find peace as a society after the end of the Russian war of aggression and overcoming the traumas of the recent past. But this is also true for Natalia Bezkhlibna. For she is one of many Ukrainians who want one thing above all: their old life back.