After just three months of dating, Elena Dunaeva and her partner Roman were separated by the war in Ukraine. Photo: Belinda Jiao
Olena Dunaeva and her partner Roman first met at the end of 2021. Despite increasingly alarming news reports detailing thousands of Russian tanks massing on the Ukrainian border, they still fell in love. Their first meeting was unique. Elena wanted to learn how to parachute jump from an airplane on her own, and instructor Roman answered her questions. After preparing for the event, he flew with Elena on the plane to calm her nerves and make sure she was performing all the right maneuvers to successfully complete the jump. “I always tell Roman that even then I could trust him with my life,” she says.
Their dates were related to studying the nature of the Kherson region in southern Ukraine; long walks through the forest, walks along the river and adventures that took them to a nearby abandoned lookout tower for the best view of the forest. Nights were spent playing video games; nights spent in local restaurants. Living just 15 minutes away from each other meant they could spend time as spontaneously as they wanted.
But in the early hours of February 24, 2022, Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine, and after just three months of dating, Elena and Roman's new life together came to an abrupt halt. Elena, a 31-year-old designer from Kherson, was forced to leave her homeland and, along with more than 170,000 compatriots, seek refuge in the UK as part of the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (also known as Homes for Ukraine). The novel, bound by Ukraine's martial law, according to which men between the ages of 18 and 60 who are declared fit to fight cannot leave the country, remained to fight.
“I feel like this war has stolen our relationship,” says Elena. “He stole the opportunity to have and create memories together, as well as the opportunity to watch our relationship develop, which usually happens when couples are together.”
Unfortunately, Elena and Roman’s story is not unique. Across Ukraine, couples, new and old, are being torn apart as men are turned into soldiers overnight and sent off to fight in Putin's war.
Elena wearing a shirt that she designed herself, with three Ukrainian words that translate as ' Love is worth everything.” Photo: Belinda Jiao
Maria Stetsyuk, a clinical psychologist who created a support group for women like Elena, knows this situation all too well.
When Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, Stetsyuk could only watch as his close friend was sent to fight in the Donbass. She understands the fear and anxiety experienced by women not on the front line, and when a close friend called her after the invasion, worried about her husband, who had gone to war, she created the Girls Who Wait (GWW) community. for more than 1,000 women who come together once a week to discuss their feelings of fear, helplessness and loneliness.
“After this call, I realized how many women abroad and in Ukraine need such support, because they were left alone with their worries and concerns,” she says. “There is often no one around these women who is waiting for loved ones from the war. They find themselves in social isolation, where they cannot share their experiences and worries. Communication with other women who have the same experience helps them survive the most critical moments of waiting.”
Maria Stetsyuk set up “Girls who are waiting” (GWW)
Sessions are held both online and in person, led by a moderator who allows the conversation to last two hours. This is not just talking through emotions. In addition to the weekly meetings, Stetsyuk posts twice-daily messages of support on the GWW Telegram channel, and the women also share practical advice that only those in their new community can understand. They talk about what to do if you haven't heard from your husband for a long time, or how to cope when you've recently become a single parent.
Stetsyuk says there is no “universal advice” she gives to women in similar circumstances. Instead, she reminds them that they need to take care of themselves and openly ask for support from others during this time. But the most important thing is to instruct women to make “to-do lists.” She advises them to “keep yourself busy as much as possible while you wait for a message.”
Before Elena joined the group, she was hurt by people who couldn't understand her situation and asked “inappropriate questions” about her relationship with Roman, which left her feeling “vulnerable and isolated.”
Today he is somewhere in the Donbass as part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but Elena does not disclose the details. She doesn't want to reveal anything that could jeopardize the safety of Roman and the other fighters.
Elena wears a necklace dedicated to her from a paper clip to Roman, which she says forms a heart at an angle. Photo: Belinda Jiao
She hears from him semi-regularly, but then there are weeks without contact and all she can do is wait in her east London flat, some 2,000 miles from the trench in which he sleeps. This is a long distance relationship that she could never make happen. is foreseen, and it's something she struggles to navigate.
“We have no instructions on how to manage our long-distance relationships, let alone in wartime,” she says. “When I think about the future, I feel a lot of anxiety and despair. I would really like to know the answers in advance, to know how to react, to feel confident in the future, but at the moment this is not possible.” Roughly speaking, the outcome of their relationship depends on how long the war continues.
Nina Mamontova, 30, who moderates GWW group meetings (and is estranged from her husband Pavel, 31), describes the group as a “safe haven.”
Nina and her husband Pavel
“I can be a military wife where I can come in any emotional state and know that they understand me and will be there for me when I need it,” she explains.
The group has become part of her routine. “The first thing I check in the morning is messages from my husband, then from the girls,” she says. “Thanks to the girls and their support, it is much easier for me to experience all the emotions that I experience.”
Despite the pain of separation, Nina admits that life goes on. “I’m growing as I continue to live and work, and my husband does the same in the military,” she said.
Nina explains that as the war continued, she began to do more art, as well as study yoga and how it could “affect my body and mind.” She said she shared what she learned with the girls in the groups. Reading also helped, especially books on war and human psychology.
“These things help me not to focus on the news all the time, not to be constantly in fear, but to explore something new and thereby be distracted,” she says. “So we continue to plan for the future, even from a distance, to do everything possible at the moment to make our plans come true,” she adds. “And after he returns, we will do something else.”
Such a lifestyle, according to Stetsyuk, is the most important mechanism for overcoming difficulties. “Each woman experiences it differently,” she says. “Some people do better, some do worse. In my opinion, the most difficult thing to cope with the situation is for those who still cannot come to terms with the fact that this war will drag on for a long time. They are frozen in anticipation, they do not allow themselves to live in the conditions that we have now.”
One of Stetsyuk’s favorite quotes illustrating this idea comes from Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychotherapist who survived the Nazi concentration camp: “First those who believed that everything would end soon were torn. Then those who did not believe will someday end. Those who survived were those who focused on their affairs, not expecting what else might happen.”