Conversation with Vasylyna Duman

When I meet new people, I typically introduce myself as a housewife. I do this partly as a form of rebellion against the unfair stigma that is often associated with this term. At the same time, my decision to stay at home was primarily due to family circumstances. Over a period of three years, someone close to me became seriously ill and we tried everything we could to save her. Unfortunately, we were not successful, and afterward, we focused on preserving her creative legacy. And just when I returned to Kyiv with my husband — literally two months! — the full-scale invasion started. I did not have time to get out of the status of a housewife to anything else, therefore:

I, Vasylyna Duman, am a housewife… Although a very lazy one since I do not have enough time for household chores. I eat what I find because, in our family, it has usually been my husband who loves cooking and prepares our meals. And since the Russians interfered in the lives of all Ukrainians, he is in territorial defense — and he cannot take care of me now. Whereas I joined volunteer work, and I am actively engaged in it.

In all versions of my life (before the various ups and downs), I was an SMM journalist, engaged in countless social activities, and ran on all cylinders from a young age. Now I am 35, and I am a logistician of a separate division of the Women Veteran Movement of the Lviv region that lives in Kyiv. It turned out to be very convenient: we managed to build a chain of cooperation across the entire country and Kyiv. While here, I am close to our central headquarters. It is also easier to get to hot spots along the front line.

Again, it’s all volunteer work. We do not work for salaries now — salaries are grants and international organizations. In our organization, members often have to live off their other jobs or at the expense of their savings or a financial cushion, as in my case. My husband provided me with this cushion.

How are you holding on? How do you deal with volunteer emotional burnout and war?

I bless evidence-based medicine and pharmacology every day. From the first days of the war, I had consultations with a neurologist, thanks to whom I managed to get through months 4-5. Now I am having additional sessions with a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist because they recommend I add antidepressants to psychotherapy so that I do not fall apart. I believe that we should be adults and not be a burden to those around us, and we should control our condition and treat ourselves in time. If we only stick to our willpower, sooner than later, we will crumble. Then we will become a burden to our loved ones. And instead of dealing with important things that we all have enough of, they will have to take care of us. Therefore, I try to care for myself using methods I trust and consider effective.

What do you think about parties and manicures? Are they appropriate today?

Here as well, I think we should follow the advice of professionals. I cannot give an exact citation on this, but I am sure attentive readers can google and learn about more evidence-based psychotherapy. I think it was Lyubov Rudenko who said that we all need to restore our resources to get serotonin and dopamine. We obtain them through doing something we love and physical activity. Therefore professionals recommend remembering what brought us joy back when we felt most comfortable and trying to do those things. 

It is all about self-care and being an adult — we cannot recharge off the air. We need to gain forces from somewhere, and for everyone, their own — some refill theirs from manicures, some from parties. In addition, many events nowadays also serve as fundraisers for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. We must recognize that the war is not only a challenge but also an opportunity, particularly for Ukrainian cultural advancement. We experience an incredible jump in Ukrainian music. It is worth it to support musicians by attending their concerts and to support comedians by coming to stand-up shows. The money collected at the shows will serve for destroying Russians, while our cultural sphere will enrich, providing this inheritance for us to live on. So, first of all, I do not consider it as anything negative. Moreover, I want to stress that what we see from the outside never really corresponds to the actual state of things. You may be sitting on a bench and watching someone chill at a bar across the street or even dance. Do you know anything about them? They could be a soldier on their day off, a volunteer, or someone in crisis, because, for example, their close ones have disappeared and there is no connection with them. They may need to drive across a bridge screaming or jump at a concert and shake their heads to the music until they hurt in the morning. As of now, I would not jump to any conclusions regarding personal appearance or behavior as they are not representative in any way, neither good nor bad.

By the way, tomorrow I am going to do my nails.

Describe an average day of a volunteer. Do you have any rituals?

I tend to have rituals, but they are mainly connected to my way of living, as they help me feel grounded and connected to reality. In the morning, I take my medicine, drink coffee, and exercise. In the evening, I exercise and fall asleep listening to something analytical, such as “Frontova Poplava” or something else you can learn from but also fall asleep without losing much.

About an average volunteering day: I think that many people who are involved in this tremendous volunteer movement that emerged in Ukraine must have noticed experiencing memory issues, such as not remembering in the evening what they have done during the day. It is mainly short-term memory and probably due to all the multitasking: we simultaneously communicate on a wide range of topics and manage various projects. This work is, at the same time, intellectual, communicative, and physical. But it can be different from day to day. Sometimes consists only of logistics: you hold negotiations with a drone supplier, then with the main office, you control the signing process, communicate with the military, and search for technicians and drivers — most of that you can do from home. And there are days when you must run around the city, gather packages, bring them somewhere, drive to the frontline or elsewhere, etc. So, all in all, volunteering days are not alike if the volunteer is multifunctional and not focused on one task. It is never the Groundhog Day. But I must say that this memory issue — not remembering what you just did some hours ago — brings you down.

At some point, I even got scared when I could not remember what I was doing two hours ago or in the morning. I started writing down everything that I was doing just not to forget. Then I talked with my psychotherapist, and she explained why it was happening. If you struggle a lot with this, do try writing it down. I cannot always do it since often I am just too tired. But it helps to stop for a moment and feel that you are here and now — not in a sphere in the void.

Would you like to highlight some things you wish you hadn’t done or would have done differently? Give some advice to volunteers along these lines.

I cannot recommend anything to anyone since we all have different life experiences and we act accordingly. I can tell just for myself. The first thing we encountered in a small volunteering unit was that we doubted our competence. At the time, the major volunteer funds constantly emphasized that they see the complete picture while we only see some puzzle pieces — our help may not be necessary. We were considering just sending money to these larger organizations. But then, even big organizations like Razom for Ukraine started saying that even the most significant and effective funds were overloaded. We have a gigantic army, there are various tasks — the more volunteers, the better! And on practice, it turned out to be true. So we decided we must be as competent and professional as we can. It means that you cannot and must not have to be an expert in everything, but you can and must always find an expert in every area adjacent to your field of activity.

For example, if we were entrusted with $65,000 and had to decide where to spend it, we went to find out. We have learned that our artillerymen have some types of domestic equipment and complexes at their disposal, which means there is no need to purchase these complexes. But the boards themselves are being shot down, and there is a need for continuous renewal. After effectively analyzing the situation, we found out that the experienced crews working with furies have computers to work with them and require boards with day and night modules — and that was what we bought.

We search for experts for every task and check every request using multiple sources. I try to estimate my capabilities. I know that I cannot sustain a large amount of grief and that is why I do not work with civilians, only with the military. I would not be able to work with the civilians to an extent where I could be sure I am doing a great job.

When it is a first request from a unit, we look for volunteers that already worked with them, verify the soldiers, and whether it is a real request or a real need. It is also essential to keep all the documents in order and keep track of requests and acts of giving-receiving. We all know that, for some reason, the police started coming more frequently to give an unreasonably hard time to volunteers. It paralyzes the work of a whole center because volunteers need to go to courts, the police freeze their accounts, take away equipment that the frontline has long expected, etc. So it is essential to work cleanly and responsibly, keep track of everything and have papers in order. And the military has to understand this and provide all the necessary documents. It is also crucial to avoid developing a syndrome of acquired helplessness within the military and only help when they cannot solve an issue themselves.

For example, we have a large project with the 15th separate brigade of artillery reconnaissance. They wanted to create a dental care unit on wheels. We checked that having these mobile dental offices is a very profitable venture that will bring benefits for years. The whole brigade is very invested in the project. They found a decent specialized car that required minimal repairs. We found great specialists, so now we can create a dental unit on a turnkey basis. It is good practice to try to make it not a promise-fulfillment relationship, but a cooperation between equals.

And the same for people whose loved ones are fighting at war: I recommend not panicking right away and not bothering volunteers to find one helmet or a pair of pants. I do not know about other families, but my husband and I bought everything for him with our own money. The military supply service gave him a lot of things too. Some of the equipment he received immediately, some later. For some things, you may not know yet if you will need them, and you cannot know from the beginning what exactly you will need. It is better to get into the unit, understand the situation, get to know everyone, and then start cooperation with volunteers at the level of groups: platoons, companies, battalions, etc. It will be way more efficient and will allow you not to wait for other people to solve your problems. Involve your family and friends, who will become your best volunteers. The more volunteers there are in Ukraine, the better. 

Be demanding of yourself and forgiving with others — well, sometimes forgiving with yourself too. Be prepared for that even with your best efforts, you will still make mistakes sometimes, and that’s okay. Someone else may be wrong, and that’s okay too. It is necessary to treat this with understanding and think about what to do with it in the future, so a situation that spans out of control does not happen again. And you have to work persistently when something doesn’t work out. 

It is hard — if not impossible — to be a lone warrior. I want to emphasize a hundred times that I have my volunteer sisters — we distribute tasks horizontally, and this is how we implement projects: you never know at what moment who will work it out and to what extent. But you always know that you have a shoulder you can lean on when needed, a shoulder you can cry on, and you always have someone to consult with. Every person is a network of connections. Look for like-minded people, interesting and nice, and who have similar values to yours. Work with them, and everything will be great for you.

What do you want most (besides the [Ukraine’s] victory)? 

I entered a state of full-scale war at a time when I did not know what I was going to do with my life. Accordingly, I think I will simply return to this point when the war is over. I suspect that a lot of people will find themselves at this point — despite our meditations on what we will do after the victory. I suspect that the victory will not just become a day on the calendar after some time. I think that rather before that happens we will have some uncertain period when a part of the military will remain at the front, and for many of us, nothing will fundamentally change. And only then, after a few months or a year, the Verkhovna Rada will solemnly decide that one day will be a designated Victory Day. I don’t know how I will live after the war. I decided to eat the elephant in small pieces. For now, I can plan for a month. The planning horizon I would like to grow to is three months ahead. (But on the condition that we all survive and, in the end, the Russians leave us alone, and we have at least 100, preferably more, years of peace.) Specifically for me, I would like to stabilize, become a full-fledged adult, fulfill myself in my career, and return to normal life and the person I love. 

What motivates you to volunteer, and what will you do despite everything?

I thought about this question for a long time: I do it because I can. When the full-scale invasion started, the worst option was to sit and stare at the ceiling or sit in some bomb shelter and go crazy. Then you feel out of control and helpless. And I know how to volunteer, so I started doing what I do best and continue to do it because I can. This is probably my main motivation: when your country is at war, you do what you can and know well. I can volunteer and do it well, so I will continue for as long as I can.