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Thoughts from Ukrainian Civil Society: Anzhelika Zozulia on adapting to the new reality and claiming space for reflection

18 May 2022

As the war in Ukraine rages on, here at the NHC we are continuing to stay in close contact with our partners, colleagues, and friends, identifying ways in which we can best support them.

This war is not only a humanitarian disaster. It is also a direct attack on our shared fundamental values. The war in Ukraine has shown that freedom and democracy can never be taken for granted. And yet, in these dark days, it helps to know that we are not alone. Together with our networks, alliances and partnerships we can amplify the voices of those fighting to build and secure justice, uphold human rights, and preserve democracy, and this is exactly what we will continue to do with all the energy and resources that we have.

Within this context, we are conducting a series of interviews with partners and members of Ukrainian civil society, to better amplify their voices and the messages that need to be echoed across Europe. This time, we sat down with  Anzhelika Zozulia, a CSR specialist and chairperson of Plato, a Lviv-based  environmental organization.

For other conversations with Ukrainian human rights defenders: Thoughts from Ukrainian Civil Society: Illia Yeremenko on the nuclear threat and cutting Putin’s war efforts at the source 

Q: Can you describe the current situation in Lviv?

I find this question hard to answer because the situation is constantly changing, but at the very least I would say it is alarming. There are air raids quite often.

Many people have come here, they need help, and behind every person is a real story and a big lump of pain that they are carrying.

We try to help any way that we can, but then again, there are many times where we feel helpless in the all-consuming nature of the situation. If we are talking about physical safety, then Lviv for now remains relatively calm. There are air raids, we hide in the shelters but we try to remind ourselves that there is no reason yet to be shaken by this, as there are no military actions, no provocations in Lviv itself (unlike in the wider Lviv region).

Q: What did your working situation look like leading up to the war?

We mainly work(ed) on climate questions on the local level: in Lviv, its region and other areas in Ukraine. We usually handle problems related to climate change adaptation in cities. At only 3 years old, we are quite a young organization, but we very much understand the urgency of climate change. We are working on gaining momentum for the movement, but do still struggle with conveying this sense of urgency to a broader audience. Yet I am convinced that if you pay attention to climate change related questions and problems, you notice that they are tied with the changes and investments needed to improve the lives of the Ukrainian cities in the future. Of course, everything is on the back burner for now…

Q: What does your working situation look like now? What issues are you focusing on?

Since the war started, we have been feeling absolutely lost and helpless. Questions of climate don’t seem appropriate at the moment. There are many other problems more urgent right now. Still, we believe that eventually we can go back to our core mission and projects.

The war will stop and we will start the process of rebuilding the country. We hope that the reconstruction process will happen in a new way.

We hope that the aid we have received will be invested following climate-oriented decisions – making our region and country more adapted to the consequences of climate change. We need to wait for the end of the military activities and for a moment when there is more space for questions of rebuilding. And right now, we are trying to find our own niche in this situation and discover how we can be useful as an organization. For the two first weeks of the war, we jumped right into action with logistics of humanitarian aid – but that was a way for us to distract ourselves from the news, to feel efficient and helpful somehow. We are now focusing on helping to coordinate refugees, for those internally displaced persons who have ended up in difficult situations here in Western Ukraine.

We’ve had an idea to establish a public space, an urban garden. We actually started working on this project last year and  have a small plot located in one of the parks in the city, as a pilot. We aim to open the urban garden as soon as possible to provide a space for friendly neighborhood encounters: for people to get acquainted with one another, take part in activities, share knowledge, and also attract socially excluded persons. We think this would be a good place to host garden-therapy, events with psychologists, and educational events for parents and children to distract them from the situation we are facing today. Some of these displaced persons are living in schools, gyms, churches, libraries; places that do not provide any privacy.

We would really like our urban garden to provide some calm for the people who need this, and enable the refugees and inhabitants of Lviv to just come, relax, to read a book and turn off for a moment from the events, to talk to somebody on how to be after all of this.

We are trying to find support in terms of evolving this idea and we are thinking about the organizational development in the long run. We have this uncertainty but I believe we will adapt and continue.

A group of internally displaced people, currently in Lviv because of the ongoing hostilities, working in Plato's community garden

Q: What keeps you motivated?

We try to do everything we can here but the international support is also very important for us. From the early days, we have tried to mobilize all possible resources, to write to everyone we can, and share the information on what is happening. We understand that unlike in Russia or Belarus, the politicians in Europe and the US are very sensitive to their electorates and you can influence them by spreading the truth on what is happening to us. We are already feeling the support from countries close to us, which are accepting our people.

Q: What was your motivation to stay in Ukraine?

I personally did not think about leaving Ukraine for a few reasons. I only returned to Ukraine shortly before founding Plato, having spent a few years in Poland. The three months prior to the start of the military action were difficult and heavy, all the time there was news on the possible attacks. And at the same time, I felt a lot of happiness having the chance to work with a cause that I believe in for the past 3 years.

I am quite sure that I will not leave the country. You can be effective here and now, and although it is hard psychologically, there is a need to mobilize our resources internally and think of the most efficient ways to be useful and help in the current situation.

I have a mother who works at the military hospital; she is a contracted military nurse and I understand that she will be here until the very last moment. I believe in Ukraine and I believe that maybe this war is our debt for not reforming in full and for the lost opportunities that we didn’t have the chance to use. At the same time, the war is a next huge opportunity to test our resilience refocus and use this situation as our advantage. We are obligated to put up with it, to win and to build the future that we are dreaming.

Our whole team is based in Lviv. We have five to seven people depending on the size of the project, some work part-time, and some full time. We are all here and doing different volunteering projects and think how to gather ourselves and what we can offer in this situation. We also strongly feel we are not allowed to give up, because we are not being bombed yet and we do not have a humanitarian catastrophe like in Chernihiv or Kharkiv.

Q: Your expertise/ that of your organization is environmental activism, sustainability issues. As an expert in the field, could you give us your take on the situation in Ukraine surrounding the environmental damage? What is your biggest concern? Furthermore, what should people know about the current environmental situation with regard to the war and Russia’s actions?

The nuclear threat in Ukraine is now viewed through the lens of the citizen’s safety, and that of Ukraine’s neighboring countries, and in some cases it only makes the humanitarian crisis worse. For instance, when citizens out of fear of radiation poisoning buy up medication meant for thyroid patients, who then don’t have access to necessary drugs. There is a lot of panic around. We too are worried about Chernobyl and our organization is a member of the Ukrainian climate network with a community of more than thirty civil society organizations. Other organizations in the community work with problems related to residential energy, general energy and on how the military actions are influencing the work of energy systems and the threats this poses to us. We signed a positioning statement and try to bring forth a common opinion on the fact that environment is really an important problem and vital part of this war and international partners ought to pay attention to this situation.

In our case, we have created basic infrastructure for garden beds, and conducted communal workshops about green furniture and how to use the rainwater more efficiently. At the same time, we understand that nobody can guarantee that in a month Lviv will not be in the same conditions that Mariupol is at the moment, and that demoralizes the team. You want to plan with an eye to the future, but you also realize that short term aid is more urgent right now. Last week our team sent more than two hundred humanitarian aid trucks to Kharkiv, and we felt happy for a moment, but on the other hand: we had to make use of polluting trucks, gas,… As Plato, we don’t work with businesses that pollute and now we are doing this because we feel obligated to help;  we are not doing this in the name of the organization but as private people. We did not feel comfortable in this place, we want to find a compromise that is also important for the people that need help but also won’t weigh us down from the point of view of a conflict between the values and interests.

Q: What is the possible ecological impact of the war in your opinion?

We heard that Russia plans to conduct a total deforestation in Ukraine. How this affects future climate change and how it threatens climate zones, changes to water balances in our territories and other aspects – is still unclear. This information is relatively new and it needs to be verified first.

Overall, a lot of information manipulation is happening now. Russian propaganda has been spreading for a long time of course. Right now, there is also a need for a certain kind of positivity and propaganda in Ukraine as well.  Because we need to support the fighting spirit, we need to mobilize the population. Very often, when we don’t have enough positive news, this propaganda fills the space left behind. It is toxic, and we as a society should have a specific level of immunity to understand when we are being manipulated and when the threat is real. In regards to the nuclear problem, we understand that the ordinary Ukrainians, organizations will not be able to influence the situation on a global scale. We are relying on our colleagues in Ukrainian environmental network and fully support those directions of work that they will implement.

Q: Concretely – How can people help from outside of Ukraine?

We are receiving a lot of help at the moment, including diplomatic, humanitarian, help for refugees, animals, etc. It is difficult to point out a specific sector that is lacking aid. But there is a lot of responsibility on us as Ukrainians, to survive these circumstances and become stronger. This is why it would be good for potential donors and partners to be willing to support civil society in Ukraine, considering all possible risks and lack of safety we are facing.

I think help for civil society is crucial at this stage, so organisations and individuals that are by nature efficient, flexible, open to change, can adapt their operation to best support the current situation.

Q: Anything you would like to share with people outside Ukraine?

I hope that the majority would reevaluate their attitude to this conflict and stops taking it lightly. At any given time, the war zone can go beyond the borders of Ukraine and the democratic values will be under threat in the whole of Europe. This is why we, as a society, are supporting our fight as much as possible, whether physically, materially, or with information. I would like that many people come to view Ukraine as not a post-soviet country, but as a country that has a will power to fight, as a country that will stand until the very end to win.