The small town of Novohrodivka, 15 km from the warfront (ATO) had been experiencing conflict between the local Russian-speaking residents of the town and the Ukrainian army stationed there.
We were invited to support dialogue between these two groups. Anton, a colleague who was a participant in the dialogue facilitation training arranged by Foundations for Freedom, had made connections both with the leaders from a local town and with the commander of the army brigade. He met with each of them separately and they each agreed that they would like support to have a dialogue to try to reframe their relationship.
We had been trying to set up this dialogue for a number of days without it moving forward, when all of a sudden everything fell into place one Thursday afternoon. By 6AM Friday morning another colleague had come overnight from Lviv, and we were on a train heading south from Kyiv. We arrived at our end station at 1 PM and were picked up by Anton in a taxi and drove the remaining two hours to Novohrodivka.
We arrived in town at about 3:15 PM and by 4 PM we were sitting down for a pre-circle with 12 leaders from the town. They included two members of the city Council, a coalminer, the head of the local high school, the head of the town Apartments Association, and accountant from the local school board, and a few other influential residents.
For the first hour of the pre-circle town residents expressed a lot of pain around various experiences with the Ukrainian army and other military personnel of unknown origins. For example they expressed tremendous fear and anxiety seeing 12 tanks roll through their town one morning at 6 AM. Or the apprehension and terror of having masked and camouflaged,heavily armed gunmen in their town and near their children.
During the second hour they expressed their experiences with Maidan and the war that followed. Most of the participants reported that initially they supported the revolution and were behind what it stood for. But then, from their experience, things began to shift in the way that they no longer felt comfortable with and it no longer seem to represent their needs and values. They became increasingly concerned that the direction the government in Kyiv was taking would no longer support their needs. From their perspective things had taken a radical shift to the right and they no longer had a sense of belonging or safety for their language and way of life. They also expressed sadness and concerned that no one from Kyiv or those supporting the policies of the government came to talk with them to ask them what their concerns were and what they would like to see different in the way the government was proceeding. I found this particularly heartbreaking in light of all the death that has happened since that time.
It was amazing to watch what happened in the room over those two hours as the 12 community leaders express their concerns and pains and had them heard by the facilitation team. At the end of the session they stated that they felt a lot of relief and lightness, and you could see it in the smiles and laughter expressed in their faces. They said that all of this had been bottled up inside of them and that they hadn’t even told each other what was going on inside of them about the war and the army presence in their town. They expressed a desire to continue this kind of open dialogue in the future amongst themselves. And they also said that they were now very willing and felt prepared to meet with the army.
After a quick meal later that night we met with the commander of the local army brigade – they were Border guards and prior to the war were stationed on the Ukraine-Russia border. We expressed the purpose of the meeting, briefly what had happened in the dialogue with the community earlier, and the community leaders desire to meet with him and the soldiers. We began to explain to him what the direct dialogue might look like if he and the soldiers were willing to participate. Before explaining in any detail I took out the NVC needs cards and handed them to him. Without being asked or without any explanation he immediately began to shuffle through the cards setting some cards aside. When he had gone through all the needs cards he picked up those he had set aside and began to tell us why he had chosen each one. One of the cards he chose was ‘integrity’ and that one he explained in terms of integrity of his country and why he was there doing what he was doing, and also integrity within himself and his job around supporting his men and really caring for them and caring for and protecting the local community.
In the end he expressed his willingness to have some of his men participate. He said he personally would participate unless something came up during the night as his first commitment was to his men. We arranged a time to talk in the morning and left, exhausted but happy, for bed.
We were staying with Anton and his wife Marina in their three bedroom apartment. They are incredibly gracious and caring hosts and really did everything to ensure our comfort and care. The whole town had been without running water for nearly 4 months. Which meant that Anton and his wife, like all the residents, had to drag 5 gallon containers down to the local water source and carry the water back up the five stories to their apartment. There had been no running water in the town whatsoever until a few weeks ago when the army drilled a couple of open wells from which pumps were hung in mid-air above the wells. Water gushed continuously onto the street from a hose connected to the pump and residents would come there to fill up their buckets and cans.
The next morning at the appointed time we called the Army Commander only to find out that two of his men had been shot overnight and one had died. He therefore stated that he personally could not make the dialogue because he needed to care for the wounded soldier and notify the family of the soldier who died. But to my surprise and joy he agreed to send some other soldiers to participate in the dialogue.
In the early afternoon four camouflaged, heavily armed soldiers arrived at the community center in town. They said they had about 30-35 minutes in which to do the dialogue. As the soldiers had not been a part of the original meeting with the commander we took them aside and spent 15 to 20 minutes doing a pre-circle with them, listening to their needs regarding being in this town. They expressed their experiences of being there in the town, of being far away from family yet willing to be here to help protect those who live here. So for them it was very difficult when they were treated with disrespect, when bad things were said about them and to them, and even when some people spat on the ground when they came by. They really wanted respect and the really wanted acknowledgement for what they were giving and what it meant for them to be there. At the end of the pre-circle they agreed to the dialogue but again stated that they had only 15 or 20 more minutes before they would need to go.
As they arose I remembered one other thing I wanted to ask them. I said, “oh there’s one other thing I wanted to ask.” When that was translated one of the soldiers immediately replied “oh you don’t want us to bring in our guns into the meeting”. I laughed and said “yeah that would be a good thing if you don’t mind”. So they arranged for one of the soldiers to take care of the guns during the dialogue.
The soldiers then joined nine of the other community leaders who were waiting for them. We all sat in a circle. There were awkward but pleasant greetings among everyone.
After reviewing what was going to happen in the circle I invited everyone to choose one NVC needs card and answer the following question: “What need are you hoping to meet by participating in this dialogue today?” Participants arose and began walking around the needs cards placed in the center of the circle on the floor. One particularly moving experience was when a community leader and a soldier sitting across from each other were looking at the cards and both reached for the same card at the same time. The community leader took the card and then realized that the soldier also wanted that card and offered it to him. A brief dialogue ensued between the two where they finally decided to share the card by putting it on the floor in the middle distance between both of them – the need on the card was ‘Peace’.
The dialogue was open and free despite being tense at times. The soldiers initially struggled to reflect back what they heard but as the dialogue went on they became more and more at ease with this, and more effective in doing it. The community members seem to really value being heard by the soldiers. And the soldiers themselves really enjoyed being heard by the community members, especially one of the soldiers when he expressed his pain around his needs for respect and acknowledgement.
Due to the limited time I thought the soldiers had, the dialogue focused on just one question, “What would you like the others to know about how you are right now as you think about the relationship between the army and the community?” Each person was encouraged to choose one, two, or three needs that represented the answer to that question. Once everyone had chosen their needs from the floor, then each in turn, began to speak about why they had chosen those needs and what way they were important in terms of this relationship. At regular intervals one of the participants who was listening was asked to say back the meaning of what they heard that speaker say.
Once everyone was heard regarding that question I invited a group to begin to brainstorm some actions that they could take that would help them to continue building on the relationship that they had begun this day. They came up with three actions: 1) The leader of the Apartment Association would, in the next week, set up a meeting with various residents from around the town so that they could meet with the soldiers and continue the same kind of dialogue that had been done today. 2) each person in the room, the soldiers included, stated that they were willing to go back and tell at least two people from their respective groups or communities what happened in the meeting today and what were the results. 3) to community members were to brainstorm some ideas of sports or other physical activities that the towns people and the soldiers could do together. They would then present these ideas to the soldiers who would take them back to their community and choose one of those activities to try with the townsfolk.
In the end the soldiers stayed until everyone had a chance to speak about their needs; and even stayed for a few photos with the group after. In total they spent about two hours with us, which to me indicated the value they got from this intense experience.
In the end everyone expressed a lot of satisfaction, relief, happiness, and amazement at what they had all accomplished. The conversation amongst the group including the soldiers was very alive and animated. All left the experience with much more hope about the future and a sense of responsibility and empowerment to change the relationship for the better.
As I remember this experience now I feel very touched, proud, and honored to have had the privilege to be part of these human beings lives in this way. It was truly unforgettable!