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Donbas Syndrome

Donbas Syndrome
Article by: Yulia Kochetova
Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina

An unfocused gaze is one of the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. They also call it the ‘two-thousand-yard stare.’

Seventy thousand people read the story of Bohdan, who, as it turns out, invented it for the article. Yes, he was a volunteer in Aydar battalion, yes, he fought and was wounded, but he was never rejected by his parents and nobody killed his girlfriend.

… I have never seen anything like this before. 

These are new conditions of life, new conditions of work for us journalists. 

We have to admit that the terms Vietnam, Afghan and Chechen Syndrome are being replaced by a new and extremely close one – just a night by train between peaceful Kyiv and the shelling – Donbas syndrome. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is a grave psychological condition. While wounds may heal and scars will seal the skin some day, a psychological disorder may manifest years after the trauma.

A year ago, when seeing a camouflaged person in the metro, I was sincerely happy: to me, it was a symbol of the barricades, real, and not ‘stay-at-home’ Maidan. Now I curl in on myself when I see khaki, and look at the chevrons, hands and eyes mechanically. Frequently, the fighters in the carriage just stare into the distance, barely smiling at being clapped on the shoulder and the passengers’ words: “Thank you, our boys, God help you.”

“We observe someone with glassy eyes; if you have been at the hospital, you know what it is. A person with glassy eyes looks at you, they are able to talk, say something…” Yekaterina Pronoza, coordinator for work with the wounded from the Psychological Crisis Service, describes PTSD to me.

The Psychological Crisis Service, the successor of Maidan Psychological Service, is a team of about 500 people, which only had several specialists a year ago during the revolution.

By assigning a volunteer to each fighter, the volunteer psychologists are trying to help, by coming to the hospital and listening to the wounded. The fighters do not ask for psychological help themselves – “we don’t need help” – and state institutions are sending all of their efforts to the front only.

Psychologist Yekaterina describes the symptoms, and I recognize them in the hero of my story, as well as myself after the night of the dispersal, the first explosions on Hrushevskoho, after the evacuation of the Trade Union House on February 18.

One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is intrusion, repeated imposing spontaneous memories, meanwhile the person is in the ‘here and now.’

According to the psychologists from the service, the intrusions may be a complete invention, a half-truth or real facts – and is sometimes very difficult to tell them apart.

“If we are talking about flashbacks, they are short memory flashes. For example, children came to visit the fighters with balloons, and one of the children’s balloons burst – a fighter immediately hid under the bed. This balloon was a trigger that activated the memories. Or an American movie about a soldier who sees fireworks – the camera pans out and the soldier hides, as he thinks it is not fireworks but bombs. Those are flashbacks.

Intrusive memories: for example, we argued with my boss last night, and in the morning we are going to work and still playing over the argument internally. Intrusions are similar, just more powerful. 

We have to talk about powerful stressogenic factors. A fighter’s memories a hundred times worse, a hundred times more powerful, they do not leave him alone, they arise spontaneously and are out of his control. The adaptation mechanism of these fighters was disrupted.

This is the difference between stress and trauma: stress is an adaptation mechanism, it allows us to mobilize our efforts to overcome obstacles in life; trauma, on the other hand, is a glitch in this adaptation mechanism, when all efforts are directed to digest the trauma. And this really does necessitate psychological assistance.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by hyperactivity, which may give rise to sleep and appetite disorders. Another symptom is avoiding conversation, any kind of facts which tie the fighter to the traumatic event.

“We can consider post-traumatic stress disorder no earlier than 30 days after the trauma. In the first days after a traumatic event, these signs will be characteristic of 90% of the population. It is a normal human reaction to an abnormal situation,” the psychologist emphasizes.

Such a syndrome is more common in people with earlier traumatic experience that went untreated. If you don’t treat pneumonia, a small scar in the lungs can lead to the tiniest inflammation causing a relapse. The same happens in psychology.

Another factor is age. Children and immature people are most likely to suffer from PTSD. There is an entire generation of 20-year-olds in the trenches in Donbas, training fields, in hospitals and clinics. This war has a very youthful face. But elderly people, over 40 years old, also suffer from PTSD, as their immune system becomes weaker, which is directly correlated to nervous system disorders.

… I am familiar with this syndrome – this is now our universal diagnosis.

To my colleagues, for those who come to talk and lend support, specialists at the Psychological Crisis Service recommend: 

“First, regard the wounded as equals. Do not say, ‘Poor you, how will you go on living now.’ You came, accordingly, as specialists in your own field, you speak to them as military specialists. 

It is the same thing if you were to come to film a report, a camera glitches, someone’s microphone breaks, someone coughs – everyone gathers around and goes: ‘My God, what will you do now!’

Second, do not ask for details, do not question their feelings. The fighter will tell you everything he deems necessary. He needs time. A woman cannot carry a child to term within three months – she needs nine. The same way, trauma cannot be digested within two hours – the process involves all the functions of our organism. 

The fighter needs an opportunity to speak, you should not comment or give opinions. Besides, you should understand that responding to questions may be hindered by pain and the hospital environment.”


The hero of my story and I are practically the same age. I came to visit him in the hospital as a volunteer and not a journalist. And, most likely, it was compassion and not professionalism and critical thinking, that typed up the text on the keyboard.

Now I know what post-traumatic stress disorder looks like. Up close.

In the end of August, in Lysychansk of Luhansk oblast, where at that moment electricity had only been restores a couple of weeks ago, a local taxi driver told me: “The worst thing is that the best go to fight and die – the very elite of the nation.” 

The best now look through me with their two-thousand-yard stare.

Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
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