A Tale of Two Olhas: Reframing Ukrainian women’s experiences of war

By
Amandas Ong
PhD Anthropology


Olha K.1 was not happy. For weeks, she had been waiting to apply for a national identification number that would grant Ukrainians like herself full access to healthcare and the employment market in Poland. Now, her patience was running thin. When she heard that Olha T. – her former neighbour and professional rival back home – had already received her identity card, she finally snapped. Venting her frustrations on Malina, the Polish woman who had agreed to host her family, she said she believed that her right to work was deliberately being obstructed. “I refuse to pay the fee for the confirmation certificate,” she told Malina angrily.

It was late March, and I was in the tiny Polish village of Krępsko to report on the Ukrainian refugee crisis that had taken place as a consequence of the Russian invasion at the end of February. My job as a journalist had taken me first to the capital city of Warsaw, often the first stop for millions of fleeing Ukrainians, the vast majority of whom are women and children. In Warsaw, refugee reception was immensely well-organised. As I went about my interviews, I would see scores of volunteers waiting at train stations with placards, ready to direct arriving Ukrainians – often exhausted and discombobulated after days of travel – to where they needed to go, whether it was a hotel room for the week, or to collect necessities from makeshift donation centres around the city. Free food and travel were available to these newcomers, so long as they were able to show their passports at restaurants or on public transport (The Guardian 2022). Every bus stop advertised either rousing messages of support or guidance on identity number registration for new Ukrainian residents, who now account for 17% of the city’s entire population (Notes from Poland 2022).

But I was also curious about what life was like for refugees who had relocated to the rural areas of Poland, given that they were often entirely omitted from mainstream news coverage. I wanted to know how migration into smaller Polish villages and towns might thwart existing narratives depicting rural regions as hinterlands blighted by poverty and social exclusion (Brown and Shucksmith 2016: 4), alternatively demonstrating that the “flows of people, money, ideas and information” coming into rural communities could make social life in the latter just as complex and layered as in urban centres (ibid: 6). One of my contacts told me that several Ukrainian families seeking sanctuary in the countryside close to the German border were willing to talk to me, and I decided to make the train journey there from Warsaw. I was in a house speaking to several Ukrainian women, including Olha T., when I heard about Olha K.’s outburst from my fixer Maja. Malina, a close friend of Maja’s, said in tears over the phone that she was shocked by Olha K.’s hostility. She agreed to leave the house, and Maja assured her that she would attempt to soothe Olha K’s frayed temper.

Smaller towns in Poland are starting to host more Ukrainian refugees, as major cities are increasingly overwhelmed. Photo by Jakub Pabis on Unsplash.

As we made the short five-minute drive to the house where Olha K. was staying, Maja filled me in on the history between the two Olhas. Both women were originally from the town of Zhovti Vody (which translates to “yellow waters”) in central Ukraine, which had a population of around 43,000 before the war began, and was a major site for uranium mining. At 47, Olha K. was 11 years older than Olha T., and had taught the latter hairdressing at the salon she ran from home. This was not an arrangement that surprised me. The six women I met on my reporting trip who worked as manicurists or hairdressers all told me that they operated their businesses from their apartments. The service industries in Ukraine were underdeveloped until the 1990s owing to the state system and lack of demand from an economically deprived population, and 69% of hairdressing services continue to be performed within the informal sector today (Polese and Morris 2015: 35). In fact, more than a fifth of women in Ukraine now work in the informal economy, with that percentage sharply increasing among the rural population (International Labour Organisation 2018: 40). 

Once Olha T. was satisfied with her own hairdressing skills, she stopped working for Olha K. and began running a salon from her home. “That’s where the trouble started, I think,” Maja said. Jovial and open, Olha T. ended up attracting more neighbours to her modest home salon, and some of Olha K.’s most loyal customers went to her instead. The women remained civil with each other, but Olha K. grew resentful of her former apprentice. Somewhat incredibly and without coordination, they found themselves in the same Polish village when they left Ukraine, with Olha K. arriving a week before Olha T. The fact that Olha T. had been issued her Polish identification number first was just the latest in a number of perceived indignities that Olha K. felt had been purposely inflicted upon her by the younger woman. 

Already, Olha T. was starting to make some money from hairdressing. She informed me brightly that she had met a few residents in the village while cleaning their homes for a bit of cash, and had a few appointments lined up. Her social life was also looking promising. She had met another Ukrainian woman, Nadiya, on a crowded bus to the Polish border town of Przemyśl, and they quickly struck up a friendship. (Nadiya told me, as I played with her young son Vlad, that she “couldn’t stop crying”, and Olha T. had been there to comfort her in her hour of need.) By the time the bus pulled into Przemyśl, Olha T. had already invited Nadiya to stay with her and her sister. While browsing an online group where Polish people were offering assistance to Ukrainians, she had found a farmhouse in Krępsko. Olha T. said she enjoyed cooking with Nadiya, and hoped to take more excursions with her new friend to the neighbouring town of Goleniow.

I arrived in Warsaw the day that US president Joe Biden delivered a speech in the city, condemning the Russian invasion. Photo by Bohdan Komarivskyi on Unsplash.

When we met Olha K., she was evidently contrite, telling us that she had not meant to raise her voice at Malina. “I am very sorry, but things have been so stressful here lately,” she told Maja and me in a quiet voice. “I just want to be able to work again. It’s difficult to just sit around and not know what the future holds,” she explained, and began sobbing. “Malina and Jedrzej [Malina’s husband] are very good people and we are so grateful to them. We thought we would be sleeping in tents, we didn’t expect that they would let us live on the top floor of their house.” She spent most of her time caring for her nine-month-old granddaughter, Elena, and rarely left the house.

Towards the end of our interview with Olha K., Maja offered to bring her three children to get haircuts from her. This visibly cheered Olha K. up. “Please do, and bring anyone else you know who needs a haircut,” she said. When I mentioned that we had just gone to see Olha T. before, she made the slightest grimace. “I was her teacher, you know?” she told me. Then she added pointedly, “I have good experience in hairdressing.”

This incident, which I later jokingly dubbed “the tale of two Olhas”, was very striking to me. It elevated the seemingly inconspicuous events of the everyday above the hulking framework of war, which prioritises the discussion of aberrant acts in an aberrant time (Summa 2020: 61-67). More significantly, it highlighted the reality that there was fecund space for life to be lived, with all its seemingly petty concerns and worries, despite the agony and suffering that armed conflict brings. Though Lefebvre likens the everyday to “almost stagnant waters” (1991: 137), he also argues that it is a site of dispute and constant transformation. I felt it refreshing, even a relief, to hear about how the two Olhas were navigating their tenuous relationships with the residents of Krępsko. With a population of just 292, word spreads fast. Malina had recounted her unpleasant experience with Olha K. to a few other people, and I wondered how it might affect the latter’s chances of winning over potential customers from Olha T. 

A protest in Warsaw against the war in Ukraine. Photo by Stanisław Trajer on Unsplash.

Stories about Ukrainian women’s experiences of war that have circulated widely rarely deviate from three main representations of the female body: the maternal body, the victimised body, and the armed body Zarkov (2015: 13). Take, for example, the mothers risking their lives to return to Ukraine to rescue their children (Time 2022); or the systematic rape and subsequent pregnancies of nine girls as young as 14 in the city of Bucha (inews 2022, Newsweek 2022); or the viral article about the young woman who posed with her rifle next to her husband, who vowed to “fight for our land” just hours after they registered their marriage. Women are continually subsumed by and defined in relation to a militarised, hypermasculine collective memory of war as it is being created (Parashar 2014). In the meantime, the full complexity of their experiences of conflict and displacement is written out or erased. 

Turning an inquiring mind to the competitiveness that Olha K. felt towards Olha T. demonstrated clearly to me how everyday practices and habits form “the sum total of relations which make… every human being” (Lefebvre 1991: 97). No longer were they simply subjects of war or worse still, victims. They were two women trying to find their way and their place in an unfamiliar environment. As my trip took me to other parts of Poland, I observed how friendships and collaborative ties were forged out of circumstance. Women from different parts of Ukraine were suddenly pushed into a situation where they had to share a home and their living space with several other women. 

It was fascinating to witness how women of varying ages and personalities came together to divide childcare duties, make grocery runs, or even just have a cup of tea together (one woman from Kyiv proudly showed me a weekly routine that she and her housemates had written down on paper, and they had made sure to schedule in time for tea and a chat every afternoon). It occurred to me, as I went through my notes, that such exchanges would hardly be seen as noteworthy by most news editors, who were more keen to focus on the women’s experiences of fleeing Ukraine. I would go as far as to argue that to pay attention to these interactions that appear trivial is a way of restoring humanity to frequently dehumanising portrayals of war, where individuals, their concerns and their habits vanish amidst a towering backdrop of ceaseless violence.

1All names throughout this article are pseudonyms.

Title image: Large mural in Warsaw expressing support for Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Photo by Gleb Albovsky on Unsplash.

  1. Blackall, Molly (2022) Ukraine war: Nine pregnant after girls as young as 14 among group raped in Bucha basement, Ukraine claims. inews, 12 April 2022.
  2. Brown, David L. and Shucksmith, Mark (2016) Framing Rural Studies in the Global North. In D.L. Brown and M. Shucksmith (eds.) Routledge International Handbook of Rural Studies. Oxford: Taylor and Francis, pp. 1 – 26.
  3. Ferris-Rotman, Amie (2022) ‘I Have No Other Choice.’ The Mothers Returning to Ukraine to Rescue Their Children. Time, 17 March 2022.
  4. Guy, Jack (2022) ‘We just wanted to be together,’ says Ukrainian couple who rushed to marry amid attacks. CNN, 25 February 2022.
  5. International Labour Organisation (2018) Undeclared Work in Ukraine: Nature, Scope and Measures to Tackle It. ILO.org, April 2018.
  6. Kaonga, Gerrard (2022) Russian Soldiers Raped Dozens, Impregnated 9 in Bucha Basement—Ukraine Says. Newsweek, 12 April 2022.
  7. Lefebvre, Henri (1991) The Production of Space. Translated by D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.
  8. Oxley-Rice, Mark (2022) Poland has worked a refugee miracle. But how much longer can it last? The Guardian, 6 April 2022. 
  9. Parashar, Swati (2014) Women and Militant Wars: The Politics of Injury. Oxford: Routledge.
  10. Polese, Abel and Morris, Jeremy (2015) Informal Economies in Post-Socialist Spaces: Practices, Institutions and Networks. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  11. Summa, Renata (2020) Everyday Boundaries, Borders and Post Conflict Societies. New York: Springer International Publishing.
  12. Wądołowska Agnieszka (2022) Warsaw’s population has risen 17% due to refugees from Ukraine. Notes from Poland, 17 March 2022.
  13. Žarkov, Dubravka (2007) The Body of War: Media, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Break-up of Yugoslavia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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