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Cargo 300: For The Wounds Of Ukraine Have No Time To Heal

After a grim New Year, a soldier and mother reflects on the trauma of the past 10 months: fear, the corpses of friends and the choice between her own children and joining the war effort.

photo of a woman in a pink jacket walking as seen through a blown out window

The pain in Ukraine is everywhere

Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi /ZUMA
Iryna Serheieva*

-Essay-

The Facebook feed of holiday photos is not pleasant.

Someone is seen celebrating in a trench; others in blacked-out cities. Another is in a foreign country. And some spend a first holiday without a beloved father, son or husband.

It is all sadness.

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Cargo 300 is a military term for transporting a wounded soldier out of combat zones. Cargo 200 is for the deceased.

As I return to civilian life, I realize that from now on and for decades to come, we will be a nation of "300s," wounded by war, physically and morally crippled, regardless of whether or not we were directly on the battlefield.

Immediately after demobilization, I travelled to Germany, where my children were all this time. I met a friend who had served eight months in Iraq.


There, she had to bring a mother the remains of her child in a bucket, after the bombing of a school which her unit had solemnly opened just a few days before.

In those first days after demobilization, she said: I was in your shoes, and those of your relatives now in Germany. And I do not know where it was harder for me. There, or here. So get ready to accept it.

Demobilization and cognitive dissonance

After demobilization, a surprise awaited me. In my imagination, I was not a hero, but an average staff officer of the armed forces defending Ukraine. I was not on the front line. But few people would volunteer for my daily work — the recovery of the dead.

Demobilized soldiers need at least a short rehabilitation to return to a peaceful life. After all, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can begin to manifest themselves sharply after the moment of dismissal.

While performing my duties as a "Black Tulip," I never cried — not when they brought me the body of my own commander, covered with maggots and decomposed beyond recognition, nor when they collected my colleague in pieces from the morgue.

We think that we are fine. Even though we get stuck, have nightmares or lose sleep.

Our psyche is designed so as not to fail at a crucial moment and not to interfere with the performance of the assigned task.

- You okay?

- I'm fine.

This was my standard answer to questions about my relationships with my loved ones.

- I don't want you to answer fine if you are NOT fine! You are not all-powerful, no matter how brave you are! I want you to answer honestly. Otherwise, you won't make it.

So, for the hundredth time after reading my "fine," a psychologist friend exploded.

I know that I am not fine. But do you want to know it?

We think that we are fine. Even though we get stuck, have nightmares or lose sleep. Or sleep all the time. In a peaceful atmosphere, the spring opens up and all the stress comes out. And then we would like to crawl under a warm blanket, plunge into our grief and relive our pain, somehow to get rid of it. To cry a bucket of tears.

But the reality that awaits a soldier on demobilization is complete cognitive dissonance:

  • Misunderstanding by the family of our experience and traumas.
  • The need to quickly get involved in life and work, to take responsibility.
  • The psychological trauma of the family and the environment in general.
photo of soldier walking through decimated street

Soldiers have seen more than most

Matthew Hatcher/ZUMA

In a trench with a friend

Only psychologists can figure out who of us is more traumatized — we, the military, or the families waiting for us. We who saw death with our own eyes in all its manifestations, or those who have to put up with the death of their relatives for the rest of their lives.

My colleague, who spent two hours in a trench covered with dirt from an explosion, next to the body of his friend with his head blown off, had to be tied to a bed in the 17th psychiatric hospital in Kharkiv.

I saw children in tears who could not be pulled away from their father's coffin. I saw wives who could not be raised from their knees in front of the grave of their beloved. How to heal their wounds?

In our battalion alone, more than 50 children became orphans. How will this affect their future lives?

The other day I saw a photo of a child sleeping with the fleece of his deceased father. I remember the night he tried to get out of the encirclement, and his body was recovered from the battlefield only four months after the de-occupation of Kharkiv. He is definitely in Valhalla, but his four children — what will happen to them?

War or children?

Children are a separate topic of this war. All our children are likely traumatized — by constant sirens, lessons in bomb shelters, disturbing news and parents' tears.

This week, schoolgirl friends who survived the occupation of Irpin shocked an elderly German couple who sheltered them. Seeing a helicopter up close, in a peaceful atmosphere, the girls fell to the floor in horror, covering their heads with their hands.

My old friend, a doctor, told me how his 10-year-old godson, who was miraculously taken out of Bucha — under fire and stepping over dead bodies — arrived in Western Ukraine and, in the morning, cut off the heads of all the cats in the yard.

This is not an isolated case of madness in children, after what they have seen and experienced.

The trauma has not bypassed any of us.

A significant part of Ukraine has been or is still occupied. It suffers from shelling and humanitarian catastrophe. Tens of thousands of families are torn apart. What will happen to us in the future? When we win, how will we heal these traumas of war?

My children, who did not see me for nine months of war and did not know whether they would see me again — how will it affect them in the future? What will they remember about this war?

During my service and now, after demobilization, I feel acute guilt for choosing war over my children. Still, I cannot seek forgiveness for it — if I could turn back time, I would make the same choice, because each of us contributes to victory by doing what we do best.

The trauma has not bypassed any of us. From now on, we are a nation of "300s" of varying severity. This is true of both military and civilians, and for those who stayed and those who left.

But we must believe that we will overcome it all, and victory will be ours.

*Iryna Serheieva is an officer of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and a military-political scientist.

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