Nomen est omen

ANALYSIS  Petar Atanacković Published: 26. 09. 2022.

The art of war and the art of peace

Report from Germany – temporary or permanent status of war refugees

To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence;

Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. (Szun Tzu)

The war in Ukraine has been going on for more than 100 days now. And there is no end in sight. The situation is, to put it mildly, gloomy: the Ukrainians have defended themselves in one part of the battlefield, while in the other the Russian army is plowing through villages and towns with bombs, so that no stone is left unturned. The West is increasingly arming Ukraine, determined to fiercely oppose Russia – as someone put it – to the last Ukrainian. Among the public in the West militaristic discourse is dominating more and more and there is less and less room and understanding for the peace option.

As far as Russia is concerned, the situation is much worse, because by starting this war, the country has obviously bogged down deeper than it expected. It is clear that there was no long-term planning, but that everything was done ad-hoc. And now, not knowing how to get out of the mess it made itself, Russia continues to wage war because it has no better solutions. Especially there is no mention of peace, which is more and more perceived as a synonym for defeat. I really don’t know whose works Putin and his advisers were inspired by before starting the war, whether by Dostoyevsky or Bulgakov, but it is obvious that Sun Tzu was not among them. No matter, the Chinese will explain to them who that is, when as the final outcome of this war, Russia, instead of a resurrected world power, becomes just a pendant of the new Chinese empire.

So, the war is still going on, and with it all the uncertainty, dying and suffering of people continue. And that is what has remained the same. And what has changed in the meantime?

As far as the situation on the ground is concerned, Ukraine has successfully defended itself in many places, but there is no doubt that Russia will conquer Eastern Ukraine, which is already all in ruins, and is yet to be destroyed. Let’s ask who is it conquering it for? There is no need, because we know that it conquers it for extremely abstract reasons, for the sake of geopolitics and strategy, cartography and statistics, so to speak – for the sake of history. Possibly also due to contributions to the biographies of some, what Mark Bloch would say, crazy kings, generals, parrot-ministers and other participants of state-created talk shows. It certainly does not win it for the people, the Russians, the Ukrainians or some other. Because it does not care about the people at all, whether they be Russians or Ukrainians, civilians or soldiers. The Russian state has demonstrated this very successfully since the first day of war, demolishing hospitals and residential buildings, ordering mass deportations and shootings, sending recruits to die like flies or to dig trenches in the radioactive zone around Chernobyl. After all, if it cared about the people, it wouldn’t have started this war. That is why we constantly repeat that the state conducts exclusively state politics, that is to say war politics, and not peace politics, politics on the side of the people. The latter can only be run by the people themselves.


So, the war is still going on, and with it all the uncertainty, dying and suffering of people continue. And that is what has remained the same. And what has changed in the meantime?

What is new is that refugees (in smaller numbers, but for certain) have started to return to Ukraine. Or to go further, to some other countries. This phenomenon stands primarily in relation to the fact that the war is still going on and that its end is nowhere in sight, although it is clear that several worst-case scenarios – e.g. a quick Russian occupation of the whole of Ukraine or a ‘limited-scale’ nuclear conflict – have not (yet) been achieved. This conflict will not really be a short-lived episode, which, like some misunderstanding, would quickly give way to a slow, laborious and long-term peace negotiation process, at the end of which there would be a more or less happy ending. On the contrary, the war will last a long time, although no one knows what this ‘long’ exactly means.

The very fact that the war is still going on has forced many among the refugees to wonder if this is really still a temporary situation. Or something that is slowly but surely turning into a permanent state? And what should they decide or do in either case?

Namely, should they end the uncertainty in the limbo of exile and return to Ukraine, in order to share the fate with the people close to them, whatever that fate may be?

Because if this uncertain state is still only perceived as temporary, then, paradoxically, it is quite certain what and how it should be done: the refugees have found themselves where they are, separated from their family members and friends, and now they should look to somehow organize their everyday life in a new environment, until the conditions for return are met. And until then, they will have to suffer silently because of the whole situation, tremble for their loved ones who are still in Ukraine and hope for a better future. However, if this moment is taken no longer as temporary, but the beginning of a new and certainly different, but more or less permanent phase in life, then many of them are faced with a new choice. Namely, should they end the uncertainty in the limbo of exile and return to Ukraine, in order to share the fate with the people close to them, whatever that fate may be? Or take steps to turn refugee status into an opportunity to start a new life in a new country?

And while one (larger?) part of the Ukrainian refugees, both on other sides and in our Berlin-Brandenburg network, continued to believe that this is still a temporary situation and that things will sooner or later ‘return to normal’ – while at all it is not clear what this phrase should really mean –the other (smaller?) part decided to return to Ukraine. Or they have begun to perceive the new state as the beginning of a new life phase. Some of the latter have decided to stay permanently in Germany, or to go further, somewhere else, where they believe they will have better chances (to Scandinavia, Britain, etc.). It is the same with our friends from various partner groups, non-governmental organizations and informal initiatives: most of them are still here with us, where they were a few months ago, and a few of them went further west. Some, however, really did return to the still war-torn country, unable to bear the separation from friends, relatives and familiar places, as well as the suffering of the existing situation and strong pangs of conscience.

According to this logic, the real problem in the whole story is Russian nationalism, which apparently seeks to impose Russian dominance on Ukraine.

What was also a new phenomenon for all of us was the emergence of nationalism among many of our Ukrainian women. Even among our friends who come from civil society organizations. This of course caused uneasiness and concern and led to discussions, which often ended in misunderstandings. Because it is clear to all of us why something like that happens, and in that sense, everyone understood people’s anger and dissatisfaction and their need to somehow focus them, but that does not mean that our position towards nationalism has changed, because we consider it harmful and dangerous occurrence as before. I think our misunderstanding of their nationalism further contributed to their feeling of disappointment and misunderstanding, which then really motivated some of them to either go somewhere else or, more often, return to Ukraine. What was particularly striking was how receptive to nationalism were those persons who were ‘spinning’ in the circle of identity – in this specific case, women’s and LGBT – politics, without seeing any problem in this kind of transformation.

According to this logic, the real problem in the whole story is Russian nationalism, which apparently seeks to impose Russian dominance on Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukrainian nationalism is a convenient point of identification for the oppressed and those discriminated against. Whose positions representing the discriminated, then, cannot have negative, but only positive connotations. For me, the question arises at this point, how could this happen? Where did this development come from? And is this phenomenon really one unpleasant surprise, or is it rather a completely logical consequence of pushing identity politics all the way? In other words, is it about turning to ‘ideological detours’, possibly also the ‘immaturity’ of specific individuals, and perhaps also about a specific mechanism for them to overcome all those psychological challenges and problems they suddenly faced? Or rather about a kind of a structural closeness, similarity, maybe even identity of one and the other kind of identity, whereby it was then possible to replace or supplement one with the other? Or is it both? I’m really not sure what the answer would be, but the experience itself is interesting, which is why I’m sharing it.

Another question which arose on this occasion is the way in which such an aporia could be resolved? Without falling into yet another vicious cycle of identity politics, where ‘older white men’ explain the state of affairs to young (white? colored? Who would know…) women, or Germans (and ‘Germans’) enlighten the non-Germans and so forth. Since our first approach – according to which it is expected that people discuss when they disagree about something and that they should think about arguments and counter-arguments, and not primarily start off from the identity of the participants in the discussion – was met with misunderstanding, we came up with another idea. And that was to include in the discussion old and hardened female activists from German peace and feminist initiatives, as well as individuals originally from Yugoslavia, also from the activist scene, who would personally understand their position very well. But it was still not realized, because there was no patience and desire to work on the problem. Instead, conclusions were drawn and decisions made. Which, as it seems to me, were brought even beforehand, but they only had to be confirmed. That’s why I think we witnessed a hysterical play, in which each of us had to play the assigned role, but which – as always with hysteria – was not intended for us, but for them. That’s how the whole story ended.

And now what?

Life flows in a slow rhythm; I think this phrase could best describe the current situation. Because we are all more or less where we were a few months ago, helping people get by in a new environment and deal with the uncertainties of everyday life and, at times, the gargantuan bureaucracy in Germany. Because everywhere you turn – it’s my impression – you see only problems, obstacles and challenges. Status applications are waited for months, just like social assistance and housing. Baring in mind that the status will sooner or later be resolved, social welfare will sooner or later be paid to the bank account, but you can forget about the apartment. There are no places in kindergartens, primary schools are overcrowded, a single spot on a language course can no longer be found anywhere, there’s waiting for hours at doctors’ offices, public transport is full… In other words, everywhere you look, it’s crowded, it’s tight and you’re waiting in line. However, everything is not so bad, because at least there are jobs: many of our Ukrainian women have found different jobs on their own, and a few of them we have employed on some of our projects. And so now we live together and work together, and we all patiently wait together for Godot to finally appear.

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