Russia-Ukraine war forces Europe’s largest refugee crisis since WWII, scarring generations
Children fleeing from Ukraine are seen in a bus playing with a Polish policeman after crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border. (Photo: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via AP.)

Russia-Ukraine war forces Europe’s largest refugee crisis since WWII, scarring generations

USC Dornsife experts discuss the lasting psychological trauma for survivors and refugees and outline how linguistic differences between the Ukraine and Russian languages feed into identity politics. [2¾ min read]
ByEmily Gersema

More than 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries as Russia has launched attacks against civilians to capture their homeland — and more are expected to leave.

As the violence escalates, experts say that reports of Russian war crimes against civilians are flooding into the U.N. Security Council for referral to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The allegations include sexual assault and unlawful targeting of civilians in places such as schools, hospitals and utilities.

Recalling refugees in the former Yugoslavia’s civil war

For David Schwartz, the war is triggering horrific memories of the 1990s civil war in former Yugoslavia. Schwartz, associate professor of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, served as a consultant to the United Nations’ aid organization UNICEF after the war. He saw firsthand how trauma scars children and their families for generations following war.

“The parallels between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the horrific events of World War II and the Cold War seem apparent,” Schwartz said. “However, an even clearer connection may exist with more recent events in modern Europe. In the early 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina sought to establish a multiethnic nation from the ashes of the former Yugoslavia. A brutal civil war then ensued, marked by genocide, the systematic murder of unarmed civilians, mass rape and ethnic cleansing.”

For war refugees, the trauma continues

Schwartz worries most about the children of Ukraine. He said the international community should do everything possible to end the war.

He knows trauma does not end when the war ends.

“A new generation of traumatized children and adolescents will need considerable services as they recover from the impact of exposure to war violence, flight from their homes, and forced separation from family members and friends,” Schwartz said.

“Put simply, these youth will need to learn how to move forward in a world that has fundamentally changed. The tasks ahead are formidable, and the world must respond with a multipronged mental health intervention.”

Linguistic differences are part of identity politics

With the future of Ukraine’s independence on the line, language gives a glimpse at how differently Ukrainians and Russians may perceive the nation.

“Russian and Ukrainian are closely related but distinct languages, and over the centuries differences in pronunciation inevitably arose,” explains Thomas Seifrid is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at USC Dornsife. “‘Kyiv’ (Ukrainian) versus ‘Kiev’ (Russian) is one example of many. The legendary Grand Prince of ancient Kyiv/Kiev is St. Volodymyr in Ukrainian but St. Vladimir in Russian.”

Seifrid points to the use of “the” vs “in” as a nuanced signal of the two nation’s attitudes about Ukrainian independence, and he says the origins of the country’s name add further complexity.

“The older, Russian locution is to say ‘na Ukraine’ or ‘the Ukraine’ — this implies Ukraine is a territory, not a state. The more correct contemporary form is ‘v Ukraine’ or ‘in Ukraine,’ which implies Ukrainian sovereignty.

“Further complicating the issue for some Russian speakers is the etymological origin of the name Ukraine. ‘Kraina’ is an old Russian word for border, and ‘U’ means ‘at.’ So etymologically, ‘Ukraina’ (the Russian form of the name) meant ‘the region at the border’ — or, the border territory of the Russian empire, not a state or even place in its own right.”

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