Anna Goes Ukraine: The Human Rights Lawyer

4 April 2023

Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK, and from 23 March to 6 April she is in East and South Ukraine, with her friends from the Freefilmers NGO, interviewing local people – especially women in rural communities – about their experiences and survival strategies. Anna is blogging about her trip here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site. You can donate here to support the people Anna meets.

The Human Rights Lawyer

One of Sashko’s friends, who we’ll call Serj, is a human rights lawyer, originally from Armenia, who manages a network of lawyers delivering high-quality legal aid free of charge in the liberated and frontline communities in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts. While we walked across the town and I snapped sights like a devout tourist with unusual priorities (which is basically what I am), I asked him how this works.

‘I’m originally from Artsakh (Nagorno-Katabakh). I’ve lived most of my life in Kyiv, but in the five years before the full-scale invasion I lived in a town in the East, which is currently occupied,’ Serj explained. ‘Now I feel like a nomad. I’m registered in Kyiv and I rent a flat in Dnipro, but it’s basically just where the washing machine is. I have to travel around the liberated and frontline communities and check my staff are doing a good job.’’

Does he want to stay a nomad when the war is over? ‘No. I want to settle.’

He isn’t sure where, though. Serj’s lawyers work with people who are affected by war and need legal guidance on issues like destroyed identity documents, or problems accessing benefits; and those problems are often worst near the front line. Yet bureaucratic red tape is hindering them. ‘Because of regulations, you’re not allowed to operate less than forty kilometres from the front line.’ Serj was clearly unimpressed. ‘There’s an exception for Zaporizhzhia, which is thirty. But we want to reduce it to twenty, to fifteen. Maybe eight when we know an area well.’

Serj waited patiently as I stopped to photograph an army recruitment poster, something as remarkable in Zaporizhzhia as a red bus in London. Then he told me about his other main activity. Where Westerners have hobbies in their free time, many Ukrainians work for victory, or to save people in trouble. While it was still possible to travel to and from the occupied territories. For a while, Serj used to organise evacuation teams in frontline areas which were under regular shelling by the Russians.

International volunteers were, fortunately, more use than international agencies. ‘They were good. We had a lot of British volunteers, including drivers. Some of them with right-hand drive vehicles! But not all of them – maybe they bought vans in Poland. We had a girl from the South West, a guy from the South East.’

And every single one of them, Serj reported, was strongly against Brexit. ‘So who voted for it??’ he appealed to me. I explained that there is a marked divide between younger, urban people (anti-Brexit) and older, smalltown or rural people (pro). It sounds like a stereotype but it also fits about 80% of the people I know.

Serj has the same simple message for foreigners that I’ve heard from every Ukrainian asked on the subject: keep sending weapons, and speed it up. ‘We’re grateful for what we have, but it’s not enough. This isn’t charity. Ukraine is shielding Europe.’

Though not everyone agrees, even in Ukraine. Serj said, ‘I met a militant from the south last week, from Budjak in Odesa. He was saying, “Why should we die for East Ukraine?” I said, “If the Russians conquer the east, do you think they will just stop there?!”’

This applies to Brits, too, I said: ‘Some people in Britain assume at some point that Putin will just realise he’s losing and start being sensible. We need to understand it’s not going to happen. With Putin or anyone around him.’

Then Serj asked me what organisation I’m from, or maybe I’m part of an association of anarchists. I enjoyed a brief vision of myself as an anarchist (a very vague vision involving grungier clothes, weed and leftist literature) then had to explain that I am just a person with a friend in Kyiv who asked how she could help… and somehow now I’m here.

Serj unequivocally supports Ukrainian resistance, but at the same time he has to worry about something that I certainly don’t: being grabbed on a street corner or bus, and conscripted. ‘As time goes on, there’s more of a risk of being conscripted. Because Russia has so many more people than us.’

This subject is often fudged in British media, with some even denying that forced conscription ever happens, presumably because it doesn’t show the Ukrainian authorities in the best light. It is, however, the cold light of necessity. People understand why it happens. The army is just not right for Serj. ‘I’m not in the right mental and physical shape for that. I’m more useful doing what I’m doing now.’

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