Feature story

UNAIDS staff member talks about the invasion of Ukraine

18 March 2022

On 24 February, Olena Sherstyuck, UNAIDS Global Outreach Officer in Ukraine, had no choice but to flee Kyiv. We spoke to her from her new location in western Ukraine.

On 24 February, what were your first thoughts?

Well, my day started very early that day. My son messaged me at 5 a.m. saying, “It looks like the war has begun.” When I went out on my balcony, I heard loud sounds that sounded like bombs.

Is that when you decided to leave Kyiv?

At first, I sat in my car with my cats and then, after checking in with the country director and the rest of the staff, I decided to go to my country house with a garden outside of the city, where I met up with my son and his wife.

Was that safe enough?

When I arrived, I realized this was worse than the city. My house is in fact near the Gostomel Airport, so is a target of missiles. We hardly slept at all. The sky was red and what I love about the place is that there are panoramic windows, but this was not pleasant at all. The windows kept rattling.

So, what did you do next?

On 25 February, at midnight, we decided to leave for western Ukraine. I had worked in the region for five years while working at the United Nations Children’s Fund and had been back since then, so the mountainous region seemed like a good option to me.

It meant driving solidly for 28 hours because we zig-zagged from place to place to avoid fighting and to find alternatives to closed roads or blown-up bridges. We had to change our route constantly. That was quite challenging.

I asked friends in the region to help me find a place to stay, so we are now settled in a wooden house with five rooms and a common kitchen. 

Were you liaising with your team and your supervisor?

We are a small UNAIDS office in Ukraine and because of COVID-19 we had all sorts of ways of staying in touch, via WhatsApp, Viber, etc. Every morning we have our regular morning check-ins. That has helped a lot to stay connected. Colleagues from the region and the global hub have also reached out, which keeps me feeling like things are normal.

Normal, really?

I cannot sleep and I cannot eat but the work and meetings and coordinating efforts help keep me grounded—it keeps me going.

I am, however, addicted to the news. It’s impossible to stop watching and reading what is going on. I keep thinking about my apartment in the city and about my garden and when we can all go back to Kyiv.

I have no regrets about leaving. I am not a fighter nor am I in the army, so why get in the way of the people fighting. That first week I was in shock and I thought that it would end quickly, but we are now three weeks in.

I assume you took your passport and phone but what about food and clothing?

I took my key documents and passport and my work computer but only had gardening clothes from my house, so I have been wearing an all-purpose man’s jacket ever since. Let’s just say I am looking a bit disheveled, but I am not the only one! (Laughter.)

As for food, there are small markets and so far we have had no shortages. We are trying to make ourselves busy by joining local women making bread and there are other communal activities organized in the village.

(Interruption) Do you hear that, Charlotte? You heard the sound of the air raid alert? It’s stopped now.

Not having lived through something like this, what advice do you have for us?

First of all, having personal relationships with people really comes in handy in such times. Not only was I able to connect with my current colleagues, I also did so with my former work friends too.

And from the first day, I was able to reach out to the numerous networks of people living with HIV and other nongovernmental organizations I work with to see how they are doing. This meant lots of calls back and forth, but these are professional and personal relationships I have made over the years—I wanted to know if everyone was safe.

I must say we at UNAIDS were really good at sharing and passing on key information regarding what services are available, where and with whom, services such as antiretroviral therapy refills or opioid substitution therapy, and then updating the information. Before the war, I was a member of the national oversight committee and programmatic committee that oversees Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria grants, so my colleagues and I are trying to follow up on programming aspects. It is not easy, and as for monitoring, many people are still hiding in basements, so that complicates things.

Secondly, it is really hard to plan strategically. In the beginning, everyone is making ad hoc decisions. Our partners, other international organizations, basically everyone was scrambling to help and unfortunately there was a lot of duplication. One day I would be asked to find mattresses, another day someone needed gas, now things feel more organized.

I learned that it takes time to understand how to act and react and it’s important to find one’s niche. Don’t try and spread out too much.

Good advice—basically, assign roles and/or tap into each organization’s strengths to work better as a whole?

Exactly. Another thing that has been helpful is to have the global hub’s input. I mainly work with local counterparts—for me, that is 90% of my time and because of all the running around and the forever-changing situation, it has been useful to have HQ give us the bigger picture.

How so?

It’s reassuring to know that countries, such as Poland and the Republic of Moldova, and people have committed to help Ukraine. I now know what our colleagues in the region are doing regarding antiretroviral therapy stocks and using international assistance. In Ukraine, we adopted more European standards, so, for example, our regulations on medicines and intellectual property are close to European standards and have little in common with former Soviet satellite countries. Our legislations contain chapters on key populations and prohibit discrimination and the Ukrainian Government financed basic HIV prevention services for hundreds of thousands of people from key populations. We also really pushed harm reduction services, since HIV in Ukraine affects mostly people who inject drugs, with thousands of people on opioid substitution therapy and pre-exposure prophylaxis. The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people have also been an integral component of the country’s human rights strategy.  I can hardly imagine such developments in many eastern European countries.

Any last thoughts?

It’s really important to feel like I have human contact, so do reach out. And I must say I have been impressed by people uniting, Ukraine feels more united to me. That is my one optimistic note in all of this—there has been fantastic support among people. Glory to Ukraine!