Opinion article: Confessions of a burnt out humanitarian

Reflections on the “anniversary” of one year of armed conflict in Ukraine

Brussels, 24 Feb 2023

Author: Maja Ahac, Head of Advocacy at ADRA Europe

24 February 2022 was not quite an ordinary day. I planned to take the day off to celebrate with my husband. It was his birthday. Before I set out to decorate the cake (yes, I make cakes ), I checked the morning news. “Eh, no…. This news can’t be true,” I was trying to convince myself. War in Europe? Armed conflicts? Seriously? It felt like my brain was working in slow motion. The news was so shocking that I couldn’t believe it. Actually, I didn’t want to believe it.

Being a humanitarian worker by profession, I was aware of what war means. Deaths, abuses, refugees, … the endless suffering of innocent people. On the other side are non-stop efforts of humanitarians to support people on the run and provide at least some kind of normalcy.

I asked myself: War? Why? What is wrong with the world? Can we at least switch to the pandemic? With the coronavirus, people fought together as a big human family against an invisible enemy…” But it was too late. The weapons had already spoken.

Instead of celebrating my husband’s birthday, I threw myself into work. Although the team at work already discussed in late 2021 that we must be prepared for a possible armed conflict in Europe, the outbreak of war took us by surprise. Until the last minute, we believed in political diplomacy and solving disputes peacefully.

What followed were many sleepless nights, endless hours of coordination, fighting for donations, negotiations with local authorities, mobilization of volunteers, turning places of worship into temporary shelters, writing news;… Hundreds and thousands of volunteers came to support and make selfless sacrifices. For many, it was easier to help than helplessly watching the news on TV.

I only vaguely remember the first few days of the military conflict in Ukraine. Chaos was everywhere. Humanitarian workers were in a battle against time. The first and immediate response is necessary if we want to save lives. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. Peace was not coming; the only thing that reached us was the cold data about the number of wounded, dead and displaced people. And the numbers kept increasing.

On 22 August, nearly six months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, UNICEF verified that at least 972 children had been killed or injured by the violence. According to the United Nations, as of 13 February 2023, 18 955 civilian casualties were recorded, including 7 199 deaths. The actual figure could be significantly higher.[1]

Soon I began to notice the first signs of fatigue and stress. I thought with tears in my eyes: “People are suffering so much. If I just work a little longer, maybe I can help more people.” My working days become very stretched out. Adrenaline often caused insomnia even in those few short hours I stole for much-needed sleep. Soon breathing problems followed. I often got caught in a spiral of hopeless thoughts. Anxiety became my daily companion. The shocking stories of people caught in the war shook me to the core, and I began to lose hope in humanity.

Despite increasingly difficult circumstances, together with an incredible number of colleagues and volunteers, we helped and mitigated the consequences of the war. Within and outside Ukraine, hundreds of humanitarian aid transports were organized. In the past year, ADRA[2] transported more than 55 000 people to safety in Ukraine alone. We gave the Ukrainians 16,5 million loaves of bread, 412 000 liters of water, and 2,3 million food kits. We sheltered 66 000 people. More than 18 million euros were allocated for various interventions, reaching over 7 million beneficiaries in Ukraine.

Days and months of humanitarian response took their toll after almost four months. Partly due to the fact that I was already suffering from long-term COVID, my physical, mental and emotional health went downhill. It felt like an army tank drove over my body. Actual, physical pain everywhere. There was a void in my mind. Extreme helplessness and dependencey on the support of others became my new reality.

Humanitarian workers experience and witness traumatic events almost daily. Among them is a significant increase in emotional exhaustion, loss of vitality, decreased social functioning and emotional well-being. Workers are also confronted with chronic, assignment-related stress, such as the overwhelming needs of the beneficiaries and the lack of resources. This can evoke moral dilemmas and feelings of helplessness. Humanitarians report elevated levels of mental distress from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and burnout. Exposure to extreme and chronic stress is high and gives rise to health problems that impede the delivery of humanitarian assistance.[3]

In addition to the stress and difficult circumstances of humanitarian work, I was increasingly angry because international negotiations and peace talks didn’t take place. And so we have come to the sad anniversary of the war in Ukraine.

Nearly a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion, in January 2023, The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that he did not believe there was an opportunity yet, to organize “a serious peace negotiation” between the warring parties in Ukraine. “There will be an end…there is an end of everything, but I do not see an end of the war in the immediate future. I do not see a chance at the present moment to have a serious peace negotiation between the two parties.”[4]

I have faced many humanitarian disasters in my career. Almost a year after the outbreak of the war, one of the most devastating earthquakes shook Syria and Turkey. I can cope with a natural disaster, while the outbreak of war keeps knocking me down and robbing me of my dreams for a better future.                                                                                                                                                                                     I wonder again and again why diplomacy fails miserably. I also wonder how long humanitarian workers will be able to bear the burden of more and more disasters. I was able to seek help for myself, and in my recovery, I was driven every day by the thought that a faster recovery would help me to return to the workplace as soon as possible and help people again.

I don’t know yet what the long-term consequences of long-term stress will be on my health. I know for sure that I am not the same person anymore. Each new conflict and suffering leaves a deeper wound in my soul. I’m trying to ignore daily bad news. My duties at work changed, and my workload significantly decreased. But – is this the solution? Maybe for a few days and maybe for my health. But what about the health of the entire human family? Is there a solution?

At least 27 wars are currently raging in the world. Globally, conflict and violence are on the rise. Peace is more under threat worldwide than ever since World War II. A quarter of the entire global population lives in conflict-affected areas. The human and economic costs of fragility, conflict, and violence are staggering. Conflict drives 80 per cent of humanitarian needs, and in 2016 the price of conflict globally stood at an astonishing $14 trillion.[5] That’s enough to end world hunger 42 times over. Just imagine what the world could do with that money if conflicts were to end worldwide!

War has never brought a solution, only suffering, widows, orphans, hunger and poverty. Ending all wars will end senseless suffering, release 80% of humanitarian aid, and in some way help humanitarian workers like me who are burning out in masses.

I believe that the only solution lies in establishing lasting peace. A peace beyond my limited understanding. Almost two thousand years ago, the biblical writer Matthew wrote: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9) Peacemaking. It is hard and brings difficult conversations. What God calls good and who God calls blessed is striking because his values seem upside down from the values of the society I live in. Today working toward peace seems to mean bringing more weapons into conflicted areas. In tumultuous times, humans have tended toward the pragmatism of the fight. Peacemaking, some say, is not practical.

If a peacemaker is called a child of God, we humans should want to be one. To be one, however, will take some work. The beauty of this compound word is that it mashes up the word peace with the word for doing or practicing. It is active. Peacemaking may be kind, but it is not passive. It demands that we step into conflict. In a world where we have been discipled to avoid conflict, Peacemaking takes a commitment to move toward it. Conventional wisdom believes we make peace by avoidance. The peacemaker knows there is no peace without healing and no healing without tough conversations and work. The pursuit of meaningful relationships is essential to Peacemaking. Relationships help us to see humanity on “the other side.” Many of our divides exist because we do not actually know each other.

Peacemaking will not be easy, maybe not even possible. However, we are still called to seek it. We remember Paul’s words for peacemakers in the Bible, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18, NIV).

That is why today, my call, my appeal is directed first to myself and then to all those who make decisions on my behalf. I urge everyone and everything: Make love, not war!

[1] Source: UN Regional Information Centre for Western Europe (access 22 Feb 2023)

[2] More about ADRA response here.

[3] Source: ScienceDirect (access 22 Feb 2023)

[4] Source: UN news, (Access 22 Feb 2023)

[5] Source: The New Humanitarian (access 23 Feb 2023)