In Conflict – The Impact of War on Social Scientists by Kacper Rekawek

“It was a Thursday, 24 February 2022. I got up and saw what was happening and that was it. For the next 72 hours, I would not sleep, I did not even attempt to. I worked the phones, the app messengers, the computer, everything. There were too many things to document, too many videos to watch, too many people to save. Only after these three days, sometime on Sunday, was I able to actually refocus on something more mundane such as lunch or dinner. It was brutal and tragic, but I could see things were not going their way. They blew it.” 

The above quote is from a colleague of mine, an academic who researches what can euphemistically be called “Russia studies.” The event he described in a conversation to me a few weeks later over an overpriced draft beer in Oslo, Norway, was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “They” is a reference to the seemingly unstoppably advancing Russian army. 

I am a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Study of Extremism, C-Rex, at the University of Oslo. I study the issue of (far right) individuals who go and fight in foreign wars and are not motivated by financial gains to do so. Russo-Ukrainian war is my case study; since 2014, both sides have attracted some foreign fighters in general and also far-right fighters in particular. I am originally from Poland, although I have lived and worked in the UK, Slovakia and now Norway and held a string of positions not only in academia but also think tanks and the third sector. Since 2015, however, I have consistently published on the aforementioned issue, with my recently published book a seeming crowning achievement of a long-term research focus.  

Interestingly, until 2022 the war, waged by two neighbours of my native Poland, did not really affect me emotionally. Maybe it was my naivety, or maybe the fact that Russia was dressing it up as “civil war,” “war in Ukraine” and waged what was dubbed a “hybrid” conflict, or war short of war, and as such I was able to detach myself from the atrocities. It seemed far away from me, as Donetsk, the conflict’s epicenter, is hundreds of miles to the East of Poland and after February 2015, and the so-called Minsk II Agreements, casualties were relatively light. In effect, this was becoming a classic “frozen conflict” which would remain unresolved for years (if not decades) to come. 

All of this changed in February 2022 when my Ukrainian friends found themselves sitting in basements while under Russian bombardment, while others frantically tried to enlist in the country’s armed forces or were sending their families Westwards to Poland so they could be spared the horrors of war. No longer was I a semi-detached observer of this war—but I only realized this months later. 

The Impact of World Events on My Mental Health

As soon as I saw the bombardment of different Ukrainian cities and towns, a sense of “We have been there before ourselves” permeated all my thoughts. I saw refugees or victims on TV or on the screen of my computer, and I immediately thought of my loved ones. “This could as well be us” became the phrase me and my family uttered often as we discussed the war daily. The conflict felt close, too close for my liking. Worse, my former students were in the thick of it so I was checking on them. A friend was queuing on the Ukrainian side of the border with Poland to simply get out of the country. She spent two days there in sub-zero temperatures as I tried to organize everything on my (i.e., Polish) side of the border for her. At the same time, Western journalists were calling me asking for help getting into Ukraine and other issues e.g., arranging for a fixer-translator there. All at once, all at the same time. 

I sought refuge in work. As there was so much to do I could easily attempt to block my inner feelings and proverbially “concentrate on the job at hand.” Lack of sleep, being confronted with violent images on numerous occasions, gnawing worry about friends and at times, a paralyzing fear about my country “being next” were there but had been suppressed. For a short while, it seemed to have worked. There was no time to worry, and anyway (and this is undoubtedly true), the Ukrainians had it much, much worse. Who was I to complain about my wellbeing? It did not matter and as my Ukrainian friend wrote to me: “You get used to it and get on with your life the best you can.” I followed his advice but come early Autumn I was a spent force. Tired, sad, constantly stressed out, ready to pounce whenever anyone veered from what I perceived to be the line on the war. Moreover, I saw the images from the war proverbially everywhere when a given situation, a toy, a car would bring me back to a clip or a photo from Kyiv or another place in Ukraine. I saw a group of small children sing while in a museum in Oslo and was close to tears as I remembered how children were singing while sheltering from the bombs in Kyiv. In this sense, the war and how I perceived it and felt it, was invading my private life and spaces. 

An academic also studying the war said to me at the time: “It is all about the war for me. Even if I start a conversation which is not about the conflict, it somehow veers towards it and I am consumed by it.” I could not agree more. I worked myself into a frenzy and it has never truly left me and would periodically come back as I was receiving some bad news or expected such from Ukraine. However, the intensity changed – this early state of near insensibility, and ferocious cognitive and emotional focus on the war was gone. It was coming back and arriving in bouts but this seemed “better.” No longer was I completely worn out; it seemed I was able to partly regain my previous life. Ironically, the war’s progress helped here. Ukraine held on, then went on its offensives and during the Summer of 2022, I felt that this was the moment for me to maybe not move on but to orient myself. Maybe, I thought, this was the moment when I could finally refocus on my loved ones and let go of this frenzy? The sun was shining outside, my decision felt right and seemed a logical conclusion. I did not immediately sleep better but there was hope, I felt. Hope for Ukraine and hope for me. 

Unfortunately, the easing of my personal pressure coincided with the arrival of considerable professional stress. No longer a frozen conflict, the war began to once again, just like at its inception in 2014, attract outsiders who offered their services as volunteer fighters. On the day war broke out, what had been a modest trickle of foreign fighters morphed into a stream and then a river. Sensing the mood, the Ukrainian authorities also called for such volunteers and promised them a chance to fight against the Russian aggression. Suddenly, my research seemed relevant, popular even, as during the next months I spent hours giving interviews on the topic and writing a plethora of publications on the issue, including the edits and proofs of my book on the fighters who fought in the conflict in its earlier phase, in 2014-15. In short, as I was letting go of the personal frenzy, it was being replaced by the professional torrent of activity and the latter was insatiable as there was no stopping of the conflict.

Coping with Loss

If all of this had not been enough, things took a turn for the worse in early Autumn of this year. This is when both personal and professional stressors merged and largely rendered me numb. It started with the death of one of my interviewees, a 2014 foreign fighter who fought on the Ukrainian side and returned to the country eight years later. His car was blown up by a landmine and I was stunned. This never happened to me and the war felt so close and intimate again. Shortly afterwards another interviewee was released from Russian captivity as a part of large prisoner exchange. We reconnected and he told me of his ordeal in prison. To say it was horrendous would not do justice to the hell he had been put through by his captors. Last but not least, the third interviewee was seriously wounded by a piece of shrapnel hitting him in the head. As I sat in my kitchen a few days later, I received a message from someone who connected us weeks before. “He passed away,” read the message and I remember sitting there and sobbing. This was too much. I hoped I had my emotions under control, as I tried to hide and suppress my feelings and focused on my professional obligations but to no avail. I felt that it was impossible to separate my emotions from my research and I felt destroyed by the news. Weeks later I called a contact of mine in Ukraine who was helping me reach foreign fighters in the country. I inquired about the recently deceased American fighter whose death was reported the day before on the news and immediately regretted my decision. “Yes, I knew him. In fact, he was my friend.” Once again, this felt too close. I wondered about the “correct” response. What would members of a given university’s ethics board have to say about this situation? “Is there a textbook reaction?” – I wondered.  

Social scientists who go out and interview people are taught to build a sense of commonality with their research subjects. This is to facilitate communication and allow for comprehensive, meaningful interviews. You are not just supposed to read out questions; you need to create engagement and shared understanding, and under no circumstances should you judge your interviewees. Finally, you sometimes have to “give” part of yourself to the research process, i.e., talk about yourself as well, so that you can understand and relate to the stories of others. However, at all times your relationship with your interviewees must remain purely professional. These are all sound principles and in my work I try to abide by them as best as I can. Unfortunately, if you are interviewing people about issues that you are invested in and care about deeply, this becomes a completely different game. In my experience, I started to genuinely care about their wellbeing and worry about them, and obviously this came with a heavy emotional price.

How did I cope with this ongoing internal struggle? I would tell my loved ones about my interviewees and share their stories, and they responded with sadness and sympathy. They could tell how much I care about this, that “research” is not just a job for me, and that I cannot just walk away from this. Had it not been for their advice, I would have probably never uttered a word of this or written this blog. However, I chose not to communicate my internal anguish to colleagues or friends. There are many reasons I decided to withhold how I felt. Firstly, they would not understand me. How could they relate to my experience and position as a researcher? I also believed that they were sick of discussions of the war in the first place and they failed to grasp the gravity of this conflict to the whole Western world. I remembered that back at work we stopped discussing the war rather quickly. At the same time, for me it was the only topic I could think about and I could not fathom why people (allegedly) did not care or want to discuss what was happening.

Moreover, as I was struggling personally, I noticed that the wider academic community I subscribe to was heavily involved in fighting for other causes but had little interest in mine or the war raging on. One that got stuck in my mind was the furore over the fact that a “manel” (a male-only panel) took place at a conference. As I was reading more and more “solidarity” messages and outraged comments, I couldn’t help but think about the disconnect between my own experience and those around me. Where was the outrage for what was happening in Ukraine? A few days later I felt that I received more evidence of this when the ethics board of my university got back to me with their comments on my latest research project. “But will you tell your interviewees that they will be included in your dataset?” was one of the questions. It was well-meaning and in line with the academic standards but I wanted to yell at the screen asking: “Does this include interviewees who died in the meantime? Where is your ethics now?” 

Carrying the Weight of Research

I am not sure I can end this blog on a positive note. We are now over a year into the war and it will almost certainly continue, which will mean ongoing personal and professional distress as my research proceeds. At the same time, I am sure that more of my interviewees will be injured, captured or will die fighting somewhere in Ukraine. I do not want that but obviously there is nothing I can do. I cannot switch the news off as it is too close and too important to me and my family and frankly speaking, to my country. I feel this is the least I can do as I will not go and fight and my employer is rightly cautious, to put it mildly, to deploy researchers such as me to what effectively is a war zone. This is my way of showing I care about the conflict and the people involved. I also feel I owe this to the fighters I have interviewed – I need to tell their story, to rid it of misconceptions perpetuated by the media. They are not loose cannons, “whackos,” “far-right extremists” etc. Certainly, they are far from perfect but someone needs to be able to draw a comprehensive and convincing portrayal of this group of individuals. I feel it could be me. 

I now talk about many of my feelings to my colleagues, which has helped. I was also told to write about my experience and I sincerely hope this blog will be of some use to other researchers and perhaps those seeking to understand why people study such topics. I am genuinely looking forward to the feedback from readers and I hope I might be able to find voices similar to mine. All of us working as social scientists—investigating war zones to understanding the motivations of freedom fighters, to those of us working on complex and difficult topics such as genocide and terrorism—can experience enormous pressures. Yes, many of us have a choice about what we study, and can choose when to stop, but also many of us do not. I could technically drop the research but the conflict, which is so close on so many levels, will not go away. Someone must step up, and record the experiences, tragedies and trauma of others, and give them a voice. 

The question of “who looks after us?,” however, remains. Universities such as mine have rolled out services for individuals “affected by the war” and this is to be applauded and, ideally, could be offered to other researchers, teachers and students who also suffer from comparable issues related to other conflicts they care about. It would be a cliché to state that academics should be more supportive towards one another and that certainly includes myself. Often, I feel it is simply unpopular or seen as too difficult to air issues and speak of challenges one goes through while doing one’s job. In my experience, administrative and technical challenges are the issues of the day during lunchtime discussions in academic settings, but no such treatment is afforded to more sensitive issues, particularly those involving mental health and individual struggles. While going from grant to grant and publication to publication, we rarely have the time and energy to listen to the problems of our colleagues. Sometimes, however, all it takes is an offer of a coffee and a chat during which a colleague can listen to one’s story. Let’s not shy away from this. It may seem like a small gesture but it can make a big difference to someone who needs support.

Kacper Rekawek, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo. He has more than 15 years of experience in counterterrorism and countering violent extremism from academia (including a PhD at Queen’s University Belfast, QUB, and a research fellowship at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews), think tanks (including the Polish Institute of International Affairs, PISM, local equivalent to the German SWP) and the third sector (GLOBSEC).