Ukraine
Ukraine faces a bleak future, and it could claim scores of lives.Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

Depression, loss of interest in life, alcoholism, nightmares – these are the symptoms of veterans. It is called post-traumatic stress disorder, and, in Ukraine, we call it "Donbass syndrome".

More than 30,000 soldiers are due to return home from eastern Ukraine in the coming months, and they will bring the horrors of the front home with them. We have already seen the so-called Donbass syndrome in thousands of soldiers who have returned in the first wave of demobilisation. They have nightmares, flinch from harsh sounds and cannot control their reactions.

Perhaps the biggest single problem facing returning fighters is their inability to cope with the demands of civilian life, having known nothing but war for so long. Professional psychologist Anton Lukachuk, who is also a Ukrainian volunteer, is in doubt that his country, our country, is facing a fresh crisis.

"Let's take, for example, thunder: the person jumps under the bed, takes a gun, shakes and involuntary craps" Lukachuk told IBTimes UK when asked to describe the symptoms of Donbass snydrome. "And he will say 'I understand that it was thunder, but physically I cannot do anything.'

"Coming back home, you cannot get rid of reactions that saved your life yesterday: the reaction that a suspicious sound means death, that one must hide in a deep trench from anything, that the world is divided by the front line and the best solution is to shoot first. The subconscious mind is constantly palming off bloody images that cannot attach to a quiet, peaceful life.

"Yesterday's soldiers are depressed, closed, and hiding from the world. And this is very serious, because the soldiers whose bodies were preserved by war, lose understanding of what they live for. This was the case with Americans after the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and also with Soviet soldiers after Afghanistan.

"So it will be with Ukrainians now – there'll be an epidemic of suicides."

'We still live in a permanent war'

The problems are clearly demonstrated by a young man we'll call Andrew, who has returned to the civilian world after fighting in the east for six months. He was wounded in his left leg, but, fortunately, managed to avoid amputation, a fate which has befallen so many others.

However Andrew, aged only 22, has seen more cruelty than most people witness in a lifetime.

"I was afraid of being discharged from the hospital, because I didn't know what next" he says. "What will be when I'll come home? What to talk about with all the others who continue to live peacefully? When you come again to civil life, everything in your world can be perceived with a shock and misunderstanding.

"At night you just don't know what to do with yourself because of all these awful thoughts. You don't see any exit. Only your family can help you, because the government... the government doesn't need you. And the family does. But what should you do if you don't have such a good family? What if you don't have parents or wife?"

'When you return, you think "what the f**k did I survive for?"'

Lukachuk believes therapists and psychiatrists have a crucial role to play, in guiding Ukraine's veterans through their emotional turmoil.

"The man who survives traumatic events, has many strong emotions: the guilt of a survivor, anger at the rapist, the pain of loss" Lukachuk says. "And if he is not accustomed to feel such emotions, but on the contrary, is suppressing emotions, so this manifested in physical diseases.

"It is extremely important to find people, in presence of which one can live these feelings and talk about them sincerely. Almost everyone who comes from the East of Ukraine, needs some rehab process, the creation of a space in which soldiers are carried by psychologists.

"At the frontline soldiers tend to think that they are betrayed, and when they carry their emotions back to their families, the public mood worsens, too. So that is why there must be a period during which the soldiers will be cared for by specialists, to understand which of them need further psychologists, psychiatrist help and so on."

Ukraine crisis in Donbass
The conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk will haunt Ukraine's people for generations.Reuters

However this help is extremely thin on the ground. There is currently no clear state rehabilitation programme in Ukraine. No single social policy, no single base on which the respite could happen. A substantial chunk of the work is carried out by volunteers, who mean well but lack the professional background to handle this extremely sensitive work.

The shortage of trained staff is exacerbated by Ukraine's labyrinthine bureaucracy, which is very difficult to break or circumvent. Every soldier who returns expects some benefits from the state, such as discounts on utility bills, and wages (by the way Ukrainian soldiers only get around 900 hryvnia per month, which is about €30).

These expectations are often disappointed. Indeed, after experiencing concussion, Andrew has had to harangue different officials to get a certificate for his disability, at a time when he badly needs to relax and rehabilitate psychologically.

This problem only exacerbates the veterans' sense of pointlessness, the feeling of betrayal, the belief that everything was for nothing.

"When you come under fire, you think 'Thank God I survived!' says Andrew. "But when you return again to normal life, you think 'what the f**k did I survive for?'

"Here, in Kiev, nobody cares for soldiers like me. I need to fight every day with different officials to get the necessary papers, while they look indifferent talking to me. There are only some volunteers who help.

"But what about other people? What about officials? We risked our health defending them, and they just don't care."

'A lot of ex-soldiers will do dangerous things - we're fighting a second war'

Andrew believes that, with so few specialists available, there is almost no point seeking out support for Donbass syndrome.

"I need to be busy during the whole day – with some social affairs and telephone talks with other soldiers. There is no psychologist who can help me now, because they were not there and they don't really know how it was. "I think that, for now, the best psychologists for us are ourselves."

"I think that, for now, the best psychologists for us are ourselves."

With so many soldiers set to return in the coming months, and so few specialists available to treat them, Andrew shares Lukachuk's grim prognosis for Ukraine.

"For now, I can surely say that lots of these ex-soldiers will do dangerous things, because every second soldier was shell-shocked at least once, and only 1 of 100 had a talk with a specialist."

"Being wounded by Donbass syndrome, we still live in permanent war. However, when we come home, we see something even worse than a war. There, at least, we knew – here are we, and here is the enemy.

"But here, in Kiev, we don't understand who the enemy is, and with whom are we fighting here. There is a feeling that I came to the second war in Kiev."