Originally posted here.
Lesia Vasilenko has taken on a daunting task. An internationally trained lawyer still only in her 20s, she has set up a nationwide nongovernmental organization to guide soldiers and veterans of Russia’s war against Ukraine through the nation’s labyrinthine legal system.
The NGO is named Legal Sotnya in Ukrainian (www.legal100.org.ua), referring to the kozak military unit of 100 warriors. “My motto for the organization is ‘protecting the protectors of Ukraine,’” explains Vasilenko. “I want ultimately for every soldier to have a lawyer backing him up.”
Legal100 gained official NGO status in January and has since worked on more than 3,000 cases. The project dates back to July 2014, when Vasilenko wrote and printed her first legal advice brochure in response to common legal questions she fielded while volunteering in military hospitals. Now a series covering everything from conscription to financial compensation for the wounded, the brochures act as a step-by-step guide to soldiers’ rights. They are available to download from the Legal100 website.
There’s also a hotline, open Monday-Friday from 9-6 and staffed by legally knowledgeable volunteers. Each week Vasilenko and her volunteers analyze the database of calls for persistently recurring issues, then formulate their next brochure based on the most common problems.
Many cases can be dealt with by phone, but other require full legal representation. Only soldiers with combat veteran status qualify for government-funded legal aid. For the rest, Vasilenko has a database of over 2,000 volunteer lawyers who are prepared to take on cases pro bono.
“These soldiers are out there covering all of us in our peaceful lives, they’ve taken hits, so why can’t all of them get free legal aid?” asks Vasilenko. “This should be the duty and responsibility of every citizen in Ukraine. That’s why I work with the lawyers I work with, because they all have this mentality. The soldiers do their duty there, and I do my duty here.”
Vasilenko says that many soldiers in the ATO are entirely unaware of their rights. Her driving concern is that soldiers who are not treated fairly on their return from the front will grow despondent and bitter, ultimately taking to the streets once more.
“I don’t want to see a third Maidan, which will be a very bloody Maidan. We saw the preconditions for that just a couple of weeks ago,” says Vasilenko, referring to the grenade attack outside the Verkhovna Rada on Aug. 31, which killed three National Guardsmen. The main suspect, Ihor Humeniuk, is an ATO veteran from the Sich volunteer battalion.
Vasilenko warns that the psychological trauma inflicted on veterans by their time at war makes it essential that they receive the social benefits and any other assistance they need promptly and efficiently once they return home
“We need to start amending legislation, introducing systemic changes,” she told the Kyiv Post. “Soldiers will start to come back, they will start to ask questions, and we need to have the answers ready for them.”
Vasilenko says the treatment the soldiers receive back home will have a huge impact on their ability to reintegrate into civilian life. “Every single soldier who has been to the front has post-traumatic stress syndrome, whether they are diagnosed or not,” she says.
The stigma surrounding mental health in Ukraine prevents many soldiers from seeking professional help. Vasilenko adds that even for soldiers who are prepared to talk about their trauma, there are few psychologists with any experience in dealing with their kind of cases.
“The country is unprepared. This is a new thing and we all need to learn,” says Vasilenko. “I learn every single day that I work with the soldiers. I talk to them and I learn from them. I go home, I open up new legislative acts and I learn. And so do the psychologists.”
While being interviewed by the Kyiv Post, Vasilenko recites a dizzying list of duties. In addition to running Legal100, she works with separate volunteer organizations to get veterans psychological help, job opportunities and housing. She persuades politicians to offer help in individual cases, reckoning that in the run-up to elections, many are looking for PR opportunities in their community.
She’s also involved in writing new legislation to counter the legal blocks the organization faces when trying to support veterans. She studies U.S. and Israeli legislation on veterans, drawing from its successes and failures to establish the best approach for Ukraine. She has volunteer graphic designers on-call to work on each new brochure. And she’s looking for financial backing to compile her materials into a 50-page booklet, to be sent to active military units in the ATO zone.
On top of all that, Vasilenko is also registering another NGO, Children Above All, which connects the children of internally displaced persons with the children of soldiers to promote a sense of community and cross-regional understanding in Ukraine’s next generation. And she gave birth to her second child four months ago.
“I never had the urge to quit,” Vasilenko smiles. “I have to balance it. But I have my own role models, people who do so much. And I want to do so much more.”