The train taking me from Poland to Ukraine is full. The passengers are almost all women, and I share a compartment with one who’s mostly silent. In the long hours when the train is at a standstill, passport control and customs come around. Then we trade a few sentences. She’s expecting a child and she almost always sounds cheerful, even when she’s talking about something terrible or violent. She remembers the February days of last year.
The first thing she does is describe a home, a dacha, that in the past few years had been so thoroughly rebuilt that war could hardly reach it. It’s powered by a generator, there’s a private well for the water, and the heating is also autonomous. When she describes her house, it becomes clear that it’s located outside Kyiv, in a village in the direction of Obukhiv, in an area that has never been occupied by the Russian army.
In the first days of the war, many people I knew fled to their holiday homes in the Kyiv Oblast, where families tend to spend spring and summer. Back then it was unclear what would transpire. Even in the first days of the war, it was nearly impossible to imagine a major invasion like in the second world war, with obliterated streets and demolished infrastructure, with millions of refugees, with thousands injured and dead. Even my own powers of imagination were not enough to construct such a reality a year ago.
About the photography
The images accompanying this piece are by Rafał Milach, associate member of Magnum Photos. Visiting Ukraine in January 2023, he says he was ‘looking for traces of war trauma in the architecture and landscape’. He found ruined houses, hasty repairs and signs of the country’s brutal recent history. ‘But the city functions, tries to adapt to new conditions,’ he says. ‘There is incredible strength in this.’
Many Kyiv citizens thought that it would be easier to wait out a short-term upheaval in a dacha. And they hurriedly packed their suitcases and fled in the direction of Bucha, Irpin, Moschun, Gorynka and others — exactly the places where, if they survived, these people would be condemned to witness the most terrible crimes of the war.
When my neighbour in the train compartment speaks about the war, she returns to the same image, over and over again: a Russian tank driving next to her high-rise building in the Obolon district on February 25. The tank destroyed the children’s playground in the yard in front of the building. Shocked residents filmed it from their windows. After 11 months of war, the playground amounts to nothing more than a shoddy reconstruction. Returning to Kyiv, she will again see traces of the tank and the destroyed yard of her apartment.
Then, without comment, she shows me a video in which an armoured infantry fighting vehicle can be seen driving through the streets as if drunk, climbing on to the pavement, ploughing into a small children’s playground next to some apartment blocks. This fragment is from a news broadcast. The Ukrainian news anchor explains, in a worried voice, that Ukrainian vehicles have been stolen by Russian diversionary and reconnaissance units. Surprised, he asks: “Don’t they understand that they are not hitting the war targets declared by the Russian government, but putting peaceful people — the residents of Kyiv — in harm’s way?”
The Ukrainian anchor’s sincere shock should be stored in the war’s museum of feelings.
A few weeks ago, after the rocket attack on December 31 2022, the central heating in my flat in Kyiv was turned off for two weeks. I’m sick and don’t go out much. A friend comes to visit me. After the war broke out, she and her husband moved into the empty home of some wealthy relatives, an elderly couple who had left Ukraine. The couple had two cats and two dogs who were accustomed to living both inside the house and outside.
“This house is super-luxurious,” my friend told me, “but my husband and I don’t feel at ease here. There’s marble everywhere. And when the electricity goes off, there’s no heating either. There’s a generator, but it drinks fuel and we don’t use it.”
The house is near one of Kyiv’s power plants. Every rocket attack confirms how dangerous it is there. But my friend and her husband cannot take the animals to their small one-room apartment, and so they stay, for the pets’ sake.
During a recent attack, they were sheltering in one of the best-protected small rooms in the house, when my friend noticed the animals looking at a point on the wall. As the house shook, both humans and animals watched a crack snaking along the wall, branching slowly upwards as they sat there in silence.
Residential buildings are shelled every day in Ukraine. A volunteer who worked in Bakhmut wrote on a Telegram channel that rescuers could not approach a wrecked house because of the constant shelling, though they could hear groans from under the rubble. After the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, I hear words of compassion for the victims at every step in Kyiv.
Kyiv is shelled. Multiple air raids. I get a call from the friend who’s looking after the animals. She keeps telling me not to worry: “I have a close friend who still panics during air raids. Do you know how I calm her down? I tell her: ‘Think about it, my dear, is anyone going to waste a rocket on you? Rockets cost an awful lot of money! For the cost of one rocket, you can build a private house right in the centre of Kyiv! One rocket can support a whole village for a year. So you’re safe. Nobody’s going to waste a whole rocket on the likes of us.’”
She bursts out laughing.
I go to see my aunt, a publisher, who has not left Kyiv even for a day since the war started. One year ago, she was preparing a book for publication, written by a Kyivan citizen born almost 100 years ago. This man endured German and Soviet concentration camps, suffered repression, studied archaeology and decided to devote his last years to writing his memoirs. My aunt helped him. After months of work, the book was finally handed over to the printers shortly before February 24.
On February 25, the second day of the war, this man called my aunt to find out what had happened to his book. She had to tell him that the printing house, where the book had been sent, had burnt down during the shelling. The director of the printing house had decided to volunteer for the war. This book, like all too many others, was never published.
Rocket strikes were launched on Kharkiv this evening. The number of victims is not yet known.
12.2.23: ‘The work of war’
A Sunday in Kyiv after a week of incessant shelling throughout Ukraine. A day when seemingly nothing happens. One walks through the city and hopes not to hear any news at all.
During the night I heard distant explosions as well as a new and unknown sound in the air. When I read that it was apparently the noise of Ukrainian drones, I calmed down.
I saw a video on a Telegram channel of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the mercenary Wagner group, who recruited thousands of Russian prisoners for the war against Ukraine. He promised these prisoners a chance to start life over again. In a dark room somewhere in Russia, he sat on a bench and faced the camera. “The war,” he said, “is only work, frontline work. When prisoners get an arm or a leg torn off in battle, they’re still happy, they laugh quite merrily. Maybe they’ve discovered something in this hardship.”
Right now, as Kyiv seems almost calm, a Russian offensive is taking place in the east of the country. The war is constantly migrating from one city to the next. And when it’s not here today, an illusion of safety and tranquility emerges very quickly. There’s music in the streets, and loud voices; parents with small children walk through the city centre with dreamy expressions.
In the evening I visit my friend, a film critic and scholar, for her birthday celebration. At the small gathering in her apartment, I’m greeted by old friends. The warmth I feel in their tight embraces is astonishing. These people are surprised that they can see their friends again, that such a Sunday has come when they can gather to celebrate in company.
No, it’s not only that. We have not seen each other since the war began. We stare at one another as if getting to know each other all over again. The war has become a trace that you can silently read in our faces. Every voice sounds a little softer than before.
In a small shop near my house, the saleswoman asks me, to the accompaniment of the air-raid siren’s piercing wail: “Tell me, are you getting ready for February 14? It’s Lovers’ Day! None of us is thinking about anything else. I’m racking my brains over which gift to choose!”
I tell her that I’d forgotten all about this festival. She looks so disappointed that I move on to the souvenir shelves and pretend to look for a gift.
On February 14 2022, 10 days before the full-scale invasion, I was in Kyiv. That evening brought a lot of news. I’m looking at the headlines: “Defence minister Oleksii Reznikov has said: ‘My assessment of the current state of affairs is no cause for alarm. There are no grounds for imposing martial law.’” Next to these optimistic words are two statements from the US state department. One reported that the US embassy had been moved to Lviv, the other that “Putin has not yet made a formal decision to invade”.
This unremarkable word “yet” carried a message about the future that awaited us, and about which I could then only guess. The word told of the defeat of international law and diplomacy, a manifesto of weakness, a willingness to submit to fate where action was needed to prevent war.
I recall experts arguing before the war that Russia could theoretically occupy Ukrainian cities, but how could you hold fast to them if the populations were not loyal? They would become problem cities, cities with constant protests and revolutions, much better left alone than taken by force.
None of them imagined that Russia would destroy populations of Ukrainian cities along with streets, parks, museums, houses and an entire infrastructure. The city chosen for occupation would be no longer a city but a ruin, with its last few hundred residents hiding under the rubble. It turned out that, in Russia’s eyes, there was no such thing as a Ukrainian city.
Ukrainian soldiers who before the war were artists, engineers, programmers and doctors, and are now tired, with barely healed wounds and without even a little rest, are being forced to return to the front. I met one of them today. He’s only spent a few days in Kyiv, and now he has to return to the front line.
Discussions continue in Europe about whether to provide Ukraine with all the weapons it needs to defend itself.
Today is a calm and sunny day with, as yet, no interruptions from air-raid alerts. Fighting continues in Bakhmut and all along the front line.
Everywhere I look, I see war both yesterday and tomorrow. It is hard to speak in the midst of war; speech loses its meaning against the background of constant destruction.
A year of war has now passed, every second of it scrutinised closely by the media. Dead bodies, the groans of wounded people, the fragments of a disappearing peaceful life, are carried by the media’s harsh voice over vast distances.
When I started my diary on February 24 2022, I felt that any intimation of war should be a reason for immediate action. Ukraine would quickly receive enough air defence and weapons to prevent people from dying and more and more cities from becoming a battlefield, a wasteland.
Now I see that international experts are stretching the war’s timeframe, saying that it will probably last another year, two, three or five; for as long as Russia has sufficient “resources” to continue. The world has allowed a war that affirms barbaric law: violence and crime can last as long as the criminal has enough energy, will and strength to commit it.
Translation from the German by Greg Nissan
©Yevgenia Belorusets 2023
Yevgenia Belorusets’ ‘War Diary’ is published by New Directions Publishing and ISOLARII on March 7
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