Describing what should have never happened: a British researcher’s insight into de-occupied Ukrainian towns

Describing what should have never happened: a British researcher’s insight into de-occupied Ukrainian towns
Anna Vovchenko

Text by Sasha Dovzhyk for Ukrainska Pravda.Zhyttia (translated from Ukrainian by Anna Vovchenko)

Missile-chopped stone idols of Izium that have seen more than one war in their millennia-long history. Librarians who never wanted to witness the war but keep looking after their libraries under bombardments. Kids who have not yet lost faith in reading books despite the war they are seeing and hearing day after day.

In the last days of April, the delegation of PEN Ukraine went on a volunteering trip to eastern Ukraine. A group of Ukrainian writers and their foreign colleagues visited Kharkiv, Izium, Lyman, Sviatohirsk, Sloviansk, and Kramatorsk. Alongside speaking to local librarians, children, and the military, delivering humanitarian aid and books, they documented the impact of Russian invasion.

Upon request of the Ukrainska Pravda:Life, Sasha Dovzhyk, a Ukrainian literary scholar currently living and working in the UK, shared her impressions from seeing the towns and meeting local people during the trip.

Apart from documenting Russian war crimes, my working hours are dedicated to teaching Ukrainian literature at the University of London; yet it was only in April 2023 that I saw Kharkiv, the capital of Ukrainian modernism mythologized by the prominent Ukrainian author Serhii Zhadan, for the first time.

I saw the city center as a number of recognizable buildings’ dark silhouettes standing out against the background of the Milky Way. Blackout restrictions still work in Kharkiv. I would have never seen its downtown if not for a cheerful walk to the hotel 15 minutes before the curfew, since our attention is mainly locked on the city suburbs, most affected by the Russian aggression.

‘I wish you were not here’, is written on a garage in the district of Northern Saltivka, which had been a home to 300 thousand residents before the full-scale invasion and which is located less than 30 kilometers away from the Russian border. In April 2023, the courtyards of houses put to death abound in living tulips here. Apartment beehives, scorched by Russian missiles and razed by Russian bombs, stand empty. On a burnt black wall, a trident is drawn with mounting foam, resembling the symbol of another genocide: a yellow Star of David against the black cloth.

We wish we were not here

We never wanted to see sun shower painting a rainbow over the innards of an apartment block dissected by a Russian missile. We would like to cover the residents’ notebooks, pills, blankets, bedsheets, and plastic bottles, thrown out on the street, lying around, mixed up with concrete slabs and building’s rusty vertebrae, instead of being carefully hidden from strangers’ eyes in the intimacy of domestic space. Meanwhile, we are looking closely and remembering. Everything we see must be used for pursuing justice.

Saltivka, Kharkiv, photo by Anna Vovchenko

From the top of the Kremenets mountain in Izium, the whole Sloboda Ukraine is visible in full view: a green landscape, full of smoothly curved valleys, hills, and chalk-strewn ancient trade routes. Today, however, it’s full of burn marks left by Russian artillery projectiles, destroyed camping sites, and buildings in the liberated town of Izium, seemingly ruined for the most part.

Only eight of nine Cuman burial statues that had observed the battles from the dominant height of Kremenets have withstood the Russian offensive. While a missile crushed the last one by a direct hit, the rest had been shrapnel-chopped. All of a sudden, circling around the statues and scrutinizing their ancient necklaces and fresh scars, we hear an explosion nearby. The war is still so very close.

Polovtsian stone women destroyed by Russia, country-terrorist. Photo by Maksym Sytnikov

In Izium, the librarians show us the rescued book collections, just like their colleagues in Kharkiv did a day before. Ukrainian books lay tied in stacks or stand on shelves in the room of plywood-covered, broken windows. Whereas we look through a compendium of documents about the artificial famine of 1921-1923 – one of the previous attempts to exterminate Ukrainians – some regular readers step inside and get a little shy at seeing such a crowd of strangers. A cheerful patriotic beat of Radio Promin breaks the deserted town’s silence as we are heading to see the ruins of a destroyed high school.

Some of its students may have been among 54 people who died under the rubble of a 5-storey apartment block on Pershotravneva Street. A room on the third floor, deprived of its outer wall, still reveals a children’s desk and a cabinet, painted in blue and yellow, with neat school shirts and jackets inside.

Rescued library collections. Photo by Maksym Sytnikov

While gazing at a bombed building, one must never forget to look down: for one thing, it’s quite possible to step onto the remains of somebody’s life – school diplomas for sport achievements, toys, or molten photo albums – and for another, the possibility to step onto a ‘butterfly mine’ cannot be totally ruled out as well. ‘Butterfly mines’ are Russian PFM-1 – anti-infantry high-explosive mines, banned by the Ottawa Convention: the horsemen of the so-called Russian world have lavishly scattered them over the occupied territories of Ukraine.

Villages in the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, from Yatskivka to Drobysheve, Bohorodychne, Krasnopillia and Dolyna, are distinctive for that they do not exist anymore. Here and there, medevacs and military vehicles rush on broken roads, and stray dogs give them long looks. Some destroyed houses are covered with blue polyethylene film: this means that the landlords may hope to return. Meanwhile, somebody tells us about a desperate farmer who went to work in his garden and lost both legs on a mine.

This year, the heaths of the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions are strewn with ‘butterflies’ and sown with burnt military machinery. Uncultivated fields of black Ukrainian soil are overgrown with danger signs. This blossom of Russian soul has left its seeds in Ukrainian earth for decades. And the pine woods lining up by the road will yet long bewitch with their otherworldly, untouchable beauty which, from now on, can only be grieved from a decontaminated patch of asphalt on the wayside.

Izyum, photo by Maksym Sytnikov

‘Sauna. Meals. Delivery’, tempts a signboard on the outskirts of Sviatohirsk. ‘Mines’, an already familiar plate underneath it warns.

My idea of Donbas landscapes comprising steppe and industrial sites dissolves in the waters of Siverskyi Donets the very minute we drive onto the pontoon bridge. The water reflects white rocks, centennial pines and oak trees with their ruptured roots, and the Sviatohirsk Lavra damaged in the battles for the town. The air smells of damp forest and scorched military equipment.

Sviatohirsk had been occupied for three months. Some of its citizens have lost from 15 to 20 kilograms of weight in this time. Russians left them no other legacy than the tanks burnt in the courtyards from which they were fighting, apartment blocks destroyed by airstrikes, half-ruined city council, school put on close tank fire, and Taras Shevchenko’s bust perforated with bullet holes.

‘Why?’. A silent question emerges among our delegation again and again. The answer is as follows: because centuries of unpunished imperialism cultivated Russians’ sense of impunity. It’s this impunity that Ukrainians will have to bury in the ‘butterfly’-strewn steppes and in pine woods filled with their fellow citizens’ nameless graves.

Life slowly returns to Sviatohirsk with a public laundry and 500 hot meals a day, with a bookcrossing shelf and dog feeders, with concentration of thoughtful people in military uniform who set up a wall between civilians and death.

Ukrainian PEN expedition, Sviatohirsk, Shevchenko monumet. Photo by Maksym Sytnikov

A few days afterwards I am in Lviv, a city that revels in illusory peaceful carnival of daily living. Some grains of sand on my phone screen enhance the quasi-holiday feeling. I blow them away and suddenly realize where they came from. My backpack and socks are full of the sand from the burial grounds near Izium where the occupiers left 450 graves of Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war. The sand has stuck under my fingernails; it crunches on my teeth; it rolls under my skin and grows into my bones. It will forever remain with all of us.

A simple knowledge that Russians – the dead, the living, and the unborn – will have to bear responsibility for the genocide of Ukrainian people for generations has not yet taken root worldwide. Perhaps this will require waking up to explosions somewhere at a recreation center near Siverskyi Donets, exploring black innards of Kharkiv apartment beehives, or looking through a bullet hole on a bronze neck of a national Ukrainian poet in Sviatohirsk.

We are yet to find a way to spread this simple knowledge abroad and take the whole world with us on a journey to the Ukrainian east.

I had to write a story about culture

Culture means servicemen at a gas station near Izium who gratefully accept Ukrainian books as a gift and expertly fix a tourniquet on your backpack. Culture means a café where flat white with lactose-free milk is served under the hollow accompaniment of explosions heard over from the frontline. Culture means the library employees in Sloviansk who provide aid to evacuees from the frontline localities after having evacuated the books to a safer region. Culture means post offices and public bathhouses in liberated Sviatohirsk.

Culture means broadcasting live in German, English and French from a destroyed Ukrainian town and finding words to describe what should have never happened.

Culture means embracing every crater on the roads across the war-torn Donetsk region and inventing the proper language to get through to the world out of its abyss.

may 23, 2023
Tags: #War

Read also:

Support our work

We need your help to create projects and materials aimed to defend freedom of speech, popularize Ukrainian culture and values of independent journalism.

Your donation means support for discussions, awards, festivals, authors’ trips to regions and PEN book publications.

Support PEN

We recommend viewing: