A War Diary. Anastasia Levkova

With the start of the full-scale Russian attack on Ukraine, the lives of the members and the administrative team of PEN Ukraine have changed. Some took up arms instead of a pen. Some spend days in volunteer coordination centers or help people fleeing the war at train stations. And some securely hold the informational frontline. Our colleague, a writer, an editor and a cultural manager Anastasia Levkova stays in Lviv – a city where thousands of Ukrainians have found their temporary refuge. In a special section "A War Diary", she documents her volunteer experience and recalls the events of recent weeks. Posts are placed in reverse chronological order; in order to read the entries in the sequence intended by the author, we recommend going back to the end of the material. It will be updated regularly.

28/03/2022

While producing for a French journalist I had perpetual flashbacks from the times of my conversations with Crimean fixers. We were discussing their work during the annexation of the peninsula: I wanted to introduce their stories into the plot of my novel. Sasha’s reporters from London, for instance, had been delighted with an opportunity to talk to the wife of the recently deceased Reshat Ametov at his funeral. Their questions were quite shallow, but what a "sensational coverage" these guys were going to issue!

Now I’m lucky enough to cooperate with Christophe. He is a very thoughtful and empathetic man, working for a newspaper, not TV. The Crimeans’ observations have taught me well that newspaper people are usually attentive listeners (which is important), since they don’t need a graphic picture to evoke the viewer’s emotions. Even so, producing for them does not always go without caveats. One of the fixers has told me about his work in Donbas. "Over my dead body", he had to strongly explain to the journalists, "you will put into your article the term "rebellions" instead of "proxies" or at least "pro-Russian separatists", because they ain’t no rebellions." Thankfully, Christophe and his office needed no clarification that there is war in Ukraine, not conflict or crisis. Their headlines went in with the words "les russes", not "Poutine". They transliterated the names of our cities as Kyiv, Zaporijjia, Lviv, instead of Kiev, Zaporoje, Lvov. It saved me a lot of nerves and effort.

Our conversations with refugees and volunteers offer enough material for several publications in Ukrainian media. Thus, I decided to prepare two articles (an interview with the people who fled the hell of Mariupol and a report on the therapists’ work these days). No need to do more: I’m not the one who receives updates from the frontline, and Ukrainians, unlike the foreigners, perfectly understand everything about our solidarity. On top of that, we have no time for reflections. Foreigners may write longreads because their audiences can comfortably sit in cozy chairs and conceptualize, while we can now afford only evidence and facts. We write succinctly. We move quickly, and we breathe shortly. Very shortly. Though someone has no time for even a little break.

I throw some ideas into my mind to store them for later. Better think it over and write of it after the war, I tell myself. After the war. After the victory. But meanwhile, even now that I’m laying in my bed with the first cold caught in four years, I can’t get out of an obsessive sensation of non-stop running. I look through the news briefly. I send brief messages to connect different people with each other. My head is heavy and my nose stuffy, but my whole self feels like on a haltless run. Where am I running? Towards the victory. Faster and faster.

***

At times, I think that we are somehow fortunate in this situation. We haven’t had any difficulty in discovering the ways of mutual assistance, volunteering, and cooperation. We’ve developed all these skills throughout the Revolution of Dignity and the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014. It has all just come to the light. Today, there’s no room for dispute whether the volunteers possess the right to eat or sleep well, to have some fun or even to buy new clothes. Yes, the society achieved consensus, they do. They are as well free to put the sense of guilt aside in case of its emergence.

At times, I also think that those engaged into the first wave of volunteering from the very beginning of the full-scale invasion would probably burn out soon. And it would be good of the people who haven’t been that enthusiastic so far to come for rotation. Still, there is little hope for the nonreactive to take up things. Well… what about precautions, then? I decided to take good care of myself (which includes walking, sleeping well, and enjoying the still available pleasures) so that I could as long as possible be of help to my country. This is something I wish for everyone.

Yesterday I got together with Lily Hyde. An English author and journalist, she has been living in Ukraine for almost 20 years. I suggested that she writes something about our lasting tradition of volunteering. No need for me to promote this theme: it simply does not require an explanation to any of my fellow countrymen.

***

Yesterday, during an air raid in the evening, I was reading extracts from my future novel about Crimea to our guests. I have been working on it for several years before the full-scale invasion had started. By then, I had already understood that war made the design of my novel out-of-date in many respects. It refers to the events of 1992-2014, but history always contains a hint at present days. I was in tears while reading this paragraph:

"On February 9, I talked to a man whom two weeks later I recognized on the list of the Heavenly Hundred heroes. The executions on Maidan made it impossible and improper to speak with metaphors, such as "Kyiv is dying". A few days after the tragedy, one of the publicists wrote that any war deprives an author of the two most significant metaphors, which are death and blood. It was then when I understood that no city may perish – perhaps except Pompeii, perhaps except Warsaw in 1944 or Hiroshima and Nagasaki a year later. Cities are bound to recuperate. Cities are more sustainable constants than even entire countries, let alone human beings, utterly fragile, irreparable, and completely irremediable."

I was in tears because now it’s Mariupol that has been added to Warsaw, Pompeii, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, together with larger parts of Chernihiv and Kharkiv. I’m hurting mainly for Mariupol: it is a sentenced-to-death city. Yet, I’m hurting for all other towns, too, especially when I recall my trips there: to the tidy surroundings and once… once beautiful architecture of Mariupol; to the splendid university of Berdiansk and local history museum of Melitopol; to the magnificent hills of Izium, where the tour guide told us breathtakingly about the poetess Olena Teliha who had long ago studied in the local grammar school etc. Much less to mention Chernihiv with its carved wooden houses, and the broad streets of Kharkiv.

I only hope that it is still not impossible to rebuild them all. When finishing any conversation, I wish my counterparts the fast victory, peace, and renovation. But people are always more fragile than buildings. We don’t know the precise number of those deceased, neither civilians, nor of the military personnel. Once it’s made public, we will be shocked, if only we hold out ourselves by that time.

Reverting to my novel, there are some more things about it that probably sound weird today. My heroine, for example, during the annexation of Crimea (February 27 – March 16, 2014) feels uncomfortable about possible shootings. Of course, she agrees, Ukrainian soldiers must shoot at the enemy, but as for pure emotional perception, she does not want anybody to die. Now we are dehumanized. News on the occupiers’ units being destroyed makes us happy. Awful may it seem, but in fact we are happy for our cities and our people who therefore can have a better chance to stay alive. Do I feel guilty about such a dehumanization of mine? No, I don’t. It’s Russians who dehumanized us in the first place: not just the Armed Forces, but the whole Ukrainian nation.

I often think about how many writers’ plans will have to be changed, edited, or amended because of the war. Petro Yatsenko, for instance, had written a book on the Mriya, our world’s biggest plane. It was waiting to appear in print this year, but now there is no Mriya anymore: it has been burnt down. I hope that Petro does not reject the idea to publish his book after all. I hope he just finishes it with another conclusive chapter.

***

Three powerful explosions thundered yesterday in Lviv. There were only videos of the smoke on the Ukrainian media; it was CNN who put the fire on screen. CNN and other foreign channels are a separate issue. On the one hand, their coverage seems too frightening to me. Our media try, no matter what, to prove us some compassion, giving the same facts but with a slightly different focus. They emphasize morale, and they often make funny comments. I’m grateful for that, by the way. Sometimes, spending an air alert in the corridor, I ask mom to read us some jokes from the numerous Facebook groups she has subscribed to (more than I have, in fact).

Foreign media can afford another tone. The editorial line of Christophe’s newspaper demands some kind of a cross between fear (as they bring people into the center of attention, not geopolitics) and an unbiased but, consequently, less merciful view of an outsider. (Once, for example, when interviewing a therapist, he asked her something like: "I often hear Ukrainians say, "after the victory", "as soon as we prevail"; I see a lot of hope. Is this a coping strategy?" It pained me a lot to hear that, but thankfully, it was a one-time only discomfort in our cooperation.)

I decided that I should read foreign media, too. I have to understand this war in a more global perspective. Thus, I must also see their part of reality, I told myself, taking a deep breath, switching on the CNN reportage and tightening up inside.

25/03/2022

After the aircraft repair plant in Lviv has been shelled (we have heard the explosions and seen the distant thickness of black smoke behind our windows) my mother said it became too dangerous a city to stay in. She decided to return home (which is located eastward). I made no attempt to dissuade her, although knowing that my family is mostly safe at my side has been the source of my composure for all this time. Yet, she is right: in times of calamity, one feels better at home than visiting, and staying in Lviv nowadays is equally risky as in my native town of S. Besides, in S. there is a similar volunteer hub as in Lviv: mom devotes most of her time to weaving meshes, and volunteering activity seems to have already spread worldwide. An old acquaintance of mine sent me a video the other day. He runs a library in Krakow: now there are also meshes weaved and refugees settled in the premises.

Meanwhile, my sister has affirmed her resolution to stay in Ukraine, till our apartment block is not yet shelled. "So many people have booked my tours. How can I fail them?" she recaps. For three years she has been organizing introductory tours across the Odesa region to familiarize Ukrainians with its multiculturalism. There were not a few wishing to book these tours in May. "Looking forward to seeing you in spring: I have no intention to cancel the booking", a Czech lady of Ukrainian descent wrote to her. Until then, my sister does different kinds of volunteer jobs, too. She calls the museums to inquire about their needs or manages the accommodation of refugees or raises funds to order a thermographic camera from abroad and send it to the Southern front or she renders whatever else.

Weird may it seem, but I still felt safe on the shelling day in Lviv. I felt safe at home, where the smoke was seen behind my window; I even felt safe at the scene of the accident, trying to make a reportage together with my fellow journalist (we got no permission, of course, but the residents in the neighboring yards gave us some interviews); and later, on my way home, I was nevertheless feeling safe. I’m always safe in my city, I thought. Though everything obviously would get thrown out of whack if Lviv was turned into something like Kharkiv, Chernihiv or Mariupol (heaven forbid!).

(My friend V. has recently taken his family out of Chernihiv. They spent the night in Vyshgorod, then went to the Cherkasy region. For a laugh, V. told me of his conversation with someone: "We are safe in Vyshgorod" – "It’s fighting there…" – "No worries, we came from Chernihiv". No humor but black has been left to us at present; it’s only the density of its blackness that can vary.)

17/03/2022

The whole country is involved in weaving the camouflage meshes. In the first days, I thought that people did it just for the sake of their own comfort, but later, since my mom joined the activity herself, something very different has transpired.

It has proved to be a necessity. Handmade meshes are preferred rather than manufactured ones, with repetitive print which can be easily distinguished by drones. The handmade, on the contrary, made up from different pieces of textile and laced by different hands, are just the real deal.

Meshes are made on specific demands, including size and color, to the greatest amount possible, because they also get quickly worn out.

Today, at the hub where my dearest people usually do their weaving job, the letter of appreciation from the requesting unit was read out loud. The meshes were recognized as finely crafted and very useful. One of the women in the room has even dropped a tear of excitement.

14/03/2022

My friend P. is alive. Thank God. I spent all of yesterday calling the emergency hospitals in the city where the wounded from Yavoriv military base were taken, but his name was not on any list. Then I called the hospitals of Yavoriv and Novoyavoriv: no answer to about 20 dials. Still, I was hoping to find him there or convince myself that he’s safe and sound. Maybe it’s just for the reason of a broken connection. N., the wife of P., was bouncing off the walls; I felt afraid for her, too, and texted to calm her down.

I went to bed, scared of what might become known tomorrow. N. texted me at 7 a. m.: three hours earlier she had got a call from P. Connection was broken indeed. He is okay.

I don’t think all men must take up arms. Yes, men are of more physical strength, but it’s also speed and accuracy of reactions that matter at war. I believe it could be hard for people of phlegmatic type of personality or sensitive and vulnerable psyche. Fortunately, now we know that it does not depend on gender. And if we consider it normal for women to fight, we should consider it normal as well for men to be useful at the rear. I wish military administrations took this into account in the first place, though…

Reverting to Yavoriv, my other friend Khrystia told me about her friend’s dad. He was among those who lost their lives there. After having survived in Afghanistan, Karabakh, Mariupol in 2015, he’s now died on his own land, like a master of warriors.

12/03/2022

My every chore is now subject to the martial law which encompasses my whole country. Since the very first day of the full-scale war, I do not work on my future novel anymore. Neither I organize literary readings in Ukrainian towns (one of such meetings with two other authors within the framework of the PEN Ukraine project was scheduled on March 9-10, but the beginning of the Russian invasion made us cancel all the agreements), nor even do my regular job which was that of editing reports and interviews. I quitted reading books and watching movies (such as The Crown, my favorite pre-war evening pleasure).

All the possible victory jobs I sort by color in my mind. White is for texts and information (not from the frontline, still). White job is what I can do well, though in the times of war it all comes mostly in foreign languages. Thus, I write columns, talk to international journalists, and articulate messages on the war for the audiences around the globe. A group of Ukrainian Catholic University professors and alumni journalists has immediately created the specific website for this purpose.

Black color is for war tasks of soldiers and combat medics on the battlefield. This is what I don’t fit for. I could never imagine myself doing something like this till the third or fourth day of the war, when I finally put my pacifism aside and prepared as least as I was able to: the ingredients for Molotov cocktails.

Finally, some work is located between the black and the white. And it’s not gray, it’s purple, because purple is the color of grief. Purple color is for work with people: shelling survivors, those who got through the hell on earth and now run for the hills, possessed by desperate longing for peace. I considered white work too white. Meanwhile, the victims needed assistance. I felt obliged to do the purple job too.

For this reason, I went to the train station. Since the day of its establishment in 1861, Lviv train station has probably never been so crowded. People come here from all parts of the country: mostly on their way abroad and rarely to stay in Lviv or its commuter towns and villages. These images from the first days at the station shock and touch at the same time. There is so much pain there, but also so much love and support.

***

I dare to make a dark joke, for these days, humor generally turns black. Volunteering at the train station can be compared to work at a book fair. You are just passing your time in a tent, waiting for somebody to ask you questions and giving them answers. Sometimes you manage to catch their seeking eye and ask first: "Can I help you?" Bus station to Poland, railway track to Poland… yes, it’s right there, you tell them, yes, it’s all for free. For accommodation, please, call the district administrations… yes, you just go there and register, yes, they can settle you either in somebody’s family or find you a folding bed in a theater, or in a gym…

Such a comparison with a book fair could be valid until you remember that this is war. That everyone who you are talking to has recently fled a nightmare. Shelling, bombardments, fear of losing the house… Somebody did have left homeless. Someone has experienced even worse: the loss of their beloved ones. At the train station, women part with their spouses (men of battle-worthy age between 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine; many of them enlist to the Armed Forces). No one is moving of their own accord. They all do their best to escape despair and save their lives.

Yet standing there and talking is bearable. It’s later when I recall the kaleidoscope of faces and questions and burst into tears. I cry at home, after having hardly restrained myself from sobbing in front of those people. Late at night, I lay sleepless in my bed, in a shared room with my mother, sister, and one of the daily rotating refugees, peering through the darkness and sighing.

Some people’s questions are much more complicated than those about accommodation and train schedules. A man from Kharkiv holds his 3-year-old weepy blond son. "My boy doesn’t have a mother. I am his only legal responsible. Do you think they’ll let me take him out? I can stay in Ukraine, too: my son’s fate is my sole concern, but we need a kindergarten for him so that I could work. Tell me please if there are kindergartens for refugees’ children in Lviv?"

"Please, my mother needs medical treatment", asks a cultured lady in her fifties. "We ought to get on the road now, but I am not sure if she will make it through. I’m searching for some hospitals…" And then she starts crying.

Another elderly woman stares at me tenaciously. "Please, I must get my granddaughter out of the Mykolaiv region." (That’s one of the southern hotspots, which the orcs, as we often call Russian occupiers, are still striving to capture, with local activists gone missing and towns shelled.) I search through the schedule of evacuation trains. There is one from Dnipro, but what about any possibility to get there from the southern village via Mykolaiv? No idea, I tell my interlocutor frankly. Her eyes turn pleading. "She is such a lovely and talented girl, my granddaughter. What if she dies there? We can’t just set her adrift like that. Please, figure something out", the woman says. "Give me your phone number. You’re a volunteer after all. Of course, you can find some solution."

…One day in this Q & A tent at the station, I met two women. Mother and daughter, they are looking for a place to stay. By this time, I am already hosting some refugees, but still choose to find a room for two more people.

My new guests came from the hell of Kharkiv. For two weeks both women had been living under constant shelling and bombardment. Once, they had witnessed the ignition of a neighboring house: a loud and powerful strike made them believe it was their own home where the missile hit. They ask me if I have seen the videos with dead civilians’ bodies on the city streets. I do have: my best friend spends hours watching these videos repeatedly. Each time she feels like her own body is running out of life. Look, here they are, the new arrivals say.

When an earlier refugee turns the hairdryer on, I think the newcomers would get frightened of the sound. When the door is heard slamming, I can’t help but think they would get frightened.

An air alert yowled at night. We got up and woke the Kharkivians. One of them stepped out into the corridor. "Come on, Nastya", she said. "We never get up to something like this." They hadn’t heard any alerts back home, in fact. Just never-ending explosions. I patted her on the shoulder and told her to go back to sleep.

…They are both so thankful. I don’t see why they should be. It’s our shared distress, I explain, we must all help each other.

***

The Kharkivians did not believe it was going to be a full-scale invasion. They laughed at those who talked about it. We, in the meantime, could not stop discussing this only issue with our parents, friends on messengers, friends in person… I have specifically visited mom and dad to talk over our supposed steps in case of war: places and ways to go, keeping in touch etc. Several days before February 24, I did my haircut and got the booster jab to prevent myself from possible difficulties.

I have never doubted the substance of Russia, of Russians, and of Putin the Khuylo. My sole question was whether they would really make up their minds or not. Those who rejected such a possibility, had obviously needed a few days to recover from shock.

***

I try to always remember that my situation is much more privileged than the others’. My city has not yet been bombarded nor shelled. I’m living in my own apartment, though even my mom and sister who came to stay with me on the third day of the invasion, are not, let alone the guest refugees. My sister has come from a commuter town near Kyiv: she knows that her house is at continual risk of destruction (heaven forbid!).

She is afraid of the orcs’ offensive against Western Ukraine, too. I think the Khuylo will want to take such a chance. He is apparently planning something like this! For now, only the reckless response of the Ukrainian army contains his further urges. Yes, his dickwads are demoralized and poorly armed, but there is such a large amount of them, and the Khuylo is very vile, though rather weak a creature. That’s the reason why the future advance into Western Ukraine, located near Slovakian, Polish, Hungarian and Romanian borders, is just a matter of time.

Meanwhile I’m staying here, in Lviv. My sister is in fear: by the time they attack us directly, she assumes, all other countries would be so full of Ukrainian refugees that we will have nowhere to run. Together, we dread not death but repressions and tortures. We have read too many books, documents, and evidence to know well what Russians are capable of. We consider that our history would undoubtedly make another circle. Let’s go, my sister asks, while they still accept refugees. At the same time, she doesn’t want to move anywhere. My sister is incredibly attached to our country. As the head of "Don’t Be Indifferent" NGO, she has visited so many towns and villages in every region of Ukraine, brought the people there so many books and CDs with patriotic movies, organized so many cultural events, talked to so many people… Her friends and acquaintances live in every bombarded location. It’s heartbreaking for her to leave Ukraine, yet terrifying to stay.

I’m scared, too, but there is a fundamental difference. I am at home here, in the hitherto impact, but still jeopardized city of Lviv. I live where all my belongings are. When it’s cold outside, I put on my warmer clothes, or I can find something light when it starts to get hot. I prepare my everyday coffee and cocoa just as I like, in my favorite dishes. I take a shower in my own bathroom, wash my clothes in my own washing machine (because of the guests, this happens more often than ever). I feel safe at home. Moreover, the hot chocolate, made on my own stove, has never tasted better to me. Hot water, running from the bath tap, has never brought me such a great pleasure. I’m surely aware of exhausted people in besieged Mariupol, who starve and dehydrate to death: no water, no electricity, no gas in the permanently bombarded city. Every bite sticks in my throat whenever I think of it, but nothing can be done to help, no matter how much supplies or money I donate.

Thus, I try to eat hot chocolate in my kitchen after all. Or borscht, cooked by my mother and sister for everyone at our place. When I wash MY OWN floor, it makes me happy. I walk down the familiar streets: every building, every tree, every corner or small pit on the pavement feels so very dear. My friends are mostly staying in Lviv, and I can go see them. We share the same language, memes, jokes, and the same disaster. Nothing like this is of access abroad. As far as possible, I want to enjoy the privilege of living life in MY city among MY people. You never know how much time it is meant to.

The emergency backpack is always at my bedside, ready with my passport and other essential things.

Translated by Anna Vovchenko
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