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.

11/04/2022

Can’t stop thinking over the Facebook post of Marina Ahmedova, deputy editor of The Russian Reporter. I saw it screened yesterday in my newsfeed. Here it is, translated from the Russian language (no need to ask the lady for her permission, because the post is public):

"Several women in a liberated village came to me. "Are you from Moscow?" they asked. "Are you regarding human rights? Well, bring us some plastic film to cover the windows and the ceilings in the school. It has been shelled. We are the teachers."

I promised to fulfill their request and downloaded the film in the trunk of my car. Out of sheer curiosity, I asked them whether the Russian language had ever been oppressed in their school. Though I don’t care what language a person speaks.

"No", the deputy director answered. "We have even taught it optionally, once a week."

"What about Russian literature? Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky? Have you had lessons on their writings, too?"

"Of course, we have!"

As evidence, they showed me a textbook. God knows why the verses of Pushkin were published in the Ukrainian language there. Maybe it was done just principally. This was how the Russian children had to study Russian literature, bereft of all its authentic strength and power in the Ukrainian translation! Still, they think that the Russian language has never been oppressed. How could it be oppressed anyway, when taught only once a week? The great things were bereft of their greatness. Russian literature is a great one; whatever one may say, Ukrainians lack and, for certain historical reasons, will forever lack something like this. Thus, the possibility of speaking Russian is a gift. As an author who writes in Russian, I laugh when I listen to complaints like, ‘You are imposing your Russian language on us by force!’. What can I say? Great things cannot be imposed forcibly. Great things must yet be merited. Those whose ancestors have merited them – like, for example, the children from Donbass – cannot be deprived of the great things. It’s undignified!

But of course, we will deliver the plastic film to them. The school which the Armed Forces of Ukraine had been shelling intentionally, must be saved from the spring downpours. And from now on, it will be supplied with the new textbooks, where the writings of Pushkin and Tolstoy will be published in the original."

She does not even want to think that Ukrainian could be a mother tongue for the people (as, for example, German, Spanish or French are). To me, it’s interesting whether she reads the great Byron in the original? Or the outstanding Goethe? Or the powerful Gugo? Or Cervantes? Or Dante? I think, however, that she reads them in Russian. Are the great things bereft of their greatness in this case? She doesn't even want to think that the different state (which Ukraine is) can use the different language as the official one. Is the Russian language, in her opinion, oppressed in Germany, France, Switzerland or Portugal? Do they offer more lessons of the Russian language per week in the local schools?

This is the very essence of the great Russian culture. Great indeed in its chauvinism and huge indeed in its narcissism and arrogance. It is this chauvinistic part of Russian culture that the world takes for the great and outstanding one. It’s this part of the Russian culture from which the current war on Ukraine has originated, alongside slaughtering of the civilians, piles of lies regarding actions of the Ukrainian army and the Russian Vostok battalions etc...

"What do you feel and think when Putin states that no Ukrainian people have ever existed?", an Italian journalist had asked me at the beginning of the full-scale war. "I think that Putin does not know history at all", I answered. "Nor does he have any idea about modernity. But when I am listening to something like this, I’m tightening inside. What does he mean by saying that I have never existed? Or my beloved ones? Or the things which are so very dear to me and millions of other people?"

Nevertheless, there is nothing more that we could have expected from Putin. But what about millions of the others?

This Marina Ahmedova possesses an outstandingly sharp style, all corresponding to the principles of every reportage school. I wish it was not for the fucking contents! "Those villages have been also shelled by the Ukrainian army – without any sense, furthermore"; "In the eye of the captive, I see a human being, just like myself; and I feel so happy about our difference from those subhuman creatures who encourage tortures on the Ukrainian side and declare their withdrawal from the Geneva Conventions". It’s a pile of total lies!!! The independent foreign intelligences have already reported that it’s Russian soldiers who have been executing people in Bucha, bombarding Mariupol, torturing captives, and looting. I wish this woman would rot in hell for her lies. Or maybe she does believe in them herself?

This is what the Russian Wikipedia informs about this lady: "The family lived in a wooden house. Three grandmothers had been taking care of the girl. Then her father had sent her to the fourth grandmother in Dagestan, so that Marina could learn his native tongue. Still, after spending ‘two unbearable months’ in a Dagestan village, she had returned home without having learnt a word in her father’s language." Russian culture is chauvinistic and obsessive to such an extent that people disregard even their own heritage to force others to do likewise later, because in their hearts they feel ashamed of it.

Still, they would have obviously disowned any kind of shame.

 

08/04/2022

Each evidence nowadays becomes poetry, art, or literature, no matter who’s documenting it. Everything that you are forced to witness, you contemplate breathlessly.

I have just understood the reason for this. Art always constitutes some form of defamiliarization. This technique is about giving a new perspective and seeing the common world differently.

At the same time our world is far from feeling common. It’s strange and unfamiliar. That’s why everything that depicts it becomes art.

So, here’s an answer to writing poetry after Auschwitz: each evidence nowadays is stunningly uncanny poetry.

 

06/04/2022

Tough incidents catch me emotionally several days afterwards. It happened so in 2014, when the Heavenly Hundred had been murdered. Since the very first days, I knew about what had happened, but still I was able to live my normal life. I remember that on February 18, I had bought a bathrobe, but then I brought it back in two days. For me, it would forever be a reminder of the executions, I told the saleswoman, I will never be able to put it on. From then on, I was wearing black clothes for the whole week. The next 6 months I spent watching all those videos from time to time and listening to Plyve kacha. Sometimes I saw the deceased standing around my bed after I went to sleep. I felt no fear: we had all left on the same side of the barricades despite being diluted on different sides of the earthly life.

…I kept stoic after hearing the news about Bucha.

But now… Now I’m constantly crying between the short and infrequent respites.

Somebody has to mourn all those people. We have to mourn them.

"How do you manage to keep the balance between seeing and remembering and doing what you ought to do in the peacetime?", Anna Sventakh asked me on Facebook.

It seemed to me that I was really keeping the balance so far, but have I seen enough? Have I remembered enough?

I don’t know.

I never read neighborhood chats from Bucha or Kharkiv. I never watch too many photos, except those published in the media. They say that reading chats may lead to a burnout. I can fancy that. Every now and then I think that I should read them, and I am even aware of the reason. I must do it to mourn. To know about the grief.

But what if there will be nothing left but scorched earth? What if the whirlwind of torment seizes me so relentlessly that I would be able to do nothing more, like it happened today after my friends had posted some extracts from these chats on Facebook? Will it be of help to anybody? I’m crying today, even though I cannot remember any phrase I have just read. It’s the whirlwind that has seized me. It’s the whirlwind of torment.

For me, it means laying down on my bed, staring at the ceiling, and peering through the mirthless air.

It's the 6th of May when even birds keep silent. They have already understood everything. Tough incidents catch them some time afterwards, just as it happens to me. I think so because they were still singing two days before.

No, the whirlwind must not seize me. I am committed to know and remember but not to give myself over to the whirlwind of torment.

***

V. (an old friend of mine who for a long time has been living overseas) wanted to read my war diaries. I have selected the most recent entries, and here’s his answer (published with the permission from him):

"My wife’s parents live in a village near Nova Kakhovka. Together with their son and his family, they were forced to live in the cellar because all their region was frequently shelled and bombarded. Recently, my mother-in-law’s second cousin, together with his wife and two children, have tried to move out from Mykolaiiv. Their car came under fire: the father of the family was killed, while the mother was severely wounded and both children were wounded, too. Somehow, they managed to return to Mykolaiiv, where the mother spent a long time in the hospital.

My wife was not even crying while telling me this. During the war, people probably often get used to the absolutely inconceivable violence, or maybe they get some kind of mental concussion: their threshold of emotional pain decreases, and everything gets beyond comprehending in its evil absurdity. I think it is good for you to be able to weep your grief and the grief of your country away. It’s good for you not to faint from distress. I wish you to keep living to such an extent as possible."

 

05/04/2022

Birds were singing in Lviv yesterday in the evening. Singing as if they shouldn’t have been.

Some new details came to light from Bucha. No words. Nor even emotions. Only numbness left.

Yesterday I met a woman from Nova Kakhovka. The town is occupied. The local activists have all been abducted. The rest are too afraid to go outside. In addition, my interlocutor has told me something about what her fellow citizens wrote in closed groups on the social media.

I felt numb after this conversation as well.

Though I knew how things really were. I could have imagined it all. Still, I numb when getting closer to something like this.

The next day after Bucha was liberated, we got together with a small company to celebrate it. N. M. said that her son had asked her about the ways to celebrate victory. "I have no idea what I should tell him", she said. "How do people usually celebrate victory?"

A popular Soviet song teaches that they do it in tears. As for us, this is fair. We toasted not for love in the third place but for the deceased. Such is a custom of the military, which I am familiar with since my early childhood. I actually wanted it to go in the first place; nevertheless, at first, we toasted for the victory, albeit a small and intermediate one; then it was something very similar, like renovation or the future successes, and finally, we raised our glasses for those who have not lived to this intermediate victory.

Bucha could probably remain a symbol of atrocities in the historic memory, akin to Khatyn – but I’m afraid that some locations would end up being even worse than Bucha, when the streets of the other occupied and bombarded Ukrainian cities will be revealed.

 

04/04/2022

Somehow, I am recalling our November trip to Przemysl with E. Almost ten years earlier, I had visited Przemysl for the last time, excluding several transit drives. I can remember many details of that previous visit in 2012. I can remember different places we went to, or our conversations, words, and glances…

Well, now that we came to the town with E., we went to Libera, the café where we had hung out in 2012. Nothing had changed there. Libera had remained totally unaltered. Memories came flooding back to me.

Then, in November 2021, we were visiting museums, going for coffee, or strolling around the central streets. It was dark outside because Przemysl is located 90 km away from Lviv in a different time zone that is an hour behind Ukraine.

Gosh, I recall this uncomfortable trip now as a very peaceful one. The war was still ahead, and I had not yet discussed it with anybody (because by the end of December, just a month later, everyone was talking about this only issue).

(Though it seems to me today that even in 2012, absolutely everything was bearing the seal of the upcoming war.)

I’m recalling all this probably for one more reason. Recently, I was thinking about where I would like to travel if I wanted to unwind for several days. Only abroad, I answered myself, because wherever you go in Ukraine, you will feel yourself at war. Together with Christophe, we have been on a journalistic trip to Uzhgorod where I was hoping to have some rest after having spent a whole day without any air-raid alert, but still there were soldiers, refugees, and billboards all around.

Thus, only foreign cities can fit for unwinding. Like, for example, the nearby Przemysl.

But wait, I told myself immediately, how on earth are you going to unwind? There will definitely be even more refugees, volunteers, and calls for helping Ukraine in Przemysl, Krakow, Warsaw, Berlin, or Strasbourg. Or, maybe, even in London, though I can hardly judge this city. Some time ago, Petro Yatsenko told me that his family was offered a big house to stay in the center of London. "My son Matvii and his mother will take a shared room", he said, "while you can settle in the other one. Do you want to join them?" "A big house to stay in the center of London? In front of Buckingham Palace or what?", I asked, and Petro told me that it actually was Buckingham Palace. Of course, I am grateful to all these cities for acting so. Who knows what we would do without global support?

Still, I think that even in the Antarctic or Bali, you can never escape war, because there is no way to escape your own country. Unfortunately, you can never escape your delusional neighbor, too. You bring your homeland in every cell of your blood, skin, or saliva; your neighbor, in the meantime, chases you to penetrate your blood, your skin, and your saliva.

God save Ukraine. God save Ukrainian men and women. God save Ukrainian kids.

 

03/04/2022

A. seems to go to funerals almost daily in his native town. In each conversation he says: "I went to the funeral", "I’m going to the funeral" …

God, how sorry I am for all those people… It’s of the utmost importance to inform the outside world about the numerous civilians’ deaths, but how incredibly sorry I feel about the soldiers, too. About their wives, mothers, fathers, and children…

Yesterday, the photojournalist Maks Levin was found dead. He was considered missing for a few previous weeks, but now that the Kyiv region is liberated, people can go outside and identify the deceased.

Yesterday, I had a lump in my throat long before this news came. I was moved to tears having seen a Lviv citylight reading ‘Thank you, Chernihiv’ or watched the news about the liberation of the Ukrainian military women from the Russian captivity; but then I read the news about Maks and started to cry from grief, not emotion. Everybody is talking about the ruscists’ atrocities these days. Now that the Kyiv region is liberated, we have all seen them.

It's terrible. Still… I am not surprised. How can anyone be surprised at this after having read so many books on the Soviet repressions and concentration camps? The foreigners may shake their heads, looking at the photos from Bucha, and sadly repeat that people die because of the Kremlin psycho. But the point is that they do not. It’s not the Kremlin psycho who has been murdering, raping, and killing them all. His country was requiring such a psycho: it means that there are dozens of millions of psychos in our Ukrainian vicinity.

I think that Ukraine must in any case become a state like Israel. Military service must be obligatory for everyone (though I’ve said that not all men have to take up arms, I still consider everybody, be it men or women, required to pass the military training to basically know how to cope with a machine gun or provide first aid… But this must be the army of the Israeli standard, not the Soviet one, which will offer favorable conditions for the service). Also, the mechanism for the proper packing and evacuating cultural heritage must be worked out. Current instructions are not at least effective: you either follow them and jeopardize everything, or you take intellectual responsibility to ignore the stupid rules and thus, to truly save the objects of cultural value.

It is all to be learnt by heart.

I’m absolutely convinced about that because our neighboring state is a country of psychos. An acquaintance of mine wrote a post today on her Facebook page about her cousin sister from Russia who had called to tell her this: "And now we are going to really destroy Ukrainian cities for all your staged photos from Bucha."

Will all these people disappear after Putin’s death? I’m sure they won’t.

Except that dechauvinization, de-ideologization, and denazification will be held in Russia very thoroughly. Parallels between contemporary Russia and Nazi Germany, especially those that regard the attitude of the both militaries, are more than obvious.

I’ve come across an article about denazification in Germany, and I quote: "The main goal of denazification was to make the German society understand the inadmissibility of Hitler’s racial policy and his ways to rule the country, so that no other Nazi adherent could come to power anymore. For this purpose, Americans specifically held either voluntary or obligatory introduction to the Nazi war crimes for the population of the Western Germany. Germans were often forced even to participate in exhumation of the bodies of people killed by the Hitlerian regime, from the mass graves.

Besides, posters depicting the Jews who were eliminated by the Nazis, were hung in all towns and villages, coming with the eloquent caption, ‘You are responsible for this, too!’. Nazi textbooks were removed from schools and universities. Over 30 thousand of book titles, alongside pieces of art which propagandized Nazism or German militarism, were subject to ban and disposal."

 

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
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: