A War Diary. Oleksandr Mykhed
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, writer and curator Oleksandr Mykhed, was forced to relocate from Hostomel and is now in Chernivtsi, where, in addition to his daily volunteer activities, he collects eyewitness accounts of the war and is documenting his experience in a series of letters from Ukraine.
Day 39. The world learned about the massacres and graves in Bucha. As I write this entry, the bodies of 340 local civilians have been found, most of which are found with their hands tied behind their backs. They had been shot in the knees. They were shot in the back of the head. And they were all killed because they were Ukrainian.
This war teaches us that even greater pain is always ahead. Today, I want the war to take everything away from me. So that I wouldn’t have to feel higher and higher levels of pain.
Bodies of naked women that russians tried to burn.
The body of an old man who was riding his bike and is now sprawled out on the ground in an absurdly broken position like a huge crushed insect.
Raped children. Raped teenage girls.
A concentration camp in a children’s holiday camp.
Torture chambers in the rooms of residential buildings.
Mass graves of bodies that are barely sprinkled with dirt.
Graves in the yards of residential neighborhoods. Crosses made of sticks.
Many of them just say "Unknown."
For 12 hours, I read the news, flipping through more and more photographs. I see the pain of friends on social media. I feel like we are all changing more and more as the war goes on.
We are a space rocket from which the modules of consciousness and international transformations have been detached.
A close friend of mine is cleaning up neighboring towns as part of his work in the Territorial Defense. He can’t stop his tears from flowing. Russians are killing every living thing.
Journalists and photographers say that reality is much worse than any published photos. The most graphic scenes are left out of the images. Out of respect for the dead.
Social media is blocking the flow of photos from the "Bucha massacre," as it was immediately called. The horror of these images may be too sensitive for the users of these global networks. Content that seems too sensitive elsewhere has become our life.
A friend of mine, an art critic from Cherkasy writes that "if nobody will be punished for all these atrocities, all these crimes, then I honestly do not see the point in living in such a world."
Another acquaintance – a cultural project manager, an author of beautiful collages – wrote to me that the previous night before going to bed, she had thought about what she was willing to do to the occupiers in order to protect her family. Break their skulls, stab and tear them apart with a knife. She is afraid of herself.
Why bother with this world if this is the way it is? If there will be no justice. Or at least revenge.
Evening air alarm. I’m near a strategic location. The russians are bombing strategic facilities like these all over the country. But today, I don’t care.
I want even more pain.
I slowly move to the shelter. I’m not in a hurry.
I never thought of self-harming before. Until now.
How much grief can the human heart hold?
The pain of Bucha is like no other. It is a torn piece of flesh. But torn from the heart.
The next day I will understand what this feeling is similar to.
The image of the Employment Center in Lysychansk, which was hit by shelling, appears before my eyes constantly. I saw it during my travels to Eastern Ukraine in 2016. A huge piece right in the middle of the building was destroyed, with the words "Danger to Life" painted in red on the ends.
I think about the pain of Bucha.
It really is dangerous for the living. It is impossible to comprehend it, to calm it.
But at the same time, this feeling is a threat to those who deserve revenge.
All russians who are guilty.
An older woman tried to bury her adult daughter in their own yard. The mother only had enough strength to sprinkle some dirt on the upper half of the body. The daughter’s legs can be seen from under the floorboards that her mother tried to use to cover her body.
Psychologists in Chernivtsi are asking for help for fourteen-year-old girls who became pregnant by rapists. There are reports that teenage girls who evacuated to Poland will not be able to abort the rotten seed of the occupiers. It is forbidden by the laws of the land.
The lesson of this war – always prepare for the worst, but still expect the russians to do even worse.
Russian intellectuals and writers are all trying to convince the world that above all else, this is putin’s war, not theirs.
But putin wasn’t the one who did this. He does not rape, kill and destroy.
My friends write that they are ashamed that they thought that the russian people would take to the streets to protest during those first days of war.
Who are they? Tens of millions of criminals with severed empathy, ideologically pierced eyes, carvings of Z symbols on their foreheads and sincere support for their dictatorial regime.
The very next day we find out the names, addresses and phone numbers of all 120,000 russian occupants that are taking part in this special operation. Among them – those who committed atrocities in Bucha. God Save Big Data.
If you pinned the places where they are from on Google Maps, the whole map of russia would be filled. Their name is Legion.
Although these russians have names, my senses cannot understand who they are.
They are not orcs in this battle.
Ridiculous and weak looters who steal New Balance sneakers, vitamins, pink hairpins, children’s toys, plasma TVs, disassembled ATVs, washing machines and Ukrainian coupons – coloured paper that served as the national currency in the 90’s.
They are not beasts. Because they are constantly killing animals for pleasure.
They are not a silent minority and have not gained a majority because of the war.
They are not racists, nazis or fascists.
They are not even war criminals who committed crimes against humanity.
Not terrorists, child killers or rapists.
Not foreign agents nor sabotage intelligence officers according to the russians. And not even the fathers of the moscow KGB patriarchate, because they are not Orthodox at all.
Not the masters of thought, not the heirs of the culture of pushkin, dostoevsky, tchaikovsky.
Not the third Rome, they do not have their own special way which, they say, the mind cannot comprehend. They are not a horde, not chaos, and not a wasteland.
Who are they, motherfuckers? Who are their parents? If they’re just russians, what the fuck are they?
My friend returned to her hometown, Lviv, after many years of living in Kyiv. He says the psychological trauma is as visible as a physical wound with torn edges.
Before the war, I rarely talked about myself and my feelings. It always seemed meaningless to me. In my past life, I was diagnosed with "dry eye syndrome". It's literally hard for me to cry on a physiological level. And my wife and I joked then that I was so unemotional that even my eyes needed to work out their syndrome.
War changes everything. And although I did not manage to cry (the shrivelled face on the second day of the war in the streaming water of a hot shower felt like a necessary formality – apparently, in such situations, people should have these kinds of tantrums), I began to speak. Maybe too much Maybe not to people with empathy, people who could listen. But war shortens distances and allows you to speak to those with whom you wouldn’t ever speak otherwise.
Over and over I start telling people around me about Bucha, about what a beautiful place it is. About our four happy years of life in Hostomel and our almost daily walks to Bucha. About a city covered with greenery, which was called the "Green City". About the park, 52 hectares in size, where my wife and I loved to walk and ride bikes. And the Georgian restaurant "Tinatin", where we ordered incredible khachapuri. And the yoga studio. And the branch of the New Post Office. And the bazaar. And the shop where parents set up new mobile phones. And the family doctor. And our favorite place, the Wine Pharmacy, which often gave us the best dry red medicine of all. About how McDonald's opened in Bucha last year and what a lineup gathered for it. And about the home of our parents there, in which so much love was placed.
And then you say something else and suddenly it comes out – they killed the dogs.
The unconscious breaks through the web of words and you say: russians killed Ukrainians in the streets, which are still named after russian classical poets – Lermontov and Pushkin.
You say something and understand that your injury, your wound, is bleeding too much. Too messy on the outside. Its edges are sloppy, unbound.
And people are uncomfortable looking at it. In a decent society, such wounds are usually covered.
We lived here. We loved it here. We were buried here.
Dear Adorno, we once found the answer to your question "Is art possible after Auschwitz?"
But will we find the answer to the question: "Are words possible after Bucha?"
At the legislative level, russia has decriminalized looting on the battlefield and of the belongings of the dead and wounded. Previously, under Article 266 – "Marauding" – it was possible to receive a sentence of three to ten years. Or execution.
I promise you, russian soldiers, you won’t get punished that there will be no punishment for this. So come on over, find your prey in the safari park. Come feast on defenseless civilians.
I'm afraid to look in the folder on my phone with photos in it. I can't look at the images any more. They have stolen them. Every warm memory of Bucha and Hostomel is now destroyed, marked by their dirty berets. But what are memories compared to crippled fates and murdered people?
How many more will be found from the unknown?
They took away our past. Our lives.
We were all under the rubble of the drama theater in Mariupol.
We were all buried in Bucha.
The dead no longer suffer.
The living no longer feel.
© Oleksandr Mykhed
Translation by Abby Dewar
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.