"We feel that every hour changes everything." Anna Vovchenko in Conversation with Slavenka Drakulic

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Vovchenko Anna
Vovchenko Anna
Literary translator from English and Spanish
"We feel that every hour changes everything." Anna Vovchenko in Conversation with Slavenka Drakulic

In order to comprehend the events of recent days, PEN Ukraine has launched a series of conversations entitled #DialoguesOnWar.

On March 19, Anna Vovchenko, a literary translator from English and Spanish into Ukrainian, known for her distinguished translation of Federico García Lorca’s poems and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, held a conversation with Slavenka Drakulić, a Croatian writer and journalist, whose books How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1991), They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in the Hague (2004) and A Guided Tour through the Museum of Communism. Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, and a Raven (2011) have earned widespread recognition.

This is a transcription of key moments from that event. You can check out the recorded conversation here.

S.D. First, thank you for inviting me. I have to say, when I was invited for this conversation, on the one hand I was very excited – and on the other hand, very humbled by the Ukrainian people’s fight for their freedom and independence, and by talking to someone like Anna, who is actually in Kyiv.

Being in Kyiv today is nothing that one should envy. I can identify with Anna’s situation, although a little. In Croatia, we had a war from 1991 to 1993. There were several wars in Yugoslavia. And I wrote four books about it. Unfortunately I had this experience. But I think the stage should be Anna’s, because she’s in Kyiv, she’s the one witnessing, and nowadays that’s the most important thing.

I am always interested, not in political analysis, geopolitics or big news, but in how people live their everyday lives during the war. I am interested in the "perspective of the frog", the perspective from below, from everyday life. What do you do? Where do you sleep? How do you come by food? Do you wake up in the morning and take a warm shower, then a coffee? Or maybe this is not what you can do now. Can you go shopping at the market, or are you hiding in your cellar? This kind of things, plus what is actually happening around Kyiv. I think this is the most important truth here from someone who is witnessing it at this very moment. And thank you very much for being able to share this information with us.

A.V. ‘Good evening, everyone! We’re from Ukraine.’ That’s the way we greet each other. ‘Доброго вечора, Славенко!’

S.D. ‘Доброго вечора’ sounds almost the same in Croatian.

A.V. I am a freelance worker. Every day I wake up at home, in my own bed. On the one hand, I do not want to be afraid in advance, nor invite war into my daily life, although it is already here. On the other hand, I’m trying to connect with everyday life as much as possible. I don’t want to leave my native city; it needs me, and I need it even more. We still can go shopping; the markets are not closed, but there are limitations on what supplies we can buy. Ukrainians try to combine their usual work with volunteering. Mostly, I contribute to Ukraine’s victory as a translator; sometimes, I help with humanitarian aid. As my aunt lives in a village near Chernihiv (the north of Ukraine, where our country shares a border with Belarus), I have some reasons to worry.

Although everyday life is trying to be normal, it still resembles the anticipation of surgery. Living in the capital city, which remains the main target for the invaders, is exhausting. You know the big battle is still to happen. As for life in Ukraine in general, it’s a very strange mix of pride and fear for our beloved and dear people. It’s hard to think of the new visibility of my country, as well as the price we are paying for it.

S.D. Where do you get your news from? What trustworthy sources do you use to inform yourself?

A.V. Each person has their own trustworthy channels of information. In Ukraine, we have the free press, as well as the public broadcaster, that includes radio and TV. And it gives us the most objective information possible. We don’t have problems of what to listen to, but rather with the choice of sources of information. It is much more pragmatic than it seems. In my opinion, everyone already made this choice, not just before the war, but since the establishment of independence in Ukraine, as is now happening worldwide. Everyone who is now facing a choice of information, ideas, and statements, made this very choice a long time ago. Nowadays, people are trying to keep themselves informed with what they hear and see. This is very important.

S.D. Can you tell me what you felt when the war started?

A.V. Well, the war has lasted for eight years already.

S.D. Let’s take the invasion.

A.V. Speaking about the full-scale invasion, it was in the air that something was going to happen.

S.D. Yes, this is what I’m interested in. This feeling in the air, describe it to us.

A.V. During these eight years, I’ve lived with the feeling that Russia was going to move further, and that a full-scale invasion was going to happen someday. The last month or two felt very tense. You know that feeling when you try to breathe in, and the air itself is tense? This was the anticipation of the invasion, and now it is what I have already called ‘the anticipation of surgery’.

S.D. It’s a kind of physical feeling.

A.V. Yes, for me, it was rather physical. On 24 February, when I woke up from the first explosions along with all Ukrainians, I thought: "Wow, OK. It’s already here," and I went back to sleep.

S.D. And you went back to sleep? (surprised)

A.V. Yes (smiles). It was a moment when the great truth was finally going to be seen worldwide. And no one would be able to turn their eyes away from it.

S.D. That’s an important thing. I’m sure, you’re following the reactions from around the world to the full-scale invasion. Were you surprised by them? From what I saw, the world is overwhelmed. And I have a specific reason to ask you that question, because when the war in Yugoslavia started the reaction was quite the opposite, not overwhelming.

A.V. OK, you want to know my reaction to the world’s reaction?

S.D. Exactly. What is the feeling when the entire world is on your side? There is no consolidation in this situation, but it is something when the entire world is actually saying: "Look at the Ukrainians bravely fighting off one of the world's atomic powers, look at them." It’s a taking-sides situation.

A.V. I will start with the perception of time in general. These days, time feels like something extraordinary; it passes very slowly, but at the same time very quickly. We feel that every hour changes everything. The reactions are always changing, and our responses to these reactions are changing as well.

S.D. You are adapting to every moment because you have to adapt to every moment (Anna agrees.)

A.V. Yesterday, when I was preparing for our conversation, I thought about how I feel about this new visibility for my country in the eyes of the whole world. In my view (if it’s still acceptable to give so many medical metaphors, though I’m not a doctor myself), Ukraine is now seen as a survivor who at the same time is a volunteer patient in the trial of a new vaccine against a new deadly disease. On the one hand, we are considered a rather brave nation, that has so much courage to oppose the ‘second biggest army in the world’. On the other hand, I feel there is fear in the eyes of the world; it becomes more and more visible. Fear and a failure to understand why we are still fighting.

S.D. Well, that’s a rather pessimistic view. While I was preparing for our conversation yesterday, I thought of the siege of Sarajevo [the prolonged blockade of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the Bosnian War; it started on 2 April 1992, and ended on 29 February 1996] and my friends who were living there during it. Under that very siege, people who were running to the water pumps risked being killed by snipers [On 12 July, twelve people were killed while waiting in line for water]. It gives me fear because it took three years for the world to pay any attention to it. Why? Because Bosnia & Herzegovina was attacked by a small, unthreatening power, Serbia. As was Croatia [The Croatian War of Independence was fought from 1991 to 1995. A majority of Croats wanted Croatia to leave Yugoslavia and become a sovereign country, while many Serbs living in Croatia opposed it and wanted the Serb-claimed lands to be in a common state with Serbia. The war ended with victory for Croatia]. It was happening in the backyard of Europe, but no one really considered it a war. And even when there were more than 100,000 dead by that time, nobody considered it a war. The world didn’t know what to think about it. The powers, like Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain, and America, were divided among themselves on what to do, how to solve this problem. In other words, it had to drag on, because it seemed utterly unimportant.

On the one hand, it is neither nice nor a good feeling that your country is at the centre of the world’s attention. It is rarely a good thing. So, I can understand your position and why you feel there’s fear, because by now everything should be over. How long is it going to last? On the other hand, what is happening here is the consolidation of the European Union around this Ukrainian fight; a consolidation to help Ukraine, and not to let Putin go too far. Let’s say, he has already gone too far.

I don’t know what you are feeling when you decide not to leave Kyiv. Are you psychologically prepared to stand? How long will you stand in this kind of siege, when there is no heating, no water, no food, and attacks happen all the time? The citizens of Sarajevo endured it for three years. Certainly, I don’t want anybody in this world to experience the same. And I don’t think it will be possible in Ukraine, because the world is paying much more attention to you than it did to Sarajevo. In your case, attention is good. In your opinion, is the war going to end soon, or will it go on? And what is your worst-case scenario?

A.V. Can I hide that? I don’t want to put out the scariest versions of the future. We are all sure of our victory, but we are not sure of the price it might cost. I would like to calm you a little about the siege, and comparing the situation with Sarajevo. I think that that situation is quite impossible here because Kyiv is rather a large city with a population of four million, and its landscape is completely different. I was ready, and I am prepared to endure as much as it takes. Because I have no right to stand back, it’s my country. It’s our history that we are fighting for. We have been talking with my friends for years about what this war means for us. And we can see it as the continuation of the Ukrainian war for independence from 1917 to 1921. That war was lost due to many reasons, and unfortunately, the Soviet Union was established here for 70 years. Now we have no choice but to take revenge in the name of those who sacrificed their lives for the idea of Ukraine, to stay alive, and continue our generation.

S.D. You are saying some very heroic words and feelings. It’s a little bit romantic, I think. But the truth is, this is now the moment of Ukrainian identity coming together. Finally, being Ukrainian means exactly what you said – being independent and standing tall. But if this is so, what do you think of people who have left Kyiv or Ukraine? How do you see those people?

A.V. I don’t think that the people who have left Kyiv, its suburbs, or the cities from the eastern part of the country, but now are suffering from something much more horrible, have a crisis of identity. For sure, they are Ukrainians, they live their lives for the sake of Ukraine. They struggle to survive for Ukraine. And this is not a question of choice between identities.

S.D. Do you feel they are betraying the city?

A.V. No, they are not. We are not judging each other. Every person who decides to stay or leave has their own circumstances and different amounts of inner resources. Whatever choice they make to survive, that is the right choice.

S.D. Nobody leaves without a good reason. It’s not easy to become a refugee, even though everybody is waiting for you. Ukrainians are receiving a warm welcome at the border, coming across to Poland, Romania, Hungary, or elsewhere. Refugees from Bosnia & Herzegovina were never received so warmly as the Ukrainians. On the contrary, I don’t know whether you agree with me or not, but migration is actually a way of bleeding in terms of real blood: when three million people or more leave the country, it’s not a joke. There’s a lesson from history that refugees very rarely come back. And that’s also a painful process, from that point of view.

A.V. I am not responsible for all the refugees.

S.D. Nobody says you are (smiles.)

A.V. From what I read of my friends’ posts on Facebook, or when we talk in private, all my friends and acquaintances who are now abroad are determined to come back as soon as the war is over. These eight years of war have at the same time been eight years of pride in ourselves, even of prosperity. We just allowed ourselves to live our own lives in our own country. And we have tested our voice, and it has been heard worldwide. We have been building up our state and cultural institutions throughout these eight years. We are not about to give up. Furthermore, we’re about to continue building the country and making our lives our own. This is what we were fighting for. So, most intellectual and cultural voices from Ukraine are really going to sound out loud. And all the people I know are looking forward to the possibility of coming back.

S.D. Yes, that’s very good. And there is a lot of publicity, of course, because people are also speaking and explaining the situation. But when you say ‘we’, who do you mean: your generation or intellectuals? Because you’re not President Zelensky, so you don’t deliver these addresses that he does (which he does very well; he is surprisingly amazing in managing the situation). But do you see your friends physically, do you meet them? What are you talking about? What are you doing every day?

A.V. I don’t see them physically now, but we’re constantly on messengers and phones, so we discuss everything. We have always discussed everything, from books to the war, news, and everyday life. So this is what our life consists of. I think that we have had eight years to get used to the war, as part of our everyday reality.

S.D. So you’re taking part in this war in your own way? (Anna agrees.) I wonder what people like me should and could do to help you? Should we send you something, or speak more actively? What do you expect? What do you think would be good for all of you? (And what is possible for us intellectuals to do?)

A.V. It’s a hard thing to talk about, but for now, my country actually needs weapons.

S.D. No, no, we’re not talking about weapons. About you personally, and your friends. What help do you expect from writers, translators and intellectuals?

A.V. May I ask you something as well? (Slavenka agrees.) Ukrainian readers are familiar with your statement about dialogue after the war. Actually, when you described the peaceful everyday life of war criminals in prison, you wrote that former Yugoslavia continued to exist among those people. And this actually means that the war and all the struggles were in vain. So what was the world’s reaction to this statement?

S.D. Let us be more precise. My book They Would Never Hurt a Fly is about people who were on trial for war crimes at the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia). The last story takes place in the detention centre in Scheveningen (The Hague), where those criminals are waiting for trial but have not yet been sentenced. All those people, including Slobodan Milošević, are living together in the same building, and they can meet on each floor. They read the same papers, and celebrate their birthdays together, regardless of the fact they used to be war enemies. In their words, actually, it seems Yugoslavia still exists only in prison, in the detention centre in Scheveningen. It’s a very ironic statement, of course, because Yugoslavia has fallen apart. And then, basically, the end is that if I had been a mother who lost her three sons in this war, what would I say about the picture of those people on trial as suspected war criminals, all sitting together, eating cakes and celebrating New Year’s? I would think this had all been for nothing. Of course, it was not for nothing, because the war was defensive, because it was the Bosnian army who attacked Croatia (and Slovenia for a very short period of time). So, with a defensive war, it’s another thing. You had to defend yourself, you didn’t have much choice, – like you, now. Of course, it was all put in an ironic context, so it’s not what I think. It’s a metaphor, and this sentence actually stands for all those who have lost their lives, relatives, children, and parents in this war. For others, it didn’t really make sense. Still, 30 years after the war, there has been no proper reconciliation. And then you think "My God, it is 30 years later, and we still live in some kind of latent war situation because we have not had any reconciliation."

A.V. Actually, my proposition for the world is to understand the impossibility of dialogue between two states that are now at war. I ask for an understanding of the impossibility of comparison between the measures of pain. If the world still thinks that this war will end with a continuing dialogue between the two states, I am very angry about that.

S.D. That’s understandable from your position, of course.

A.V. (continues) And this is what I would like the world to understand. This will be the greatest cultural help which people of culture worldwide can give us.

S.D. To understand what? That there is no communication, there should not be communication, or that it is very difficult to have communication? (Anna agrees.) But you still want some kind of reconciliation afterward?

A.V. There will be…

S.D. Not yet, I am afraid.

A.V. But for now, it’s a very complicated and heavy question. And I would like to ask you, how did it actually happen in your country during the war? Were there some suggestions to hold dialogue between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia? How did it look, and how did it actually feel at that moment?

S.D. You mean, during the war? There were some suggestions, meetings and conferences with Serbian writers and intellectuals, for example, who came to Zagreb. And I think it’s very crucial, even if there is a war going on in your country, to understand that not all Russians think the same, they are not all the same. Not all Serbs were against Croats and Bosniaks at that time. So we have to try not to see all people in the same way.

A.V. Actually, did you see yesterday’s photos of the concert celebrating eight years of the occupation of Crimea? The full stadium was there, praising Putin and the war.

S.D. But you still have to think about those people who have the strength to go out and protest at the risk of going to prison.

A.V. They had 22 years to do something, but still they did not.

S.D. I understand you perfectly. But we have to give some credit to people who are against Putin. I’m sure there are such people in Russia. We see that there are such people, their voices are present.

A.V. They are against Putin, but there’s still the question of whether they are against Ukraine or not.

Vovchenko Anna
Text by Romania Strots’ka Edited by Jim Todd
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