Art by Lena Kurzel
i sincerely appreciate the thoughts and prayers that everyone has expressed for my well-being as well as for the well-being of ukraine over the past several days.
that said, there has been something strange about the kind of helplessness that has been seeping through these well wishes, this desire to help but not knowing how and the appeals to me — the one who has been living moment to moment, trying to imagine and organize my next move through a country under military attack (cruise missiles, tanks, grad rockets, automatic rifle fire, etc. — you know i’ve had to learn very quickly what these different weapons technologies are, how they work and what they are used for) — to answer for them the question: what can i do?
i think it has something to do with this: you in your safe homes, comfortable not only in your creaturely habits (warmth, abundance of food, access to your loved ones, free mobility and freedom of action and speech), do you know what it feels like to move quickly because you have no guarantee that the road or route you need to get to the next point will be passable tomorrow morning or even in a few hours?
we have been lucky — and this too is perhaps something that adds to the strangeness and surrealness of the situation — to have had so far uninterrupted capacity for communication. as long as i’ve had access to electrical outlets to charge my phone and computer, i’ve been able to communicate via internet, to send messages to loved ones abroad that i am safe, to communicate with international friends / colleagues / journalists, to call my friends closeby but not in shouting distance by phone.
so there is a degree, quite a degree of “normalcy” in this state of affairs.
meanwhile i have grossly run out of clean underwear.
on sunday night, for the first time, i changed out of the clothing i had been wearing nonstop — day and night — since i left my apartment in kyiv on thursday morning at 9 AM.
all these people with their well wishes understand that something big is happening in ukraine. it is a tragedy. you could call it a catastrophe. but even catastrophe is so worn that it feels trite to use it to describe the senseless shelling and rocket fire that Russia launched into the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv today, as negotiations continue, trying to put an end to this mad and completely unilateral aggressive invasion of a country that has done nothing to harm russia.
these people want to be a part of history.
they seek a way to “join” the situation instead of looking / thinking about how they are already implicated involved in it.
yes, please sign the petition for a no-fly zone over ukraine. go out and protest to show your support and solidarity for ukraine. yes yes yes.
now i am truly a european. having experienced military explosions within hearing distance. that visceral experience, the sound of a rocket explosion some kilometers from your home, where you are sleeping and your friend calls to ask if you heard it and you say no and wish with all your stupid human will and hope that he is mistaken and hearing things after another anxious sleepless night of reading and listening to all the prognoses in the news. no, no he was not mistaken and the next ones you do hear. still, with a hint of doubt that we are used to calling “hope.”
and the question of what to do.
i should get ready to leave.
to go where.
to the bomb shelter?
i gather my documents and my money. those are the only clear and obvious things. i put on my jeans. but i’m so tired and really i’d rather sleep. maybe this isn’t happening? or it’s not so urgent that i can’t go to sleep and deal with it in the morning?
i take off my jeans. i decide to do first everything that does not require taking off my nightgown. fill my water bottle.
sasha calls again to say that we should meet with our other friends on the right bank. we should get some things together and be prepared to stay, what if crossing the river becomes impossible.
then i need to take my cat. my cat and food and my contact solution and a toothbrush. a couple pairs of underwear (i have’t done my laundry in too long). an extra pair of socks. some food that’s easy to eat and not too difficult to transport. i’m moving around my apartment in my nightgown and i call my new friend from the 15th floor to leave her a spare set of keys just in case i don’t come back right away but maybe i will, i say. we hug anyway. twice.
on the right bank there are sounds of explosions too. we take a cab anyway to meet olga’s dad who gives us the keys to his completely unfinished house in a village outside kyiv. i wonder about the (un)safety of moving through the city. we are imagining the horror of living under russian occupation or rather not imagining it in any detail just the knowledge — that is alive and burning in my friends enough for me to understand (and fire up what i’ve read and imagined in less urgent times) that one need not think about it — just go.
we order two taxis for our group of five people and three cats and head for bilohorodka. it is a destination. no driver would agree to take us to berdychiv, nearly 200 km from kyiv. so we stop at the house, open it up and realize that really, we can’t spend the night there in this unheated house, it is still winter, after all.
by some miracle we find a car to take us from bilohorodka to berdychiv. because we do not know how quickly and from what direction(s) the russian army is advancing.
as we wait outside the house after closing up and before our car has arrived, with our belongings on the ground and the cat carriers wrapped in blankets, we hear a swarm of planes pass overhead.
these are warplanes. military planes.
commercial planes don’t fly in swarms
there’s something comforting in the idea of death by explosion. here you are, living full tilt, and then — boom! you’re over. i think i came to terms with it in those first days when the sirens in lviv would go off regularly even though the city was not actually being struck from the air. our air alarm system works a little bit differently than it does in kyiv. and let’s face it: i’m lazy. i don’t feel like packing up all my belongings and forcing my cat into a box to run down into the bomb shelter if the actual threat of being bombed is quite small.
but i had to think about it. what is the action that you take? do you completely ignore it and just keep going about your daily life? although you do have to turn off the lights because that’s a matter of general public safety. that’s the other thing that happens in war. it’s not a matter of just protecting yourself as an individual, in calculating your risks and deciding alone. there are certain things that you do for the safety of you and your neighbors and your loved ones and those people that you don’t know but who are also your people and your country. so when the air raid sirens go off you have to turn off the lights. and i usually move into the corridor, further from the windows. someone said it’s a good thing to have at least two walls between you and the outside in all directions. and stay away of course from glass that could shatter from the explosive power of the air pressure changing.
but we were talking about death and that’s something that is around us all of the time, really unnatural death. unless someone would be so bold as to say that war is human nature and part of nature, but i think that’s bullshit. this is very calculated, premeditated and intentional murder.
sasha took a picture of raphael lemkin’s marker somewhere in the streets of lviv one night when he was out. and today i was remembering that picture and thinking about genocide on many levels. it’s not just about the annihilation of physical bodies but this tearing up of the social fabric. the dispersion of my communities was instant. and now look at how many women and children are being sent abroad to safety while their men remain here to fight. even children leaving to go west without their parents who are not ready to abandon the places where they have lived their entire lives. they are not as mobile and quick and ready to endure being squashed into close quarters on an evacuation bus or a train, standing for long hours without water or food. they’d rather stay in their home on their land and take their chances. i understand.
“it’s something i know in my gut. this is the moment when politics is coming back to the body.”
the tearing of the social bonds is huge. and it’s something you can’t take a picture of. though i don’t think the photographs of smoke and holes in buildings really mean much either to someone who doesn’t feel it. and you don’t need to feel it. i didn’t feel syria. and i don’t feel guilty or regretful about that. it’s just a fact. i feel ukraine. and you need to feel what you do feel, and you need to fight with your whole heart mind and body for the things that you do care about. and let other people fight for the things that they care about. and depending on which direction your fighting is aimed you’ll either be in solidarity or you won’t.
you’ll either be in solidarity or you’ll be in war. but it’s not something that you decide and then you sort of comport yourself to be in solidarity with ukraine because it’s the right thing to do. no, you do the thing that your heart tells you to do and then you understand who you’re in solidarity with. and the thing that is truly grotesque . . . there is evil carried in the devotion to abstract ideas. like anti-war declarations that refuse to know war.
i’m not anti-war. because when someone comes and starts murdering your neighbors you fight. and if that means participating in a war then fuck it i’ll participate. i’m not just gonna sit and shout slogans while my countrymen are murdered. and women and children. maternity hospitals goddamit.
it’s something i know in my gut. this is the moment when politics is coming back to the body. you can’t make abstract negotiations. you can’t invite russian anti-war activists and ukrainian artists to a panel and say, “let’s talk about Ukraine.” if you can’t see that error what can we possibly talk about? and how dare you use the word solidarity? we need to talk about these things. we need to address what is actually happening at every fucking step of the way. and call out abstraction and shoot it down before it destroys another piece of my beloved world. what are the things that you are willing to stay and stand and fight for, and die for?
that was what i was thinking, how it would be stupid to die from an explosion in the sense that you didn’t think or get yourself under the ground in time. it’s better to wait it out under the ground and then emerge into the rubble. what a terrifying image. it’s definitely imaginary. although one’s imagination grows tanglier with new kinds of experience and sensations that you can include in your fantasies. i don’t want to imagine the possibility of lviv being demolished by a nuclear bomb. i sure as hell don’t know what it feels like. i don’t know what it sounds like. it would be the last sound that i ever heard. but i can certainly entertain the possibility. now.
Larissa Babij is a Ukrainian-American writer, translator and movement artist. Her writing has appeared in The Odessa Review, Entropy, Springerin, and other publications. She has lived in Kyiv since 2005; since February 26, 2022, she has been living in Lviv, Ukraine.
Lena Kurzel is a painter born in 2000 in Yuzhnoukrainsk, Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. Until recently, she lived and worked in Kyiv, where she was enrolled as a third year painting student at the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture. On the tenth day after the Russian attack on Ukraine, Kurzel fled to the Carpathians. She was forced to leave most of her work with art critic Natalia Dmitrenko. She writes: “Now a turning point has come in my life and I am trying to figure out what to do to continue working and living a normal life, because my past life, which was before the war, is now destroyed and I need to start all over again.”