Essays On War

Andriy Bondar. Rhapsody for Serhiy

Rhapsody for Serhiy

Suppose I were to say that the outbreak of war in Ukraine, initiated by the empire of lies on February 24 with early morning missile attacks and Russian troops marching into Ukraine from multiple fronts, caught me off guard. In that case, I’d be lying, or at least not telling the whole truth. It was clear to many that war was inevitable, as it had been brewing for some time. Some argue that it began on November 30, 2013, when students were attacked on the Maidan in Kyiv. Others point to the shooting of the Heavenly Hundred on February 18-20, 2014, as the start. And still, there are those who are convinced it began with the swift annexation of Crimea in March. Each perspective holds its own kernel of truth.

But the ultimate truth is that for many Ukrainians this war has been going on forever.

We have never had peace. When I reflect on the experiences of my family over the past five generations, starting with my great-grandfathers, I realize that for my 14-year-old daughter Varvara, the war on February 24 is just another chapter in the ongoing tragedy of my family and the entire country. In this tragedy, everything that the perverted mind of a global sadist could dream up has already occurred: exile, hunger, repression, deportation, eviction, executions, intimidation, uprooting, all forms of violence, the erasure of identity, living with the label of „enemy of the people,“ the suppression of language and culture. So what other „surprises“ could there be?

But on the night of February 24, Varvara was not thinking of anything negative. She was asleep. When my wife Sofia woke me up around six in the morning after the first missile strikes on Kyiv, saying, „Andriy, the war has begun!“ I couldn’t think of anything more intelligent to say than, „What do you mean ‚war‘?“. She loaded the website of Ukrainska Pravda and poked my nose with the info about Putin’s decision to start the so-called Special Military Operation. As I read the speech by the Russian Führer about the final resolution of the Ukrainian issue as part of the victorious expedition of the northern people against the rebellious colony, another rocket flew and exploded somewhere. And then a few more followed. All day, one thought constantly echoed in my mind: „What do you mean ‚war‘? And what about Varvara? And all those before her?“.

On the first day of the war, my mind struggled to process the events like a child encountering something terrifying for the first time. My inner child covered his eyes with his hands and convinced himself all day: „It’s not serious. It will all end soon because it’s the 21st century, ‚Tesla‘ flew to Mars, they almost found the cure for cancer, and you can’t wake up your children like that. Now someone older will come and stop this whole nightmare.“ I spent the entire first day childishly searching for a way out. And it was Varvara who showed me the way. She ordered us to focus and remain calm. She encouraged me to break out of my state of shock and rely on reason rather than emotions.

But the second day arrived, and it is a day that requires careful recollection. On the morning of February 25th, we finally began preparing for our trip. However, since our neighborhood in Obolon is located in the north of Kyiv, we were met with the Russian army just as we were packing. The battle for the Hostomel airport began that morning, just 20 kilometers away from us. The battle that would later be linked to the massacre in Bucha, the destruction of Irpin, and the first real shock of Western observers at the infernal cruelty of the Russians. So, to the accompaniment of the sounds of foreign aircraft and artillery on the approaches to the capital, several units of Russian equipment managed to break through to Obolon.

I didn’t know at the time that my close friend Serhiy, a doctor by profession, had woken up early in the morning to take his parents from Bucha. But, as usual, he went to the supermarket to buy some groceries. For some reason, he had taken his officially registered AK-47 with him, converted for single-shot hunting. He had put it in the trunk and covered it with bags of groceries.

And it was this routine stopover that played a paradoxical role in Serhiy’s case. Arriving at his elderly parent’s home, he urgently gathered their things so they could escape. It took up another hour. Meanwhile, an epic battle was already unfolding above their heads: practically every military transport that had been moved from Belarus to Hostomel was flying or driving near their house. When he finally prepared his parent’s things for the trip, it turned out that there was nowhere to go. No one was allowed to leave anymore. The heating and light would disappear in a few hours, and then the water. And later, daily fears would emerge for himself and his parents. He worried they would have to subsist on those few bags of groceries for several weeks. He also realized that he needed to put away his assault rifle somewhere, which, like a suitcase without a handle, could be more of a burden than protection. He also needed to find a generator and charge his laptop, the only energy source for his smartphone. In the following weeks, the smartphone searched for the disappearing waves of mobile coverage to convey the most important news to me, not by text or call, but by the two bright checks which confirmed he’d read my WhatsApp message, which meant he was still alive.

We had several conversations during the three weeks of Serhiy’s time under Russian occupation. I even recorded one. There were many more internal conversations. At the end of the third day of the war, he called me for the last time before a long one-and-a-half-week pause. I understood from his voice that things were bad, so I decided to tell him the most important thing. I shouted into the receiver: „Dude, don’t worry! They are done for! They’re finished, I’m sure of it. We all see it. Stay strong, man. I’m praying for you!“

Sending him messages, I wanted him to know that I was with him and all my thoughts were about him. All the following days turned into one big rhapsody of hope for me. Contra spem spero. Did I truly believe in what I constantly tried to convince him of? Now I know for sure that I did. And so, one day in the middle of March, just before the black days that would later be called the Bucha Massacre, he called me and, interrupting my joyful cries, said: „We are leaving Bucha! They allow the convoy. What should I do with the gun?“ I firmly answered him: „Leave it in the apartment! Don’t take it! I beg you!“

He left the gun behind and set off on the long six-hour journey. When he called from the safety of Bilohorodka, he said: „What an idiot I am! I was almost searched at the Russian checkpoint between Bucha and Irpin. They just asked to open the trunk. I calmly opened it, and they didn’t even start checking things,“ I finally exhaled.

„You did well!“ I shouted. „You will find three or five guns in Kyiv, don’t worry about the one you left in Bucha. Don’t worry about a gun that didn’t fire. Don’t worry about what you could have done and didn’t. You made the right decision!“ This is how my three-week rhapsody for Serhiy ended.

After Bucha’s liberation, it turned out that the apartment hadn’t gotten robbed; the gun was still there, as well as the war. I can only hope this war will be the last for our Varvara’s generation and my entire family, and future generations will ask: „What war are you talking about?!“

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan