The Country of My People
I loathe feeling helpless.
I can’t stand it!
On February 24th, I was at the hospital, working my shift.
At 7 a.m., I made my rounds, and by 9 a.m., I had already written a letter to my superior, pleading for the hospital to provide us with dressing material. I knew they had it.
At 11 a.m., I received a call from a journalist I knew from a newspaper in Saxony. I lived in a small town 30 km from Dresden at the time. There was only one coffee shop where I sometimes drank coffee from small porcelain cups. The owner was a nurse from our hospital and the only waitress was a journalist from the local newspaper. She called to tell me that she had passed my contact information to the Dresden office. „Is it possible to receive it?“ „Yes, it is!“
At 1 p.m., I was forcing down schnitzels despite hating German food nor being hungry. I wasn’t hungry, but I was shoving shitty schnitzels into my mouth because a single thought was throbbing in my head: I have to eat, I have to be efficient.
Later, at 4 p.m., I had an interview and then picked up Sarah from kindergarten. The teacher immediately asked, “Where are your parents?” They visited two weeks before the war started. My grandma and brother remained in Odesa. The teacher unexpectedly broke down in tears and refused to charge us for lunch for the month.
In the evening, we attended a demonstration with thousands of people near the Frauenkirche, waving Ukrainian flags and holding posters reading „War in Ukraine is war in Europe.“
I remember an elderly woman ran on stage and said, „I am from Russia. Today a war has started in my country, and I want my country to lose it.“
A young woman said from the stage that her sister was hiding with a newborn in the basement. Her voice broke into a scream.
Fear and unrest hung in the air.
The world was changing rapidly.
People did too.
At 10 p.m. we were at home.
I woke up at 5:45 in the morning.
My first thought was to check whether there had been any missile strikes in Odesa. There were none in Odesa but there were other cities that had been attacked.
Two days later, the Ukrainian diaspora founded the Ukrainian Coordination Center initiative. I practiced medicine, so I collected money for paramedics’ medicine and equipment.
I don’t remember that time well.
I didn’t have a free moment.
Once my three-year-old daughter asked, „Mom, will you put me to bed when it’s my birthday?“.
I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I was powerless in the face of this damn war. But how was that possible? I can do so much!
I almost had a panic attack once.
I had hidazepam in my backpack, and it wasn’t just because of me. My mother, who gets nervous when traveling abroad, had brought it with her. I didn’t take the hidazepam, but I knew I could, and it gave me the illusion of control.
At that time, I was working in the emergency department. A patient suffering from pneumonia presented with decreased consciousness, weakness in their left hand, and difficulty speaking.Suspected stroke. But she was 85, has dementia, and had filled out papers to refuse intensive care treatment. A decision needed to be made and relatives had to be called. My phone vibrated in my pocket.
An acquaintance texted me. She wrote that she was stuck at the border in Lviv region and a woman fainted from dehydration while standing in line too long. “What should I do?”
A stranger wrote, “Please help, we have nowhere to sleep today! We are at the main station.”
A pharmacist wanted to donate 5,000 euros worth of medicine. “Do you have the authority to retain the medicine? Is there a warehouse available and permission granted? Had you completed the necessary shipping documentation? The form can be obtained from the regional council.”
The editor of a medical journal mailed to all doctors in Saxony wrote to me. He had published my text asking for help. Someone offered a surgical lamp. Were we interested? What about an outdated ultrasound machine? I mustn’t forget to return the call from the head of the hospital in Pirna, who collected thirty boxes. Similar efforts were made in Leipzig. A woman was traveling to Lviv, could she transport all the items that had already been collected here?
My mother wrote because my father had such horrible back pain that he urgently needed to see a neurosurgeon.
Telegram messages flashed.
Air raid! Air raid.
I turned off the phone.
I did a CT scan.
We spoke with the patient’s relatives.
You have to live your life because no one else will. But how?
She choked on her food again. This time it was salad.
I didn’t want to go home. We had to move and already started packing and disassembling the furniture. The house was littered with junk. The children went to bed at different times and in different rooms. But there were only two of them. There was about a month left before the move, we had a friend with a small child living with us. Nurses collected clothes for her in all departments.
All the light bulbs burned out in the corridor and toilet.
Just as they did in myself.
There was no place for my friend and me to talk: the kitchen was a walk-through, a man was sitting on the floor.
At 10 p.m. we had a Zoom meeting with volunteers. I sat in a dark toilet with the camera turned off, and we spent three hours figuring out which organizations we should write letters to.
Then I finally got Covid. I remember being happy, because I would have time to answer emails. E-mails came in tons, I wrote texts for medical publications and left my contacts for collecting medicines everywhere.
In May, I realized that I couldn’t do this anymore.
My friend D. suggested going to play badminton.
How is it possible? Does badminton still exist in this world?
Do I have the right to drink coffee and go to the gallery of old masters while people in Mariupol melt the snow for drinking water?
Once a friend from Odesa told me that the summer of 2022 was the best in her life. She fell in love as fiercely as ever, sneaked to the Odesa beach, wore red lipstick more often than her back brace. Before that, she had problems with her back, but she forgot about them.
She was ready to die–that is, she was ready to live.
Then I realized that enjoying life during the war is the same civic duty as collecting money for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Because war takes too much, even from those who are geographically separated from it.
I realized that I couldn’t do anything except what I could.
And that was enough.
I looked at T., who coordinated the activities of our volunteer organization. She could not eat or sleep. It was impossible to touch her, because she was tense, like an electric wire. She told me, “You know, I have a gym membership for the year. But I haven’t been there for eight months.”
I looked at K., who lost contact with her family, because she had been volunteering every day for half a year at the Messe, where there was a shelter for refugees, and in the evenings she still went to Socialamt to translate for free, because elderly people who came needed vouchers for treatment while the insurance was being processed.
I looked at L., who ran a kindergarten for Ukrainian children and also managed a warehouse where Ukrainians could get necessary things for free until they started to be paid social security. I watched how she was losing weight and how new wrinkles appeared on her face and heard how the timbre of her voice changed.
Everyone was burning out.
I looked at all of them, Ukrainians, who drew strength from weakness.
I looked at them, at us, emaciated, tired, full of hope, at those who took on too much and thought that we were made of the same dough.
I looked and thought, Lord, it doesn’t matter if they speak Russian or Ukrainian, which city or village they came from, if they graduated from university or vocational school, if they voted for Zelensky or Poroshenko, listened to Oleh Vynnyk or Okean Elzy, none of it matters.
Because they were all citizens of the same country.
The country where instead of saying, „I’m just one person, what can I do?“ it has already become customary to say: „What exactly can I do?“.
The country where people give not because they have a surplus but because they cannot do otherwise.
The country where everyone has already dealt with enough shit and finally decided to drink water.
The country of my people.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan