Essays On War

Iryna Starovoit. Life underwarter 

Life underwarter 

At the outset, one’s lips quiver, and the back becomes numb—not from physical exhaustion, but from a heart weighed down by sadness. A metaphysical chasm opens up between the shoulder blades, one that can’t be seen in a mirror but is felt nonetheless. The capacity to daydream anew is both difficult and crucial. Not everyone succeeds in doing so, and those who merely survive are crushed. As you ponder what lies ahead, your inner voice answers, „I see life or death,“ which is essentially true.

We must wait and see what the future holds, but after 10, 100, or even 1000 hours, the experience of war can bring a sense of freedom and authenticity. Living on adrenaline means we don’t waste time on trivial or unimportant matters. The urgency of the situation makes it easier to determine the true meaning and value of words and promises. It becomes apparent that something may never happen if it isn’t done now. During wartime, everything is measured against the risk of death, causing people and things to lose their grandeur and appear more realistic.

Subsequently, my anger solidified, but the metaphysical chasm between my shoulder blades remained. I began to see myself as a mermaid in the eyes of my Western colleagues. According to traditional folklore passed down by the older Hutsul women, a mermaid (or „mavka“ as it is known in the Carpathian mountains) appears as a beautiful naked woman until you notice her entrails lagging behind her. Her appearance is both captivating and terrifying, and it’s best for her to remain in her element, never venturing too far from the water or the forest.

During the first weeks and months of the war, I participated in numerous Zoom interviews with people from professional platforms worldwide who wanted to understand what was happening in Ukraine. I spoke to people on various continents and subconsciously felt like I was being perceived as a mermaid on the other side of the screen. When discussing the ongoing conventional warfare in Europe since 2014, I could tell that people found it hard to believe it was happening in a civilized country. Despite their sympathy, a Western colleague once even offered to send me pencils and paper because they assumed that all Ukrainian writers write in Cyrillic script that way. While my listeners listened respectfully, they found it difficult to believe that we were just ordinary people who happened to be living through surreal circumstances and were forced to make crucial and challenging decisions in a matter of minutes. When I mentioned famous artists like Magritte, Picasso, and Dalí and asked them to imagine living in their paintings under bombings and shelling, it was still hard for them to comprehend. It was as if what happened in Ukraine was meant to stay in Ukraine and not affect the rest of the world. However, it later became evident that this was a global war, and anyone with internet access would be indirectly involved. The radiation from this war would impact people’s minds and bodies for the rest of their lives, even if they were physically distant. Therefore, all sympathetic and thoughtful individuals, not just Ukrainians, must help structure the chaos.

From a distance, I could see the fear etched on the faces of those in positions of responsibility. It was a fear born of the knowledge that everything had gone awry and that something needed to be done, but not knowing exactly what that something was. On the other hand, the refugees and the injured bore a different kind of fear; a more disturbing fear conveyed that they had only a few options left, and all of them were bad. It was easier to interact with people who had grown weary of being afraid, those who had overcome their fear and understood that we were all amphibians now, swimming in the vast tragedy of war. We may be submerged in it, but we still manage to breathe the air above the war, the after-war air. The old and newly occupied territories now shared a common fate, and they realized that war was not their element, even though it had become their destiny.

We stand for the values of goodness and righteousness. Ukrainians are no longer merely victims of history; instead, we forge history from the collective power of ordinary people. We have chosen resistance and victory. The battles for Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson were nothing short of miraculous, with the efforts of professional soldiers and volunteers who did not take up arms until February 2022, including rail workers, postmen, doctors, and teachers. Everyone who resisted and endured played a role. When my mother passed away on the night the clocks changed for winter, it struck me that she was born during one great war and was fated to die in another. The circle had closed, and the mourning process took on a new dimension. There isn’t a single generation in Ukraine that hasn’t been affected by the war, and that will be the case for the next two decades. No one will dismiss the wish for peace above their heads with a shrug of irony.

Mom had her special ritual of changing the clocks twice a year, and she enjoyed caring for the many clocks in our home. She had one in every room, even in the kitchen, so she was quite the expert on everything related to timekeeping and household utensils. When she passed away, I found myself hurriedly going through her things. As I held an old glazed bowl from Kosiv that was used for varenyky, I studied the intricate network of veins that ran across its surface. They were the result of cracks, as if the bowl had been reinforced with rebar. Although the interior was pockmarked with tiny scars, the exterior was flawless and smooth. Underneath the transparent glaze, it seemed like a tangled web had been caught or hidden, perhaps even frozen in time. I knew exactly where each crack led, both in my heart and Mom’s.

December 2022  

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan