Essays On War

Marianna Kiyanovska. War at the end and at the beginning of life

War at the end and at the beginning of life

As I read the letters and diaries of Polish cultural figures from the beginning of the interwar period, I came across a profound phrase: „War always happens at the end or the beginning of life, after everything that has happened, before everything that is yet to happen.“ I copied it down in my notebook, signed „S,“ but have since forgotten who these words belonged to. Regardless, the words have stayed with me.

Almost a hundred years later, war still rears its ugly head, robbing us of our humanity and hope, tearing apart our existence, and leaving us forever changed.

In the early 2000s, during what appeared to be peaceful times, I struggled to comprehend the true nature of war. It was only through reading the accounts of survivors and their descendants that I began to understand the depth of their thoughts and experiences. Primo Levi, a survivor himself, once remarked that, with a few exceptions, we only know stories from and about the war of those who managed not to die. Even survivors are often left physically and mentally scarred, struggling to return to a life that is forever lost.

About twenty years ago, I began to read book after book written by men and women from the „lost generation,“ those who had lived through the war and had their lives stolen from them. They spoke of their profound experiences of loss and the figurative death of their former selves. Those who are literally killed do not have the opportunity to reflect and bear witness, but their stories live on through the words of those who survived.

In January 2009, I found myself in snowy Georgia, where I was given the opportunity to deeply immerse myself in the painful experiences of a wartime country that was „forced to peace.“ As a recipient of the Gaude Polonia scholarship, I focused on the interwar period of the early 20th century. Lectures from supposedly peaceful times turned out to be a turning point for my consciousness, as they were delivered from the „eye of the cyclone“ of the Great War.

Now, as I reflect on my perspective from January 2023, I realize that once war enters human life, it never truly ends. It haunts our reality and imagination, robbing us of sleep and air, and convulses our souls until it breaks our bones. War pushes us towards feats of self-denial and bravery, but it also leaves us with a sense of borderline loneliness, as if we are trapped in a malfunctioning pressure chamber where the pressure from within flattens our lungs, liver, and brain. War is an irreversible impulse towards the impossible, leaving us forever changed.

War has the power to acclimate you to a mechanical, orderly, and carefree existence, even amidst the chaos of shelling. You wake up in the morning, cook food, walk, play with your pets, go to bed, and this routine persists for weeks, months, and years… Long and endless minutes tick by. Some may eventually run out of basic necessities like food, water, and air, but the calmness, dignity, and numbness brought about by the automaton-like state of mind do not disappear. Instead, they become an inexhaustible and fundamental property of the body and consciousness.

But for others, war blackens the sun, moon, heart, and stars from the very first minutes of the conflict, and the darkness remains throughout its days and nights.

You may find yourself in a relatively safe city like Lviv, Uzhhorod, Chernivtsi, or even in supposedly secure countries like Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, or Great Britain. Food and water may not be scarce for you, and you may hear about shelling from the news or friends, but the war still fills your body and mind. It poisons and destroys, splitting time and being into a „before“ and an „after“ on all levels.

In the infinite, dragging moments of war, every second is a breath, a heartbeat, a push, or a blow urging you to move forward or shrink away. Each moment could be the sign of the end, with the weight of the last drop. War forces you to choose between fleeing or remaining. And if you decide to stay, you must either succumb to death, surrender or fight relentlessly, intently listening to the breathing and heartbeats of those around you. This war is taking place during a particular moment in my life. I was born fifty years ago in 1973. I could have been born and died just about now, having miraculously escaped death in this war. I didn’t face fire or trenches. However, I spent one month at the St. Gertrude Hospital in Berlin, surviving two back-to-back, extraordinarily difficult five- and nine-hour surgeries on my spine, which probably would not have been possible in Ukraine given the frequency of total blackouts. Almost precisely in the middle of autumn, I found myself again at a point of extreme transformation, the totality of my thinking, speech, and writing „after everything that has happened, before everything that is yet to happen.“

This war, which began with a full-scale invasion in February 2022, is my personal burden, so heavy that it physically and emotionally breaks me. The weight of the torment and horror of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people is unbearable. While the annexation of Crimea and the partial occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk regions were terrible, the current pain is apocalyptic.

Throughout this war, I never ran away. I have wanted and tried to do something for Victory, for everyone, since December 2013. However, when Russian forces shelled Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities at the end of that awful February night in 2022, and Russian missiles fell in the Lviv region, including the towns of Brody, Novo Kalynov, and Kamyanets-Buzkui (where my father is from), I stopped existing at a certain level.

I „died“ that night and in the following days and nights as I watched my defenseless, peaceful people die under shelling and bullets. The entire world witnessed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in real-time. I learned of people losing their lives to inhumane torture, burning cars, and train station bombings. A doctor died while delivering a baby, and rescue workers and journalists were killed in repeated attacks. My heart stopped when the first civilians, including children, were executed by the occupiers with their hands tied behind their backs. Every time one of our defenders fell, another part of me died with them. In March 2022, another part of me suffocated under the rubble of destroyed high-rise buildings. I was literally dying from pneumonia and indescribable despair that was impossible to express. My lungs refused oxygen and collapsed from the shock of grief. Close friends and families miraculously escaped from Bucha and Irpin, but my worry for them was overwhelming as long as they were under fire and occupation.

For nearly a year now, my body has been unable to bear the weight of my emotions and thoughts. It struggles to endure in the middle of war. My body deprives itself of the reality where, in addition to bombs beng dropped on maternity hospitals, kindergartens and schools, there are possible soap factories equipped in the basements, in which, in the best traditions of the Third Reich, human fat was used for soap.

As I write these words, it has been 340 days of war. During my bedridden months, starting in February 2022, someone could have built a house or tended to their crops. But someone’s house remains unbuilt, for the family’s father is at war. That crop remains unharvested, for the field is under occupation. And this morning, I woke up far from home, still plagued by partial immobility and self-torture, for I have not yet contributed anything significant to the cause of Victory. The realization that I have not been able to contribute much to my country during these more than eight thousand hours tears me apart. I don’t know if I can ever make up for it; this will be another burden for the rest of my life. Yet, the only thing that gives me a reason to live amidst personal pain, sorrow, and fear is the belief that I can work towards a better future. Without constant, conscious efforts to shape the future, even Victory would lose meaning.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan