Essays On War

Olena Huseynova. A Simple Job of Self-defense

A Simple Job of Self-defense

I didn’t feel like getting ready. I was certain that no one wanted to prepare for this. It wasn’t a vacation in Italy or a party with friends. There was no desire to do it. I preferred to think of it as if it was happening to someone else. My reluctance manifested without my participation, as if it was thunder or rain. My language reveals what I dare not confess to myself.

The word „war“ came easily to me. In December, while grilling fish, I asked my friend’s husband, a former diplomat, „Do you think there will be a war?“ In January, I told my husband, „Let’s go to the cinema before the war starts,“ as we passed the cinema every morning. In February, my friends from Gdansk wrote, „Let’s go on vacation while there’s still no war,“ and they took the opportunity to visit a warm place with delicious food, where they had the time to travel and come back. But my husband and I never made it to the cinema. We only went for coffee last Sunday in Podil.

But I never asked my friends if they were preparing for war, and no one asked me about it either. All they needed was a brief phrase and a questioning intonation, „Are you getting ready?“ or „Collected everything?“

I didn’t want to prepare or gather my things. The feeling was familiar to me, much like the reluctance I had felt during my school days when faced with Ukrainian grammar exercises. Despite my reluctance, I cleaned my desk, took out my textbook, and opened up to a random page. To my surprise, I found myself tackling the first exercise with enthusiasm. I was focused on the grammatical basis of the sentence and its secondary members: who, what, why, and whom.

As soon as I finished one exercise, I turned the page to find  another. The task of arranging synonyms by degree of intensity, filling in missing letters, and forming the singular instrumental form of nouns became a lengthy and overwhelming exercise. A burning pain appeared between my shoulder blades, and I wanted to rest my head directly on the pages of the textbook, so that all the un-inserted letters and unfinished sentences were reflected on my forehead, remaining with me forever, but not standing in front of my eyes, demanding to be completed even tonight.

I closed the textbook and promised myself to wake up before six the next morning and finish everything. But I slept until seven, and I hoped to manage to get through the next day with one completed exercise.

In early February, a colleague sent me a link to a brochure from the Center for Strategic Communications titled „In case of emergency or war.“ The title was so alarming that it made me ignore the word „emergency“ and focus only on „war.“ The brochure had twenty pages and many pictures, one of which depicted an open suitcase on the floor next to a bottle and flashlight, with a man, woman, and child sitting nearby. The woman was sitting in the Turkish style, the man had his elbows resting on his knees, and the child was pulling something long and black out of the suitcase. They all looked like me, sitting over written exercises and trying to find the strength to at least read the assignment. Men, women, and children in the brochure were shown on different pages, standing next to each other, holding hands, and demonstrating how well the chemical protection suits fit them. The men, women, and children in the brochure reminded me of Yulia Musakovska’s book of poems, in which there’s also a bug-out bag that you don’t have the strength to pack. It’s almost impossible to choose what will help you survive: your grandmother’s photos from over the years, learning how to wrap up Kurgan stelae for safekeeping, or forcing a battery-powered radio to cough up some rock and roll.

I had the strength to remember all my favorite poems and start carrying domestic and foreign passports with me, but not enough to make copies of my documents and put them in a plastic container. I found a sapper’s shovel and a miner’s flashlight in my trunk, which is worn on the forehead, but realized with horror that I had bought them back in 2012 and they were produced in Russia. I didn’t have the strength to find a compass, watch, garbage bags, or even a radio. However, I did find all three of my multitools, which I had bought by chance in different European cities, but they were only suitable for opening a bottle of wine in those same cities. I could order a thermal blanket for delivery, but I couldn’t decide on a manufacturer, size, or color for weeks. I searched online for „reliable footwear“ but only found white espadrilles embroidered with artificial pearls, but I didn’t search for „dishes in which you can heat and cook food if necessary.“ The brochure insisted on taking three days‘ worth of underwear and drinking water, but I didn’t know what that meant. What would happen on the third day when the water and underwear runs out? I tried to imagine this third day and again felt physical fatigue, like when I was a child writing exercises.

My husband and I came to the supermarket with a list. We stood between the shelves, looking at the wide selection of goods. Everything the brochure listed and more. Dry shampoo, ready-made buckwheat porridge with veal, and even M&Ms that didn’t melt in our hands, just like they didn’t melt in the hands of American soldiers during World War II. But we didn’t want to approach the shelves. I didn’t want to be in a place where it might be needed. I looked at a bag of  M&Ms and wished it only contained milk chocolate, something that would simply raise my blood glucose and disrupt my carbohydrate metabolism, damaging my tooth enamel. I didn’t want it to save me from real hunger, or to use it to save someone else from starvation, who may not even have M&Ms. I didn’t want anyone hunting for that bag of M&Ms and me along with it.

I knew about this from the TV series The Walking Dead that I had watched in 2012. It’s about a group of survivors in a world overrun by zombies. They stick together, trying to stay alive and create a semblance of normalcy for themselves. They search supermarkets and small grocery stores, scooping out everything they can find. One of the characters even hunts for M&Ms, even those that are moldy. They arrive at an American research institute where the only living scientist lets them in, turns on the hot water in the shower, feeds them spaghetti with tomatoes and basil, and pours them Italian red wine. But then he presses the button and the NDI (nuclear detonation initiator) is set to fly into the air, destroying everything that makes this world bearable. The survivors escape just before the explosion and the second season begins. I didn’t watch it anymore. I wished my bug out bag could hold that NDI from „The Walking Dead“ or this supermarket, even the department that sells flowers and paper hats with pipes for children’s parties. Not just a block of condoms to keep drinking water and technical water in, or to use as a tourniquet. Or sterile bandages that I don’t want to shove into an open wound of a loved one, or a stranger’s.

„I think we can only die in this war,“ I told my husband as he picked up a can of pickled sausages.

The suitcase did not solve anything. If I needed it, then I was a goner. Men, women and children from the brochure collected suitcases, scanned family albums, took down glass items from bookshelves, and wrapped porcelain cups in newspapers. On February 23, I finally found my old but comfortable jeans and washed them.

The following day, we all woke up at the same time, some with packed suitcases, others with enough supplies for three days, and some with nothing at all. As I woke up, all I could think about was coffee. Reflecting on this moment, I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to try and distance myself mentally from the situation. My language will reveal my true feelings. It always does. My desires were neither as powerful as a storm nor as insignificant as a passing breeze. They were simply there, and at that moment, all I wanted was coffee.

I descended to the first floor of our home, made myself a cup of coffee, and brought it upstairs to the second floor. My husband and I stood near the large window, which overlooked the beautiful Dnipro River. We watched as the landscape passed by just as it did every day. Suddenly, a cruise missile flew past the window, followed closely by another one. The glass in our windows shook violently before settling back in place.

I had not had the chance to dry my comfortable jeans, so I put on a pair that felt stiff and uncomfortable. We got into the car and drove to Kyiv.

I spent the next few days wearing uncomfortable jeans, drinking water and eating chocolate from other people’sbug out bags. These suitcases were opened frequently, like a second and third breath, and items such as food (ramen noodles, sesame galettes, apple pastille, and M&Ms), drinks (water, instant and ground coffee, black and chamomile tea, Coca Cola, energy drinks, and peach-flavored fragolino), clothes (socks and underwear, a coat-like fleece, a red embroidered jacket), cigarettes, Gidazepam, and hand and eye cream were taken out and shared. They were shared it with me too. I thought to myself, „We have to survive this war,“ but I didn’t say this to my husband. All of us, men, women, and children, with our old photos,  Kurgan stelae, and rock and roll. That’s why I’m learning simple self-defense techniques. My new suitcase is packed, and I keep adding items to it: a respirator, rubber gloves, and tape to make a chemical protection suit. A battery-powered radio and walkie-talkie. A power bank with pliers to recharge the battery in the car. Candles and candlesticks. And we can’t forget the pack of M&Ms. It’s good that they can’t melt in our hands now.


Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan