Essays On War

Oles Ilchenko. Those Who Return 

Those Who Return 

They appeared in March 2022. And there were more and more of them – in April, May, June… Women and children from Ukraine.

The women had prematurely aged eyes that had seen things unknown to the average European. The children behaved like all children in the world: they bickered, laughed, quickly getting used to the new country.

One boy fell to the floor when he suddenly heard a loud sound and covered his head with his hands; the rest looked up at the sky. None of them could acclimate to the perpetual drone of commercial airplanes flying at low altitudes. These were ordinary civil aircraft that people boarded for business or leisurely travel.

As a mild and balmy summer descended upon Geneva, it was typically a season for leisurely vacations and relaxation. However, there was a deceptive sense that the war was occurring in some distant place. It wasn’t until distressing news arrived, disclosing the loss of a friend or an acquaintance’s acquaintance, that the unmistakable scents of war – the stench of blood, manure, smoke, corpses, and musty earth – appeared to permeate the air in Geneva as well.

After being delayed for thirty years, the „new“ war, a colonial-imperial conflict between Russia and Ukraine that had been simmering for three centuries, finally reared its ugly head. It was no longer a distant conflict bleeding „somewhere in the east,“ as it might have seemed to the average person in 2014. Instead, it was a scourge that spread like a continuation of the plague from centuries past.

This dreadful sense of déjà vu was precisely what happened a century ago, a historical and literary epic that occurred in 1914 and 2014. Revolution, war, liberation struggles, pandemics, and interventions were the order of the day, plunging Ukrainians into Dante’s limbo, an impasse of „stupid infinity“ that left them trapped in a circular rather than linear timeline.

During the spring and summer of the bloody year 2022, it became clear in the seemingly serene city of Geneva that our endless volunteering, packing, and shipping of everything and everyone – from the front lines to refugees – served as a temporary distraction from the problems facing small Ukrainian immigrants in the Alpine country. Even the concept of distance learning appeared to evaporate within the streets of the upstanding, middle-class city. The age-old Greek maxim „Know thyself“ inevitably gave way to questions like „Who are you? Who are we?“ It was crucial for Ukrainian children to know and remember the answers to these questions at all times.

To address this need, the Ukrainian community of the city developed a unique concept: the creation of a Sunday school for children, who now numbered in the dozens, if not hundreds, in the capital of the canton.

Thanks to the hospitality of the Dominican monks and the efforts of the Greek Catholic Church’s Geneva parish, the monastery’s grand hall became an improvised school. Although paradoxical, it was a noble and touching effort, as classes were held in every corner of the hall. Ukrainian students had already begun attending a proper school from September onward in a pleasant building that the local authorities had granted at the request of the Ukrainian community.

The future of Ukraine – that is, its children – needed saving, protecting them from national amnesia and the Russian language that many brought with them like the dust and dirt of the battlefield or an ancient disease. Twice a week, we reminded and, to this day, continue to remind the children that they are Ukrainians. No one ever doubted that we had to do what must be done. All empires eventually perish in wars because wars are the primary way and meaning of an empire’s existence. At present, Ukraine is protecting Europe and the world. Here, in a neutral country, we fight for the children.

Some newly-arrived refugees continue their journey, settling in the Netherlands, Great Britain, or other countries. At the same time, others dream of returning to their beloved Ukraine every single day. Some mothers consider making Switzerland their permanent home. Everyone chooses their own path, guided by their unique destiny and talents. But how will Ukrainians integrate into the Alpine country’s rather peculiar and distinct society? Will they find Swiss super-rationality and „immovable“ order of the Confederation of Cantons agreeable, despite the Swiss being cordial and tolerant yet reserved?

Certainly, people will tackle these and other problems in their own way, influenced by several considerations and the many components that factor into their decisions. However, the main question here remains: Will their children remember their homeland after a year or two (or more) of living in a peaceful country in the heart of Western Europe? During a conversation with me, one teenager described their hometown in Vinnytsia region, recalling their favorite river, fishing on it, and earnestly inviting me to visit their little paradise in the near future, so that they could show me „absolutely everything.“

People like him will return. And I hope that in a few years, when they reach adulthood, they will create a new and beautiful Ukraine, which their parents and all other „adults“ who self-confidently considered themselves smarter, wiser, and „better“ than children failed to create.

Having first shown Ukraine to Europe, the people who will return will now bring Europe to Ukraine: respect for order, rationality, pragmatism, and a broad view of the world. These will be different, better people accustomed to life’s achievements in civilized countries.

Some families will never return to their homeland. Yet I remain hopeful that those who do – both parents and children alike – will emerge as a strong lobby for Ukraine in the countries where they find themselves displaced. There is still much that can be accomplished to further the interests of our country, even outside its borders. 

Of course, most of those compelled to depart due to the war will eventually return. They will return to their native language and culture from other countries, regions, or the front. Even those who came to exist only in memories will find a way back home.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan