Essays On War

Ostap Slyvynsky. In one’s own words

In one’s own words

I’ve been speaking with more people than ever before in recent months. I’ve had dozens of conversations in random places, conversations without a clear start or end, and often with individuals I’ll likely never see again. These individuals are as diverse as can be, from volunteers and medics, to anxious mothers with young children, to volunteer fighters, artists, and drivers who navigate dangerous roadblocks daily. I’ve also spoken with women waiting for their husbands and men waiting for their wives, as well as teenagers who haven’t seen their parents in many months, and older people who simply want to live in peace.

As I engage in these conversations, I find myself wondering what I hope to gain from them. Perhaps I seek to understand this war, but if that’s the case, I’m only becoming more confused. The stories I hear feel like pieces of different puzzles that have been mixed together. From the perspective of a single human life, it’s impossible to truly understand war when you listen to personal stories, but listening to general information makes even less sense.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I want to understand those of us who have consistently undervalued ourselves. We Ukrainians have always been, it seems, the greatest mystery to ourselves. How is it that we did not recognize the vast reserves of strength within ourselves and in the things we’ve created? How is that possible?

I know that we are being closely observed now. Perhaps with some hesitation, as none of us can be certain of what we’re truly made of. But the world is listening to us because we now find ourselves where few would willingly go, in the dungeon of reality, where it is dark and frightening, but where the threads of the world are interconnected and visible. I want to understand how everyday things appear from there, how they are connected and to which of them the most important things are linked. I’ve seen something for myself, but my experience is limited. That’s why I ask and listen to others.

I often hear about other people’s homes when speaking with them. It seems that during times of war, our homes, which should protect us, are the first thing to become vulnerable. Our houses were not constructed for war and have fragile walls, glass windows, flammable materials and delicate decorations. War makes us all feel homeless as it strips away our sense of security. The experience of living in bomb shelters highlights the connection between security and discomfort. However, we cannot live in fortress-like houses as they do not align with our way of life. We, like our homes, are not adapted to hard times.

Arina, a refugee from Makiyivka, showed me a handful of keys. „These,“ she said, „are the keys to my house and my parents‘ house, but I can’t go back to either of them.“ She added, „But there’s one keychain with two keys that I can’t remember where they’re from. I still hope I’ll remember one day.“ We both looked at the nameless keys, chained together. I couldn’t help but think that these keys symbolized a home that none of us have ever had.

As I walked away from our conversation, I met Vadim. He was born in the Sumy region, lived abroad for many years, but returned to Ukraine as soon as the war broke out. He tried to join the Territorial Defense Forces, but was told to wait because there were too many applicants. Now he lives in a temporary shelter in Lviv. „I have nowhere to go here in Ukraine,“ he said. „I haven’t lived here for too long.“ As I looked at Vadym, I realized that he came to protect the same house that Arina carries the keys to in her pocket. A house that doesn’t exist, but it does.

And I also hear about beauty. People often talk about beauty during wartime. Who would have thought? „Beauty in war becomes dangerous,“ says Katya, concluding the story about how before leaving her home under occupation she chose the worst clothes to avoid being raped on the way. Beauty during the war becomes an intimate matter for oneself, not for show. I still recall the impact that Ida Fink’s novel Journey had on me when I first read it. It was a moving account of the Holocaust, and at the time, I found it hard to understand how someone could find beauty in such a dark period of history. But now, I know that the story was a candid one. The heroine would not have survived without that intimate beauty, not intended for the eyes of others. It is not typical to talk about such things, because war is often associated with sacrifice and suffering. But Maryna from Kharkiv told me how in the evenings in her apartment damaged by shelling, she heated water, filled the bathtub with it, poured scented oils, and lit candles. And a teenage girl who fled from a front-line town in the Donetsk region showed me her favorite glass shell, which she had taken from her house when it came under fire. That fragile shell was scary to touch, but it was whole.

I also hear about food, which in times of war, transforms from a mere source of calories to a deep form of interpersonal connection, as it conveys warmth and attention. During war, all food is cherished as it provides comfort. I also hear about the body often, which is not a typical topic in peacetime. Stories contain eroticism only in rare cases–more often, people speak of the body as a last resort, a hope for survival, as it allows them to walk, see and hear, and to think. It is a reminder of their personal freedom, the ability to move and think.

I once thought to myself that no matter what my interlocutors were discussing, they were all talking about freedom. Freedom to have their own space, to live their lives as they wish, and to choose their words. Ukrainians  are anti-totalitarian and value freedom of speech and it becomes even more pronounced when considering the phone interceptions of Russian occupiers talking to their loved ones. They rant and repeat TV clichés. Even with their wives they are not free to express themselves. Putin sits with them at dinner, Solovyov escorts them to the bedroom.

But during my conversations with Ukrainians at train stations, shelters, on the streets, in coffee shops, and humanitarian aid centers, there was no invisible third party dictating our words. We spoke our minds, feeling them, often in the dark and under difficult circumstances, but they were our words and we will not give them up to anyone.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan