Essays On War

Pavlo Korobchuk. Breathing and other changes

Breathing and other changes

On February 24, life changed for every Ukrainian, and we were forever transformed. This may sound dramatic, but it is simply a statement of fact. However, upon reflection, what exactly has changed? Can we even create a definitive list of the events, emotions, and states that have shifted? Is there a clear line of demarcation between our existence before and after? Or are there multiple stages and periods of transition? Moreover, what distinguishes those who have lived through war from those who have only read about it in anthologies?

To answer these questions, we must confront the painful truths that are difficult to face but impossible to ignore.

The loss of life during the war was immense, with tens of thousands of people losing their lives. But the greatest tragedy is the loss of their future. I can almost see the time and space that was supposed to be theirs, how they were meant to wake up the next day and go to work, teach their child to tie their shoelaces, speak at a conference and make everyone laugh with a good joke, hug their mother and tell her how much they love her, and brush their teeth every morning for the next fifty years. They were supposed to become academics, receive the Nobel Prize, be the first to cross the finish line of a marathon, or simply conscientiously repair ten thousand plumbing fixtures for the city’s residents during their lifetime. They were supposed to go to the beautiful island of Santorini and admire the dawn.

Yet, all of these possibilities were taken away from them, and they were never given the chance to become who they were meant to be. It’s a heartbreaking realization.

Sometimes, I find myself wanting to give up my seat in a cramped coffee shop, to let someone pass so they can order something from the barista. But in that moment, I realize that there is no one else in that space, and that there are tens of thousands of wastelands in the world.

Other times, I see the consequences of those who have died. I try to justify their deaths, seeing them as not being in vain. I envision new generations of free Ukrainians growing up in ten, one hundred, and two hundred years, thanks to the struggles of today, despite the senseless and violent murders by rockets, shells, bullets, and shrapnel.

I see these fallen people as both a barrier against complete darkness, oppression, the destruction of millions, the end of a nation’s history, culture, language, tradition, modernity, and the end of the future. But their sacrifice also offers a perspective: the birth of new millions of Ukrainians, the preservation of our community’s strength, the defense of a peaceful life, and billions of new dawns for other people, including myself.

Since February 24, another thing that has changed is our breathing. It becomes more frequent due to the sound of missiles flying overhead. We gasp with joy when we see how our people liberate the Kharkiv region or Kherson.

But at other times, our breath is taken away for different reasons. We struggle to find the air to give a eulogy at friends‘ funerals. We breathe faster when Russian tanks enter our cities, and we gasp when we read news about chemical weapons in Mariupol. Our breath disappears when we hear about dead people, whether unknown or close to us.

Perhaps the most difficult moments are when we struggle to breathe at all, like when we dig up the tenth grave in Izium’s forest, with no name on the cross, only the date of death. These moments remind us that the war has not only taken lives but also affected the very essence of our existence.

The level of former intimacy or closeness with others no longer matters when it comes to the death of a Ukrainian in this war. All Ukrainians are now equally close to each other. We are all related to each other, like mothers-in-law, uncles, and sisters. Parents, who once only provided food to their children in student dormitories in other cities, now send it to our soldiers on the front lines. They donate clothing, including gloves, pants, raincoats, fleece sweaters, pads, and thermal underwear – everything they sent to their own children. They also send essential military equipment such as thermal imagers, knee pads, body armor, helmets, collimators, and unloading devices.

This is because we are all fathers, mothers, and children. We are all Bandera and we are all Ukraine. We are all Ukrainians, united in our fight for our country’s survival.

The sense of time has been greatly affected by the ongoing invasion. Time seems to have taken on a frantic behavior, where things that once lasted a long time now pass quickly, and things that took forever now drag on. It’s been nine months since the full-scale invasion, and on one hand, the day before the invasion seems like it was a decade ago. On the other hand, the day after the invasion feels like it was just yesterday. It feels like we have aged ten years in the last nine months due to the sheer number of events that have occurred since the invasion began.

The space has transformed, becoming smaller and confined to only the essentials: your body, a few close individuals, a bug-out bag, and updates on the smartphone. This is the bare minimum that is required. In the past, space was not restricted to what was necessary but rather what was desired. There was a wide variety of options to choose from. However, the current circumstances have simplified our needs, and we mostly want the same thing, resulting in a more straightforward and unambiguous choice. The freedom of space and choice has decreased, but the necessity for survival has become the top priority.

Our sense of space has undergone a transformation too. While the borders of many countries have opened up to Ukrainians, the temporary loss of Ukrainian territories has made the world feel much smaller. Spain may be a wonderful destination, but what does it matter if you can’t stroll along the Oleshkiv sands? Similarly, Los Angeles may be a dream city, but what does it matter if you can’t swim in the Sea of Azov?

Our sensitivity to others has also undergone a significant shift. We have become more compassionate and considerate towards everyone, except for Russians.

Retired women counting coins at the supermarket checkout, dogs waiting in line for food in a city bombarded by Russian Grad missiles for months, school children drawing horned Putins in math class, women wearing brighter lipstick than before the war, those who have lost limbs and those who dance wildly at rock concerts, those who have lost loved ones or homes, and even those who have not lost anything but are simply Ukrainian – all of them are affected by the war. And even guinea pigs that did not survive in abandoned homes serve as a reminder of the widespread devastation. But perhaps it is our soldiers who are most impacted. Literally everything has changed, from our habits and behaviors to our awareness of the need to keep all devices charged and to stay away from windows during air raids. Despite this, some habits remain automatic, like continuing to walk with baby carriages and clean carpets, even in the face of danger.

The light bulb in the corridor, which occasionally goes out for a few hours, has changed, due to the destruction of a third of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure by Russian missiles and Iranian drones.

The taste of watermelon has changed, as these luscious fruits were not imported from Kherson Oblast this year due to the occupation.

The contents of backpacks and women’s handbags have changed, as they now include tourniquets and hemostatic drugs.

Sexuality has changed, with some losing their desire altogether and others feeling an increased need for it.

Advertising has changed, with even those who despise it rejoicing at the news of McDonald’s reopening.

Children have changed, having experienced being in bomb shelters, including the entire 3-A class, singing about father Bandera and mother Stefania, and losing their fear.

Facial expressions and gestures have changed, with news of a possible nuclear strike over Cherkasy now causing only a slight smile instead of hands shaking from an air alarm.

The perception of life has changed since February 24, including its value. With the ease of orcs capturing and torturing innocent people who just yesterday were postmen or students, the question arises of what the price of life is. Why bother planning a future or investing in personal relationships if one may not be here tomorrow? Despite this, there is a newfound confidence in the struggle for freedom and existence that is indestructible and empowering. As a result, there is a desire to live life to the fullest by creating, raising children, and maintaining personal relationships. And what remained the same as before February 24? Despite all these changes, one constant is the sequence of notes in solfeggio. It is important for children to associate „gamma“ with music and not radiation.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan