Essays On War

Yuliya Iliukha. The Roots of War

The Roots of War

Two weeks after the start of the war, I asked my acquaintance Yurko if I could join him on his humanitarian trip from Kyiv to Kharkiv. It was a short drive from the village where my parents lived, where my son, two cats, and I had hastily evacuated from Kharkiv that February morning when our lives were turned upside down. During the trip, I sat between boxes, holding a bag of medicine my husband had asked me to buy for the boys in his unit, and I wondered when the tears would finally come.

A few years ago my son asked me why I never cry. I joked that I just didn’t like it, but at the time I really cried. Did I know then that everything would change after February 24, 2022?

As we drove down the familiar path that I had traveled for years, I could list all the villages that dotted both sides of the Kyiv highway from memory. I didn’t even need to look at the signs. As we passed Pisochyn, tears welled up in my eyes. Kharkiv was just a short distance away, and the images and footage I had been scrolling through on Telegram channels day and night left no doubt that I would cry before reaching Kholodna Hora.

We pulled over at a gas station after the Pisochyn roadblock. I savored a piping hot latte made with natural coffee, a luxury that had been beyond my reach for the past two weeks. Meanwhile, Yurko distributed a portion of his cargo to the soldiers in military uniforms. A white bus was parked on the right side, and its driver was smoking while casting a glance at me. Suddenly, he tossed away the cigarette butt, flung open the back door, and presented me with a massive bouquet of fresh pink tulips. The interior of his van was filled with neatly arranged, multicolored bouquets.

The date on the calendar was March 9, 2022.

On that first day, the day of my return to Kharkiv, what stuck in my memory was not the destroyed house with its side looking as if some huge, toothy devil had bitten it off at the intersection of Kholodnohirs’kyi and Poltavskyi Shliakh streets, not the burned School No. 134 on Shevchenko Street with similarly-burned Russian equipment nearby, not the damaged Sumska Street with its broken boutiques and the regional state administration with the collapsed [left] wing of it, where my office used to be, but a ficus tree. It was a large ficus tree with thick glossy leaves that stood on the windowsill of a house with broken windows, a long white tulle curtain fluttering from the draft on the house’s outer wall. Perhaps the soil in the pot was frozen through, and the ficus was already dead, but it still stood there, against all odds. 

That day I also felt like a ficus because I never cried.

Yurko suggested I stay in Kharkiv for the weekend and visit the morgue with him in mid-March, an offer I couldn’t refuse. During that spring, we made weekly visits to the morgue to deliver antiseptics and other disinfectants donated by generous benefactors abroad. These disinfectants became especially important in April when the smell of corpses could already be felt on Dmitrivska Street. As the weather warmed up, bodies continued to pile up in the yard, stacked on top of each other in black bags. Strangely, even seeing those naked corpses did not evoke any emotions in me, not even the first time. I found myself calmly eating soup in the basement half an hour later, my thoughts not dwelling on the dead but on the living that still needed our help.

As I sorted through twenty boxes of medicine for the military in the basement of a sewing factory, I couldn’t help but think of my husband’s unit. The factory had shifted its focus to sewing vests, pouches, and helmet covers since the start of the war. The Territorial Defense Forces were stationed nearby, and every morning, the soldiers trained in the closed yard. Occasionally, they approached me for cold and cough remedies. They only had a few tourniquets on them, so I would give them some of the boxes with bandages, medicines, and tourniquets. However, the medicine I purchased for my husband’s unit never made it to him, as it got lost somewhere along the way, along with other military supplies like first-aid kits and combat boots.

I often think back to Zhenya, who goes by the call sign „Jackson“. He contacted me in the late summer of 2014, asking for a thermal imager. At that time, I had no idea what a thermal imager was and mistook it for a TV. When I asked him about it, Zhenya, who was actually a tractor driver, admitted he didn’t know much about it either. Despite this initial bump in the road, we managed to find a thermal imager for him. Zhenya is still fighting today, and there are thousands of men and women like him who have learned that a thermal imager is not the same as a TV.

In late April, Yurko, who always managed to take me to places of questionable safety, like the outskirts of Northern Saltivka, organized the evacuation of a bedridden patient from Saltivka to abroad. As the men carried the patient to the ambulance, I looked at the ruins of the buildings. Only a few walls were left where a kindergarten once stood, and a coat rack was firmly attached to one of them. There were ‘trempel’ hangers (Editor: ‘trempel’ is a word for ‘hangers’ used only in Kharkiv) on that coat rack. The ceramic rooster from Borodianka and the ‘trempel’ hangers from Kharkiv, with a white cat sitting on a broken windowsill nearby. When the cat saw us, it jumped inside the apartment, which may have been its home once.

Last spring, I had three books coming out and bought a dress for each presentation. Unfortunately, they were all left in my apartment in Saltivka, where I hadn’t lived since February 24th. I decided to retrieve them in May because I was sure a missile would eventually hit our building. During the ten minutes I spent packing my clothes into a bag, the shelling began as if it were scheduled to start just as I was about to leave the apartment. Yurko and I had to sit in the corridor until the shelling stopped. Once it did, we quickly ran to the car. A man with a dog on a leash calmly walked towards us on the sidewalk. It turns out that you can quickly get used to war. Because the war has already taken root in our lives.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan