MARCH 7, 2022
My wife and I left Kyiv on the evening of February 23, six hours before the bombs started falling. We somehow left behind our passports, with their Irish visas. We had been with friends that very evening, discussing a literary residency in Cork where we were planning to go next month.
On the morning of the 24th, I was awakened by a call from my mum: “Have you heard the news?” I hadn’t, but I understood from the question and from her tone that Russia had begun its large-scale military offensive. Undeclared war with Russia had already been going on for eight years, and for the last few months the news of tanks and troops gathering on our borders had cast a shadow over us. “Have you heard the news?” could only mean that war had been declared. Indeed, Russia had begun its offensive and fighting had already broken out in various places, but that wasn’t what my mother was talking about. Or rather, it wasn’t the only thing. For her, global news was also local news: “They bombed Ivano–Frankivsk!”
Ivano-Frankivsk is a smallish city almost 1000 kilometres from the Russian border, closer to Berlin and Vienna than it is to the armed conflict. Our hometown had been bombed — specifically, its planes and military airfield. On my arrival, I am greeted by pillars of smoke rising from a fuel depot targeted by Russian missiles. By that time our side’s planes are all in the air. Everyone is still alive, if somewhat stunned. We aren’t used to being awakened by bombs at five in the morning.
The first day passes by in a blur. I don’t have any army experience; I’d been exempted from military service for health reasons. My wife and I find ourselves deep in the interior, far from the border: even in peacetime, it takes more than a day and a night to reach us. But everyone and everywhere has been electrified: social media networks, the radio, the TV, and people standing in queues are all buzzing at the same frequency. The first sign of war here is queues in shops and at petrol stations. People aren’t panicking, but they want to make sure they have supplies. Queues outside cashpoints start building up towards the evening.
When we arrive home, we discuss what’s happening in generalizations, transfer money to collections for the army, and think about what to do next. European countries open their borders to refugees; the Ukrainian army convincingly shows German analysts and generals that they’re a bunch of pussies; and we are left to find our place on the information front.
We write letters explaining the situation to people abroad — at first in English, but soon we find translators into German, French, Polish, Hungarian, Hebrew, and other languages. We send the letters to everyone we know. Seeing as it takes 24 hours to get here from active combat zones, we don’t yet have to worry about refugees: most find shelter before they get this far. We have time to prepare spare lodgings, and the physical labor takes the load off our minds.
When you work behind a computer, it’s impossible to distract yourself from it all. After every second sentence your hand moves of its own accord to refresh the news from the front: all your social network newsfeeds are filled with little pictures of scotch tape that your friends in Kharkiv, Kyiv, and other cities are using to stick on their windows to stop the glass from shattering during a blast wave.
By the evening all the targeted ads on my feed are related to Ukraine: Ukrainian flags, clothes with Ukrainian symbols printed on them, and Ukrainian souvenirs are on offer by various manufacturers who write that the profits will be sent to the Ukrainian army. I want to write to all of them and say, you’re targeting the wrong place, mate! Ukraine doesn’t need souvenirs right now: it needs analgesics, haemostatics, tourniquets, flak jackets, helmets, and armor.
All the same, we have the sudden impression that the information barrier has been broken. After eight years of hybrid war in Donbas, of which most peaceful European civilians have have only learned from Russian-financed news channels, we are finally seen and heard without intermediaries. I start writing in English on my Twitter and hundreds of foreigners start following it every day; I am certain that they are reading the Armed Forces, Security Service, and Presidential Office accounts at the same time as mine.
Naturally, it would have been nice if this interest had been there earlier, but earlier is already past. We are left to fight a war and to fill the giant information gap about Ukraine that still exists in the West. At least most people don’t think we’re just Russians anymore. For starters, we could agree on that.
In the evening my wife and I go live on YouTube. In the past we’d log in from time to time to listen to music or talk to our subscribers, but we have now decided to put up posts every day to remind people that that we are together, that we are united, and that we’re holding on, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. The people on the chat tend to come from Kramatorsk, Kharkiv, and other cities under heavy fire from Russia.
Sometimes the number of our live views sharply drops in one go, which means that air raid sirens have sounded in one of the big cities and everyone has gone down to the bomb shelter. One person stays listening to us from inside the shelter and remarks that the Internet is very slow down there.
The queues outside of the cashpoints and petrol stations gradually disappear, and work reappears. The most disturbing news on the first day is that Russia has taken Chernobyl. The next day, the news shows the Russians outside Kyiv; it shows them dying there. The people in Ukraine’s interior come to their senses, learn first aid, and gather food, medicine, clothes, and military equipment. The next morning, an announcement written in a very run-of-the-mill tone pops up in the local community chat group: “Fellow high school graduates! We need people to equip bomb shelters and kit out the high school for incoming refugees. Please stop by and help!”
We are drowned by a wave of requests from abroad. Dozens of journalists, volunteers and casual acquaintances who hosted us years ago on Couchsurfing write to us. Hundreds of women and children cross the border into Poland. From Poland into Ukraine come hundreds of volunteers with everything that we might need. A Polish writer whom I once translated into Ukrainian takes humanitarian aid and brings it across the whole of Poland to the Ukrainian border. International exchange programs work brilliantly; we can barely find enough transport for people fleeing the conflict or find the time to connect people offering money with those who have access to goods needed on the frontline.
We have many requests to explain what exactly is happening and why. We can only sigh in defeat at these, because explaining the last three days of war would require a century of context that thus far has been controlled by Russia and its overbearing worldview. Beforehand, I would have been happy to explain this context in detail, since I have been doing that anyway for the past two years in Ukraine itself (where Russian propaganda is even more violently pervasive than across the border). However, we can talk about it after our victory. We can talk about it when the countries that predicted that Ukraine would fall in a matter of hours — maybe a day or two — finally read up on our history and understand what has happened here and why. There will be time for that then. But not now.
On the second day of the war, fluorescent markings start appearing on the ground deep in the interior. We start catching Russian saboteurs on roads and in forests. People repeat the same thing over and over, that this is all an attempt to sow panic, but nobody is panicking that much anyway. We’re all just furious; we’re burning with rage and want this to be over as soon as possible. Everyone has unfinished business left over from peacetime and we would sooner return to that than risk our lives to send our invaders back to the hellscape they came from. And this rage, this deeply Ukrainian idea of “Don’t touch my corner, it doesn’t belong to you,” unites most of our nation into a single organism. It was the same during the Maidan protests in 2014, only on a much, much smaller scale. This organism may be discordant and chaotic, but it is united by a very simple and universally understood common goal: to forcibly restore the peace and order that have been taken away from it.
We’ve come to the overdue realization that things will never be the same as before the war. Ever. The many abscesses planted by Russia over the past years of conflict have finally been lanced. I’m talking about saboteurs sent to Ukraine a few months before the invasion and the saboteurs who have lived here for years: there are stories inKyiv, Odesa, Vinnytsia, and other cities about local Russian Orthodox priests leaving navigation markings for the Russian forces. Russian priests call on Ukrainians to capitulate to the Russians, and voices shout louder and louder in reply to expel the Russian Orthodox Church from Ukraine. My voice is among those. The network of agents which Russia has relied upon for decades has fallen apart in the first days of the war. This is happening before our eyes — even the eyes of us volunteers far from the active conflict.
For the world, this is an unexpected war that will run an unexpected course. For us, it is the finale to a long historical process, the ultimate severance of all contact with our aggressive neighbor, who has tried to convince everyone for decades that Ukrainians do not exist as a separate people. That is precisely why we are convinced of our victory.
That is why we remember every grain of wheat confiscated during the Holodomor, the genocide by famine conducted against Ukraine between 1932 and 1933.
We remember every bullet that buried itself in our artists and writers in the Stalinist repressions of 1937 and 1938.
We remember every lie, every attempt to deny our existence and to force us to integrate into “one nation,” a nation that has never existed.
And we are victorious.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Daisy Gibbons