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Opinion: In the past 2 years of war, we have all died a little

February 22, 2024 7:14 PM 9 min read
Andriy Lyubka
Andriy Lyubka
Ukrainian poet and essayist
A woman (L) and her daughter (R) tearfully comfort each other at the grave of their husband and father, who died during the battle for the city of Mariupol in April, 2022, as Ukrainians mourn soldiers killed in Russia's war against Ukraine at a military cemetery in Dnipro, Ukraine, on April 21, 2023. (Scott Peterson/Getty Images)
This audio is created with AI assistance

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Where were you that morning when the great war began?

Here's my story: The war spoke to me with the distant rumble of explosions outside the window, but I didn't believe it, thinking I was living a dream. Then, on the second floor of my friends' house near Kyiv, the door slammed shut, and slippers clattered down the stairs.

"The war has started, the airspace has been closed," said Katia, the owner of the house.

She mentioned the airspace because I was supposed to fly to Vilnius two hours later to present the translation of my novel. Her voice, after sleep, seemed rough and masculine, hoarse and smoky. But in reality, it was the sound of primal fear. A large dog stood in the kitchen in front of the window, looking into the dark sky, barking nervously, listening to the sounds of rockets and warplanes.

Every Ukrainian will forever remember the dark morning of Feb. 24, 2022, when the full-scale invasion began. Some woke up to explosions, others to frightened calls from their families – but everyone remembers that second to the last detail. It's a memory that pierces through our entire lives. The commonality of this experience makes us not just one people, but a closer, more intimate community – something akin to a family. Because we experienced that moment together.

Afterward, there were many different moments, alarms and tears, pain and anger, but those first seconds remind me of a freeze frame. As if in a 3D program, I can recall all the details around me: the air temperature, the glasses on the table from the previous night's gathering, the clock hands above the door, the smell of the dog in the room, the cool tiles on the floor.

It was the most important moment of my life, after which everything went awry and all plans were disrupted. Perhaps, I’ll remember just as piercingly and deeply the moment when I hear that the war is over — if I live to see that moment, of course.

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Two dreadful years have passed since then. What has changed within us and around us? The most significant change is that we have become accustomed to war — it is part of our lives, our daily routine. This is the scariest change because we have acclimatized to something absolutely abnormal and horrific. We have learned to live without paying attention to it.

Now, when the air raid siren sounds in Kyiv, almost no one rushes to find the nearest shelter – people continue to go about their usual business without haste. Death has acquired the features of an ancient Greek tragedy where it is now governed by fate and destiny. You have almost no influence over it — it may happen that a missile will hit your house today, fall on the café where you order your cappuccino, or destroy the station where you meet your friends.  It's practically impossible to protect yourself from this, so we have to accept it as a daily possibility. “Thy will be done,” as we atheists say.

There is a lot of death around. In the spring of '22, when the first coffins of soldiers killed at the front were brought to my city, each death was felt as a personal tragedy. As the hearse moved through the streets, people on the sidewalks dropped to their knees, laying flowers on the pavement, and crowds gathered at the funerals.

Now, there's a whole section of military graves in the city cemetery, each adorned with the Ukrainian flag. Relatives, colleagues from civilian life, and front-line comrades accompany the coffin — it's usually a small procession. People on the streets pause in respect, but they no longer cry or kneel. In general, it's more comfortable for them to look away or rush into the nearest store to avoid a personal encounter with the death of someone who sacrificed their life for our right to live in the relatively peaceful rear.

Don't rush to judge these people – they're not cynical or callous. It's just that there's been so much death, pain, and grief in these past two years that tears have been shed, the emotions have faded, and the shock of each new tragic news story paralyzes us, only to quickly dissipate. Because you have to gather all your strength and keep living — it's easy to go mad from the onslaught of emotions and experiences. Sometimes I feel like we've all collectively gone mad.

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I'm not exaggerating, believe me. In Kharkiv, after a Russian shelling, an entire family perished – two parents and three children. The Russians attacked an oil depot, causing a fuel leak that flowed down the street and ignited dozens of houses in the residential area. It was a literal hell on Earth; people burned alive.

The father and one son were in the hallway attempting to escape. The mother and her other two children in the bathroom. The youngest son, Pavlo, was seven months old. His mother held him close when they died. The baby was so badly burned during the fire that nothing remained, not even his bones – just ashes.

Can one not go mad after such a reality? Can one not go mad after such a reality? And have I truly gone mad if my first thought was that it would have been better if it were a missile, so that everyone would perish instantly? Because in the fire, everyone endured fear and pain.

A Ukrainian soldier, who only returned from Russian captivity on Jan. 31 after enduring humiliation and torture for two years, was fatally struck by a truck at an intersection on Feb. 8. After returning from captivity, he didn't even get the chance to see his daughter, Valeriia Halkina, who now lives as a refugee in Lisbon.

She wrote on her Instagram: "Today my dad passed away. He wasn't killed by war, nor by a bullet, nor by two years in captivity. He was just crossing the road and was hit by a car. It's surreal. I can't believe this is real. I'm sorry for everything. I waited for your call, as you promised, but I can't wait anymore…"

These are not the most striking stories from the war – just two pieces of news from the morning as I write this piece. This is what everyday life has looked like for two consecutive years – 730 mornings in a row. Every day, civilians die – defenseless, innocent, completely ordinary people, killed by Russia in a supermarket, on the street, in their own homes.

Not only random civilians are dying – Russia kills our soldiers every day. The world has accepted the idea that military deaths are normal, that they are just statistics of war. But aren't soldiers humans, too? Can they simply be killed by invading our country? Who decided that killing soldiers is not a crime, and when?

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Especially considering that the Ukrainian army mainly consists of civilians, people who voluntarily went to defend their country or were mobilized under state conscription. These people had no military training before the invasion and were managers in offices, city bus drivers, pizza chefs in trendy restaurants — just like you, reading these lines now.

Consider my friend Maksym Plesha, a 32-year-old artist whose lifestyle embodied that of a hippie — a true free spirit. He earned his living by painting portraits of people on the streets and restoring paintings in temples. He went to war as a volunteer, although he had no military background. He was wounded twice and survived battles in Bakhmut last winter. After his injuries, we joked that he had nine lives, like a cat.

These extra lives saved him more than once, but when the war continues every day for two consecutive years, not even nine lives are enough to survive. Maksym was killed last year, and his handsome body was brought to his funeral in a closed coffin because it was badly mutilated. Is killing such a soldier a crime or not?

And now let's answer together the question that I am asked very often in different countries: "Are you currently writing fiction?" The answer is obvious.

We live every day amid such a whirlwind of stories that writing fiction capitulates to reality. No novel can compete with the stream of everyday plots from the lives of ordinary Ukrainians. I am not writing anything fictional and, in general, I do not think about literature today as something imaginary or detached from life.

Because the only function of Ukrainian literature today is to witness, to describe fates, to document crimes. When I wrote about Maksym, his relatives thanked me for the fact that, this way, the memory of him will live a little longer and more people will learn about his life. Literature becomes a kind of psychotherapy, helping to endure the greatest losses, giving hope that all this is not in vain, that we will be heard.

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These are not empty words: During the war, in the midst of a deep economic crisis, the circulation of Ukrainian books doubled, and the book market remained one of the few profitable ones in the country. It's a paradox, but only at first glance — in times of turbulence and uncertainty, people need books. The demand for books has increased because they're about people, about human and intimate matters.

To be a writer in these times is both honorable and immensely challenging because literature today does not entertain, but helps and saves. However, it also poses a certain danger: If you have a large paper library in your apartment, then during a missile strike, your dwelling will burn much faster than others — firefighters may not have time to rescue you.

But this cannot be predicted. Over two years of war, as it has already been said, we've learned to rely on fate and destiny. We've grown accustomed to the deaths around us and accepted the possibility of our own sudden demise. We no longer react as vehemently as we did before to terrible news — our emotional skin has thickened. Or perhaps it has simply gradually withered away because, with each day of horror, which our lives have turned into, we all slowly died, too.

What makes us human and normal has withered away within us. Everyone has become a victim of the war – both those it has killed and those who have (so far) been lucky enough to survive. Over two years, we've grown accustomed to war and tragedies, and have started to consider it the new normal, a part of our everyday lives.

And that's the scariest part of it all.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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