a Kind of Refugee / 03.06.2022
Every return to Kyiv is euphoric. And each time—a greater intensity of emotions: elation, love, appreciation, horror, fear. Along with a growing resolve with which I say, I am here and here is in the midst of war and I am here in the midst of war.
An afternoon walk with my dear friend Larisa, following our usual route by the river, ends on a bench talking about how to arm and train the adult civilian population of Kyiv and surrounding towns. Because there are simply not enough soldiers in the Ukrainian military to protect us all from all directions.
Her friends from the Kyiv territorial defense are stationed in the Kharkiv region. They are digging in to hold their defensive positions, not advancing to clear the entire region of russian forces. Because they have got neither the firepower nor the manpower.
Who is left to defend Kyiv? The seas of civilians who have returned in recent weeks to bask in being home in the spring magnificence?
Right. Us. We are utterly vulnerable.
Walking home I’m thinking about how I’m not particularly eager to fire a weapon but it’s something I should probably learn how to do, sooner rather than later. At least so that I can hold an automatic rifle with confidence, when scared, and be able to move deliberately. This is what it means to be home now.
It has taken me a few months to settle firmly on the position that the priority in aiding Ukraine is arming Ukraine. Now I have friends and colleagues in the Ukrainian military. I have a job raising money to equip a unit of the Special Operations Forces. Each week I meet another American who has come to aid in Ukraine’s war effort.
Yet when I imagine a new russian advance on any of the Ukrainian cities I could be in, I understand that all these beautiful, brave people who care about me will be called to immediate duty to meet the enemy head on. And I will have to do my part.
It is unethical to simply celebrate the heroism of Ukraine’s defenders. Serving—your country, your country’s principles (and by extension future existence), your compatriots—is different than providing a service. And the Ukrainian people (a large proportion) have been partners, supporting the defense not only through material aid but also with little (and big) acts of sabotage.
There is no amount of helping the military that buys you the luxury of sitting back and being protected. Our western “friends” do not seem to fathom how serious this situation is or how great a role THEY play in stopping (or not stopping) russia. We say that Ukraine is defending itself from russia’s advance and by extension protecting Europe and the West. But for all their crazy courage and heroic devotion the Ukrainians will not be able to hold off this monster with their wits alone.
Each of you, beginning with feeling–understanding–knowing that this war affects you, must do your part for this war to end. Otherwise it never will.
When I tell my parents over zoom how I realized that I have to learn to fire an automatic weapon, not unlike the way they made me learn to drive a car at age 16 so I could survive in the suburbs, they hardly bat an eyelash. It’s so easy, as a casual observer, to identify with a story you hear or a film that you watch or a thought that somebody else expresses when it’s only in your mind.
In fact there’s a whole process that happens when you are the main character involving gradual acknowledgment, questions, deliberation, and action. My first encounter with a bulletproof vest for personal use happened 24 hours after Lana, aware that I was traveling south, asked, “Do you have protective gear?” No, but I’m going to live and work in the city like civilians. You don’t walk around a city in a bulletproof vest “just in case.” They’re really f-in heavy.
It weighs 20 lbs (9 kg), which is bearable on my body, but lugging it home in my backpack it felt heavier than anything I had ever carried before. A 30- or 40-lb. child, soft, warm, and moving, feels lighter. There is something specific about the weight of a bulletproof vest, perhaps in the density of the material, maybe in its purpose—literally hitting up against (and deflecting) death.
The next morning my body cried out in pain, “Stop changing cities so often!” With the realization that we are in this war for a long time, I slowed down and made some decisions, taking a long view and from a place of deep resolve.
It’s easier to spend my war time in other cities, to not have to deal with the psychic unease of living in your home with all your memories of how you lived before (in the smells in the way the light falls and of course in your body’s relationships to the space and objects and movement patterns) and its dissonance with the present reality that you are at war, in war, that the war IS your entire context.
On this 100th day of russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine I am in my own apartment in Kyiv in the midst of war and I am okay. Tomorrow I plan to take a full day off. See you on the other side.
PS I want to print business cards with “Ukraine NGO Maven” on one side and my paypal address on the other. Actually, I want you, friends abroad, to print them and hand them out to random Americans (Europeans, Canadians, etc.) who feel at a loss for how to help Ukraine.
Please contact me if you can help with a simple design and layout.
Also contact me if you want to print some to hand out in your locale.