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a Kind of Refugee / 06.08.2022
Tuesday evening the courtyard, flanked by tall apartment buildings, rings with children’s voices. It’s a typical summer soundscape—except for when there is an air raid alarm. The kids are shouting and playing, when suddenly there’s a loud Boom! Now the children are screaming. Boom! Boom! Boom! An adult voice faintly directs them indoors. I resist the urge to go to the window and look. Reason overpowers curiosity when you fear for your own safety.
The past few days I’ve taken to packing my backpack (computer, documents, etc) and leaving it in the corridor overnight. Just in case. Just in case what? I just feel like I need to have my things packed and ready to go. All the time. Because I know that I’ve been late before.
We are all living with this heightened tension in the air. We don’t talk about it. It is the atmosphere. It is the environment. You can’t ignore the sounds. My body jerks, and I feel it but I don’t really know how to respond anymore. One does get used to it. At night the explosions wake me every few hours; I acknowledge them (sometimes by getting up and going into the hall, once I’m there, why not go to the toilet or drink a glass of water?) and then go back to sleep. I lie in bed anticipating the sound and sensation. And when it doesn’t come, I get suspicious. Is this the calm before the storm?
The sounds now fill me with dread rather than fear. When I know that so many missiles have exploded (16 here, 20 there; that night they sent over 30; 4 in close succession about 10 minutes ago…) and I have not been hit, thoughts about probability arise: as the number of targets in the city decreases, my chances of being struck goes up. And if it’s not me, then it’s somebody else.
Can you LIVE in a place that is under constant fire? People seem to. They go to the supermarket and get water from the semi-trucks outfitted with a dozen or so spigots, stationed every few blocks. They go to the beach with their kids on the weekends.
What are children doing in Mykolaiv during the war? My friends, who evacuated their kids months ago, fume at those adults who did not do the same. Selfish parents, they say, sacrificing their children’s well-being because they can’t bear the pain of separation. It’s not only a matter of putting their children in danger of permanent injury or death, the war damages their developing nervous systems and psyches for life and generations to come. My friends miss their own children tremendously, but they rarely talk about it.
I spend Wednesday at a “strategic session” aimed at clarifying the values, goals, and plans of a Mykolaiv-based hotline to help local people resolve issues caused by the war—from searching for missing relatives to filing paperwork with the armed forces to receiving humanitarian aid.
Over beer in the evening my friend says the russians have amassed 30 battalions in the neighboring Kherson region. They may start advancing by the weekend. This has crossed my mind occasionally this past week, as something I might have to deal with. Even if Ukraine’s advance to liberate that territory from russian occupation keeps going well, Mykolaiv is the target of russia’s vengeful missile strikes. “It would be good to leave tomorrow or Friday,” he says.
People in wartime, while incredibly warm when together, let go very easily.
Now I know it’s worth packing your bags in moments of relative quiet. Once you are actually in danger, it is too late. And I recognize the lull when enough time has passed after the last missile strike and the next ones haven’t come as the time to gather all my belongings. It takes little more than an hour to clear three shelves and a couple surfaces and put everything into two backpacks to carry and one to send tomorrow by mail.
These movements are cold and pragmatic. So different from how I used to pack for the US every year (or even heading to Mykolaiv from my home in Kyiv), when you imagine what you might need in the place you are going and try out various options. There is no time for projection and calculation, only assessment, thinking, and action. I don’t want to be scrambling for my bare essentials and fleeing in a sea of people all trying to get out at the same time. Who cares if I go preemptively? I can always go back. I don’t need to wait for the mass exodus. I don’t want to be late again.
Friday morning I, my two backpacks, borrowed bulletproof vest, and a large bottle of water are in a car bound for Kyiv. On the way I learn that Mykolaiv is shutting down that night for a long curfew until Monday morning. My friend calls in the afternoon to say how tense it feels in the city, how glad she is that I’ve left.
Timing is everything.
On Thursday the Telegram channel with local news (mostly air raid alarm announcements and reports of the daily damage from russian shelling) posted photos of an unexploded missile lodged in the pavement of Mykolaiv’s central avenue. Right across the street from the hotel my friend stayed at a few weeks ago. By evening all that remains is a patch of fresh asphalt on the road. As I wait to catch a bus home, I mark its distance from the bus stop: 20 steps.
Arriving in Kyiv brings instant lightness. Though I miss my friends—and Mykolaiv. At night I hear a dull thud—a distant explosion. Or maybe a phantom explosion. May all those russian missiles turn around and explode right where they came from.
PS My friends at Heroes Ukraine are still working locally.
Send money (https://heroesukraine.org/en/donate/).
Send prayers (you have your own link).
Send more weapons (you know who to lobby).
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