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a Kind of Refugee / 19.03.2022
Time divorced from routine, with natural cycles disrupted, is endless. There is no time in wartime. You are entirely involved in what you’re doing, and suddenly an hour has passed, and then the day. At night it is quiet, until the air raid alarm goes off. And you can never know, plan or predict when. You have no “time to yourself” because it is occupied by the enemy.
The war burst into our life in late February, destroying routines, spatial neighborly relationships, social community bonds, buildings, bridges, schools and cities. But by virtue of being here you join it and begin to live with it. It wears you down and you rest and recover and now the war remains a constant while life begins to reassert itself in these new conditions.
a week ago i cried for the first time. after listening to a syrian playwright in zoom; we were both participants in a public talk about ukraine. his presentation — and his presence — touched something deep, disturbing a fundamental sense of security in… my own solidity. i cried with admission that the war in syria was always a fact to me, some information that did not touch me. and now it’s my country being torn apart by russian arms and airstrikes, raining down from the sky in deadly explosions.
i listened to that playwright from syria speak coolly but not without compassion about how syria was a training ground for russia: they tested 300 new weapons there, rehearsed tactics for terrorizing the civilian population and performed a massive experiment demonstrating the effects of instigating a “refugee crisis” in the western world. syria was the site of unspeakable atrocities while the world watched without seeing. i didn’t see it. and i could not imagine this war in ukraine.
a wise friend once said (and she said it many times in those first years following russia’s invasion of ukraine in 2014) that if you refuse to see the danger around you as you sit in your comfortable home, untouched, sooner or later it will come to you.
the syrian playwright instantly shifted my perspective. bent over the kitchen table in a borrowed apartment in lviv i cried for the syria i did not feel, for the fact that its destruction is irreversible and now my country too. and i wondered whether our course will be the same. or maybe something will be otherwise.
i’ve observed that our people, from the army and territorial defense units to refugees, are being supported by small networks of volunteers, what i like to call “bands.” i have numerous friends working in different small-group initiatives like me, but we are working separately. and we are often doing similar things, like transporting medicine and humanitarian aid through our various networks, in parallel. some voice in my head from some other life wants to interrupt and ask: isn’t that inefficient? well, no, it is working remarkably well. in these conditions that are constantly changing and unpredictable, you have to be alert and adaptable, quick to assess, think and respond. and having a small group of trusted, familiar cohorts to think and act with allows for flexibility. meanwhile none of these little bands can reach large numbers of people (the needs here are vast), but when there are many of us doing this work side-by-side—and not spending time negotiating or coordinating our actions with our neighbors—we are genuinely working together. we think and act for ourselves and from ourselves, but we (each of us) is constantly monitoring the entire, changing, situation.
in the meantime i’ve observed other attempts amongst cultural workers and in humanitarian aid or even crisis response of large groups trying to address these large-scale problems. is it that when people see a large problem they think it needs a single large solution, that the problem and solution must be commensurate? these large-scale endeavors put so much more energy into organization (procedure, paperwork, decision-making as process rather than act, this tragic heritage of “managerialism”) and planning how to address the problem than actually engaging with it. meanwhile people are trapped in cities under bombardment; defenders are fighting without proper protective gear; and people are dying from lack of medications that are in deficit in this country.
this kind of “banding” described above is a way of acting and being that is distinctive to Ukraine, as opposed to other western traditions of cooperation. it refuses to be retrained into some other mode, just as it refuses to be codified into a stable model. and in times of crisis it is ukrainians’ great power.
in the early 20-numbered days of february i was working on the English subtitles for a Ukrainian film, so that the production team could apply for additional funding. it was a job with a tight deadline; i had intended to devote a few days from morning to night to doing only this. but i found myself preoccupied with other things: reading news analyses and prognoses; entertaining vague plans to relocate temporarily; taking my cat to the vet to prepare her for unspecified travel.
and then i was faced with the decision of what to prioritize: watching an hour-long speech by the president of the Russian Federation or devoting that hour to working on the Ukrainian film. at that moment from the perspective of historical urgency and apprehension about my future well-being, i chose putin.
yesterday I asked a friend:
–did you listen to putin’s latest speech?
–not yet. should i?
–i don’t know. i haven’t listened to it either.
maybe it’s not worth it.
and it suddenly occurred to me that now (in contrast to the last week of february) this war—even if we’re defending ourselves from his army—is not about him, it’s about us.
PS I spent a good part of this evening talking to Illia Shpolyanskyi, the Ukrainian armed forces officer responsible for supplying the various official defensive units protecting the southern city of Mykolaiv. He recommended sending money via paypal so he can purchase necessary equipment and supplies locally. Unless you have access to military tactical gear and instruments you can ship to Ukraine.
Paypal: email@example.com (Roman Boyko, Ukrainian Armed Forces Mykolaiv)