A week ago I filled an old hiking backpack with an assortment of things I might need in the next several months and said good-bye to my apartment with full uncertainty about when I will next return. “Never” did not cross my mind.
Tonight in Lviv the air is chilly but with the texture of spring. I have to make a certain effort to keep sensing the war when it’s happening somewhere further away. Still my legs tingle as I think of the thousand or so people in Mariupol who remain underground in the tunnels of the Azovstal plant, which Putin has ordered to seal off, as if to exterminate them.
Yesterday while writing a letter to people outside Ukraine about what is going on in Mariupol, I nearly wrote the word “unimaginable” and then—stop, this has happened. It is now outside the realm of imagination. It is real; it is history, if you will.
I have spoken to women who escaped from Mariupol, taking in and communicating with them not only through words, but attention, our bodies in proximity. I knew in the moment and know still that I cannot imagine what each of them went through. Imagination—its landscape and its limits—is always an individual matter.
There is a difference between “I cannot imagine” and “unimaginable.” Russia’s unjustified invasion and ongoing brutal assault of Ukraine, with its barbaric genocidal attack on civilians and soldiers outside existing international conventions of war, has drastically moved the threshold for what can be called “unimaginable.”
I heard a story (from the person who listened to the person who experienced it): in Bucha the Russian soldiers (young and scared) burst into a bomb shelter filled with women and children. They had them stand up and then shot every other one.
Genocide is about destroying the group, so its victims are arbitrary. When you are standing next to someone who is being shot the difference between you and someone else is negligible.
I’m a grandchild of World War II; my mother is a Holodomor researcher; I’ve read Primo Levi. The cruelty that human beings can inflict on one another does not surprise me.
The horror of what we have learned about what the Russians did to civilians in Bucha and throughout the Kyiv region took time to sink in, to pass through generations-formed layers of resistance: from refusing to look (I have more important things to do and only after all my efforts produce no result the photos from Bucha are still there…), sleeping on it, then disbelief—not that IT happened, but that I AM HERE looking at these photos, that this is happening HERE where I am.
There are two ways to lose touch with the war: one is feeling safe and comfortable and unperturbed (secure in what you know), while the other is entertaining threats and potential dangers (including that of nuclear attack) so that your senses become garbled and clouded by fear.
You need to do something to make the events of war more concrete—whether going to the place where it happened, talking to a person who lived through it, formulating a question and looking for the answer, taking a walk or a shower and remembering where YOU are and what you are doing.
I’ve made a practice of repeating: I have never stood next to someone who is being shot.
Not: How lucky I am to not be the person who was shot. Or: How fortunate and privileged I am to never have had the experience of standing next to someone that is being shot.
Just the facts made proximal through sentence construction: I have never stood next to someone that is being shot.
Such experiences form people for generations. My grandparents saw their friends murdered lying by the side of the road as they fled Ukraine in 1943. They had planned to escape together in the middle of the night, but my grandfather had an intuition that it was better to wait until morning. While the friends left according to plan. How do you live with that?
What about the boy who witnessed his mother being raped for several hours and then she died? His hair went gray overnight.
Someone is already thinking about how he will recover.
I am still stuck on: How can I live with this?
I first felt shame on February 24, as I was running away from Kyiv in fear of the Russian advance. I felt ashamed before my sister, who was absolutely right when she urged me to leave the Sunday before, and before my grandmother, who turned 95 that day. For all she had done to plant me in America before the promise of a good life, here I was participating in history’s repeat performance.
The shame of being a refugee—of lacking the courage to stay and fight, of failing to defend one’s home and people—is the shame of leaving what’s yours for the sake of self-preservation. It’s recognizing in yourself the compulsion toward moving constantly, whether away from the site of danger or wound up in unceasing activity, so as to keep from feeling the pain and horror and responsibility of witnessing and living with crimes we are now learning to imagine.
PS My friend Yana Kononova is a philosopher and photographer. Now she travels around the Kyiv region photographing the evidence of war crimes, destroyed civilian infrastructure, objects of the Russian militaristic imagination. See: https://www.facebook.com/yana.volkova.7543
Please support her work as an independent artist by donating (for photo supplies, permits, gasoline) via paypal: firstname.lastname@example.org
The last paragraph of this text has been modified since it was first published and shared via email.
Dear Readers, the last paragraph that appeared in the email version of this text has been removed for maintenance (i.e. further thought and revision). Thank you for understanding.