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a Kind of Refugee / 22.06.2022
War is a dirty affair. You don’t need to shoot a gun or have killed somebody with your own hands to be sullied by your participation in it.
It is thrilling (and a bit scary) to watch the anti-aircraft defense streak across the sky right over your head, two parallel flashes and you don’t know what it is until their trails fizzle out mid-air and nothing falls and they slowly turn to puffy gray smoke and dissipate.
In the last hour before we reached Odesa, the startlingly bright 20-year-old who was driving me and the truck his family had bought with donated funds for the Ukrainian army, suddenly erupted. You think this war is all about glory? That these guys fighting in the east are Heroes? You have no idea. The things those men have told me. How you can get a girl with a candy bar. They are hungry, desperate, they feel entitled after what they’ve been through.
He is a volunteer, training to be a drone pilot and raising $50,000 to buy one called the Punisher. We talked the whole way, mostly about Ukraine, a country that consists of its territory and its people, while its history jumps between sporadic past glories and the present moment. What if Ukrainians were to bear that history in its full, unflattering complexity, instead of avoiding its dark stains? Ukrainians stick together in constellations of kin and personal relations, and power is a matter of individual influence; “every citizen is equal before the law” is just a phrase in the Constitution.
Ukraine’s victory is not some distant end after which we all live happily ever after.
After a fundraising meeting I got into an argument with a colleague over whether or not life in Ukraine would be different after the war. He was convinced that nothing would change. I said, No, look at how people are stepping up as individuals to do what needs to be done, building new connections and ways of working together. If nothing were to change then all these tens of thousands of people killed, the cities razed to the ground, all this would be for naught. He reached out his hand—shall we make a bet? For one hundred dollars, he said. I replied, I’m staking my life.
I believe in Ukraine’s victory. This is no practice of positive thinking. If Ukraine were to not win, how could I ever speak to to those (Ukrainians, friends) that I failed and to those (foreigners, other Ukrainians) that I failed to convince? How could I go back to those quiet, unchanged suburbs in the the US where life goes on “as usual” after having shed so many different layers of protection and knowing that others here have lost so much more?
War has different rules than civilian life. Still, it has rules (which Russia has repeatedly flouted). There is a difference between killing to save your life in the moment and murder. If you take the time to entertain the humanity of the one who is killing you, it will cost your life. When an entire nation invades your homeland, launching a massive war, each soldier is part of the body that is killing you. When he kills your neighbor, you know that it could just as well have been you, you just got lucky. Missiles are even more arbitrary and leave you no chance for a quicker reciprocal response as an individual.
The aim of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, faced with protecting their land and people from a genocidal Russian invasion, is to destroy the enemy. Imagining all the ways to destroy the enemy is not civil dinnertable conversation. There is no other way to win this war.
There are countless people serving in the Ukrainian military doing tasks that do not suit or make use of those people’s talents, skills, and inclinations. It is a huge bureaucracy that in some places takes its time as if there weren’t a war on. It also has gaps and inconsistencies and individual people who use their power to realize things that they’ve decided with their own minds and experience will increase Ukraine’s military success.
Being in a situation of utter duress (like when a fellow soldier is wounded on the battlefield or when Russia is still pounding your entire country with daily missile strikes for 119 days and counting) YOU must make your own decisions and act using your own wits because you have nobody else’s at your disposal.
Your participation in the war means acknowledging your power to influence it. Your participation in this dirty business means taking responsibility in the moment for how you participate in it.
With growing intensity, while intermingling with the military and under constant Russian attack from the air, I want with my whole being to end this war.
PS I’m working with the charitable foundation Heroes Ukraine to raise funds to support a unique military unit called the Center for Technical Solutions. More here: heroesukraine.org/en/.
If you would like to contribute:
—To avoid losing money on currency conversion, you can send $$ to my personal paypal firstname.lastname@example.org (note: Heroes) and whatever I’ve gathered by June 30, I will transfer to the organization’s $$ account via SWIFT.
—You can send large amounts via international wire transfer (scroll down for bank details for euros and USD: https://heroesukraine.org/en/donate/)
—You can also PayPal directly to: email@example.com (Illia Shpolianskiy)