a Kind of Refugee / 24.05.2022
i’ve noticed a direct correlation between the distance you are from the place where the missiles and shells are exploding and the scale of your anxiety about the potential threat to yourself or your loved ones. the imagination, wild and unbounded, fills in for the lack of sensory information. whereas the closer you are to the source of danger, your senses keep you grounded (and safe). up until a certain point.
i have never crossed the threshold to where your body is constantly in range of attack, where there is no respite from sensations of danger, where fear is visceral and completely justified.
my impressions of the people i met in mykolaiv coalesce into a diagnosis of mass PTSD, only without the P. they are warm and quick, their laughter suspended above a raw, gaping wound of repeated death and loss.
minutes after meeting dima, he says a rocket hit the roof of his building last night and shows me photos of the exposed frame, remarking gleefully that the windows of his apartment by some miracle are still intact. the window of olya’s bedroom, on the other hand, is a sheet of pressboard, installed after a rocket landed across the street. her husband is in the army and was taken prisoner of war on April 12. illia’s friend Serhiy, a young bright soldier beloved in this community, was just killed—the day after receiving a vehicle bought with funds collected by volunteers.
it takes a day or two to adjust to the speed with which my colleagues move and make decisions in an environment that feels chaotic and uncertain. so many people, men and women, are in uniform. they take their AK-47s to strategic planning meetings, to lunch in a cafe, for a walk by the river.
when i can’t sleep at night i read US commentary about the war in Ukraine and formulate arguments for why private donors should buy unmanned aerial vehicles for individual Ukrainian units. we are using technology to protect what technology cannot replace: individuals with years of combat experience, skills learned and refined in actual battle, with an intimate knowledge of the local terrain and longstanding relationships with one another. what these human bodies carry and can do is not reducible to data or a program. they are full of spirit. the way they work is unsystematic, infused with deep faith, and thus defies the kind of dull predictability that would make the enemy’s work easier.
in mykolaiv it was clear that now is not the time for grieving or even rest. there is a war to be won and one finds other (quicker) ways to refresh. i ward off waves of tiredness with vitamin B12, flat whites, cigarettes and make an effort to say kind, warm words to my friends who need a constant reminder that they are loved.
one evening i found myself in the kitchen of illia’s apartment, which was serving as a kind of soldiers’ dormitory, including for two americans. all the men seemed to get along merrily despite not knowing each other’s languages. kevin had asked me to find a local place to go dancing and didn’t quite believe me when i said that place was lviv or kyiv—or the kitchen. but illia was cooking, i had orders to not interfere, and kevin put a song on the iphone and grabbed me as a partner. the rhythm was unfamiliar but the general principles came back: relax, listen, and refrain from making abrupt unpredictable movements. laughter and playfulness and suddenly there was dancing in wartime mykolaiv.
the body holds experience in neural pathways and patterns of tension formed to respond to the situations it has known. you can travel to another city, further from daily airstrikes, from the launch positions of the occupying russian forces, but you are still wound up, alert and ready to fight, tuned to the environment that you came from.
since returning to lviv, every time marta introduces me formally, even though i’m translating meetings with reputed american psychologists and trauma professionals, she says, “this is larissa. she is a dancer.”
when the body is invited to relax and move slowly you realize that there are layers of war between you today and the person who used to lay on the floor and listen to her sensations three months ago. and when a memory arises of stretching and sensing how your different parts are connected, as you used to spend an hour each night in your bedroom in kyiv, you want to cry and you don’t because it’s not relevant to this moment and why are you thinking about this at all when your friends in mykolaiv need hundreds of thousands of dollars and drones and organization and logical thinking to support a counteroffensive to win back large swathes of territory that rightfully belong to ukraine?
one could interpret my restless movement around Ukraine, from city to city, apartment to apartment, as a kind of dance. fact is, it’s an old habit going way back to when i used to jet between the US and Ukraine several times a year. i came back to lviv with the sense that my time here is up: i’m done running away.
between the first time i returned to my apartment in kyiv and my return from mykolaiv something has irreversibly shifted. i’m through with being a refugee. it’s time to stand and fight. there is no time for anything else.
PS Funds donated to the Mykolaiv-based Association of ATO Participants and Disabled People (paypal: email@example.com) will go toward setting up a new center for the research, development, and deployment of UAVs in all areas of warfare.