Sunday I dressed up to go to the dance. I wore a skirt and elaborate tights and hell, I thought, I may as well don the felt hat I once bought for a performance too. On the metro platform, someone is sitting at one end of the long bench. She’s a woman about my age in full uniform with a backpack; she even looks a bit like a friend of mine.
I always notice people in fatigues and my heart flutters with appreciation. I like them instantly (though maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge). I eye them with curiosity. But I’m transfixed by this particular woman because she could be me. Only she’s in uniform and I’ve dressed up to go have a cocktail and dance to WWII-era jazz music.
I want to thank her for her service. She gets up and walks toward the platform. Is the train approaching? Is she repulsed by my demonstration of civilian nonchalance? Can she feel me withholding the gratitude I wish to express?
We get into the same car and I sit down to look at my phone. A friend has sent a list of talking points from a Ukraine advocacy gathering in Washington, D.C. The woman stands by the window, gazing at the river, perhaps thinking about something. I know that I could fail to act on my feeling, as I have so many times before, but I don’t want to let this one go. She sits down on another bench.
My stop is next and I go wait by the door near where she’s sitting. I hope I can sound natural even though it won’t be spontaneous. As the train approaches the station I turn to her and say, “Thank you for your service. Seriously.”
She smiles slightly, like a combination of sincere appreciation and “Who are you, civilian lady, to thank me?” It’s only then, as I’m stepping out of the train and walking through the station, that I well up with emotion.
It’s one thing to IMAGINE all those brave men and women at the front, to read their posts in Facebook, to raise money for their needs… It’s another to stand, wearing a dress (forest green at that), in the city you call home, face to face with someone who has dedicated their LIFE to defending the country that you both love, and to say, “Thank you for your service.”
In the action you feel it—the full sensation of here I am living a calm and quiet existence in the capital of Ukraine while she is defending our country for all of us. Have you ever reached that threshold where you’ve had enough of THANKING other people for THEIR work?
Sometimes I read online, in a Facebook post or news story, about somebody that’s been killed defending Ukraine. I learn that they were a philosophy professor or produced interesting arts events. I go to their Facebook page and see we have so much in common. The thought comes almost automatically as I scroll: “I’d like to be friends with this person.” And then I remember—this person is dead. There is no future tense for them.
I met Vika last year on an autumn afternoon in Mykolaiv. Just the day before, she’d married her sweetheart, a drone engineer from the Angry Birds unit that I help with fundraising. The photos in her phone showed the couple dressed in fatigues, leaping into the air with joy. Her bouquet? A few branches of cotton: it’s become tradition.
Recently I saw a photo of Vika on Facebook with an anti-tank weapon on her shoulder. It’s nearly as big as her, but she’s grinning and utterly feminine.
The next day Vika shared something she’d written a year ago, after returning from Bucha to identify the body of a relative murdered by the russian forces who terrorized the civilians in the small city they occupied in March 2022. Introducing the memory post she wrote, “Here is the answer to your questions about why I joined the army.”
Below is Victoria Havryliuk’s text in full (my translation):
I have never been as cold-blooded as I was in Bucha. I watched a young investigator run out of the coroner’s station and get sick.
Meanwhile the coroner smoked constantly. Probably to overpower the stench with the smell of tobacco. He’d raise his mask to his forehead and greedily inhale the acrid cigarette smoke.
Three refrigerator trucks were in the yard outside the morgue. One contained bodies that had been identified. The other two—bodies that had not.
Inside the morgue they’re doing autopsies one after another. Afterward the bodies in black bags are stacked in the backyard.
Identification of the dead follows a procedure simplified to the max. If there were documents on the dead person or they were identified another way, then one of their relatives has to go into the refrigerator and find the appropriately numbered bag.
After that, accompanied by the police, they look inside and identify the dead person by their clothing or other recognizable features.
A man in a blue jacket, Oleksiy, timidly entered the refrigerator. Opening the door, he was hit by a strong smell.
“Give me a mask,” he said, emerging with a pale, greenish face.
Nobody had a mask, so he covered his face with his sweater and went back in.
Afterward a young woman entered the refrigerator.
“Did you recognize him?”
Her hands were shaking. Her face was white. It seemed like the police officer was speaking with her body, while the young woman’s soul was cowering somewhere near her heels. Her chilled, thin fingers weren’t listening. She couldn’t hold the pen to sign the document. The pen fell. The woman began to faint. They caught her just in time…
Mykhailo’s family was told to look for bag 310. You could say we were lucky, as there was no need to peek into every black bag in search of the man’s body.
Since Oleksandr Smahliuk had witnessed Mykhailo’s murder, he was the one to go with the police to the refrigerator to confirm the identity of his dead relative.
“I remembered what Mykhailo was wearing, I recognized his things. There’s no doubt that it’s him in the bag,” he confirmed…
However nobody had seen the face of the deceased, for his head was enclosed in another black bag.
Probably, his head was wrapped up because Mykhailo received a gunshot wound in that part of his body, and so, obviously, after more than a month it was poorly preserved…
This is testimony from the crime scene after one month of russian occupation of a Ukrainian city. Today around 18% of Ukraine’s territory remains occupied by russia and this territory is inhabited by people who are subject to russian torture, coercion and criminal acts. The longer these territories remain under russian occupation, says renowned photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, the harder it will be to bring these people back into Ukraine. Ukraine is fighting to set a firm boundary between a land of the free and the Soviet concentration camp.
PS Two wartime friends from the US—a retired Navy medic and a psychologist—are coming back to Ukraine next month and bringing a slew of much-needed medical supplies for the country’s defenders. I’d like to help them buy a few more items on their “wish list” (like an intraosseous drill that costs $200-300). If you’d like to contribute, please send funds to me via paypal: email@example.com with the note “meds”. I will send photos of the purchases!
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It’s hard to “like” this entry, but I deeply appreciate it. People need to know the realities you are living with. Thank you.
I read your post today and it really touched my heart. I feel so helpless in reading your heartrending descriptions of all the pain and sorrow that has been brought to the people of Ukraine. I am in the US and safe from those kinds of terrible terror but I cry inside for you and all of your country men. You are an excellent writer. Thank you for sharing.