a Kind of Refugee / 31.08.2022
At Newark Airport I ask a woman standing in front of a ticket machine if it’s for the Airtrain. She doesn’t respond. It’s been a long journey, maybe I’ve forgotten how to put sentences together. I ask again. She turns and says, “I’m having a conversation.” (I did not see her earbuds.) “I didn’t hear a word you said,” and goes back to the machine. No “I’m sorry, could you repeat it?” No aggression either. Just a light but nonnegotiable brush-off. Who are you to intrude into my private world and interrupt my private conversation with an invisible person happening in public space? The way you swat away a fly that’s buzzing around you—annoying but not worthy of acknowledgment or even the effort to kill.
The greatest shock upon arriving in the US is that there is a (tremendously large) part of the world where the war in Ukraine is not happening at each and every moment.
I know that countless Americans have been standing tirelessly with Ukraine since February 24: I see and feel this support every day from afar. Without it we could not say with confidence that we will keep fighting until we win. To say that I deeply appreciate this support is an understatement.
Perhaps I had to travel all this way to see that people here cannot really imagine the war in Ukraine. How could they? And in fact they don’t need to. Some people recognize the evil in russia’s invasion from what it awakens in their genetic memory. Some people see the unmistakable violation of a sovereign territory and the murder of innocent civilians. Some people understand that russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a threat to the very foundations of democracy and a free world. And if we wish to keep enjoying this world we’ve built then we must defend it fiercely.
Reconstructing the war and its events at a distance requires great effort, and it’s no wonder that people stop making it. That we should expect or demand that effort constantly from everyone, even from ourselves, is unnatural. It is unnatural to live in a mental construct or, in more prosaic terms, a fantasy world. Feeling bad out of “empathy” or “solidarity” with people whom you imagine suffering is not the same as caring. If all that happens is a change of mood, then you remain untouched by the war.
When your conscience says, “Pay attention!” and you cannot look away, even though it’s scary, even though you are tired, even though you risk losing… something in you shifts—subtly and fundamentally. When you are moved to action (whether by conscience or external circumstances), the experience changes you. This war is unnatural and to keep living as before means to normalize it and let it last forever.
What I cannot get used to (no matter how long this goes on) is EACH missile strike, each university building, hotel, hospital, school, residence, etc. destroyed. Each and every person (soldier or civilian) killed in the war, who will never again delight us with their movement and warmth.
“Never again” is what the Soviets and the Germans began repeating after World War II. It seemed like an expression of the horror that people of the 20th century felt when faced with the crimes they were capable of committing. They constructed an image of the future with the promise “never again.”
Please pause for a moment. To ban events or actions preemptively is either fantasy or unethical. For you cannot know what a future situation may demand of you. You only have access to the past, which you can examine and learn from.
“Never again” marks the violent end of life, a break in continuity, a wound that requires healing, after which it will never be the same again. Shouldn’t THAT “never again” be the point to which our thinking returns? Instead of directing our energy and attention to the fantasy world of the bright future where we will never again have to…
About halfway between Copenhagen and Newark, I put on my headphones and start to watch an Alfred Hitchcock film. 30 seconds in, wow, such lush 1940s orchestral music and suddenly the screen is too close, the sound too stifling, and when I take them off I’m still in an airplane, shut in a metal container with hundreds of strangers suspended somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean with no chance to get out for another four hours (or to smoke a cigarette).
i am so angry i am sick to my stomach i am so full of hatred and disgust for every single person around me right next to me this makes me feel crazy i AM NOT HAPPY TO BE HERE. NOT ONE SINGLE BIT. i am trying all i can to choke down the stupid old thought i want to kill myself. because it’s not like a plan desire it’s the state of the moment in the moment i feel like I CANNOT LIVE LIKE THIS that would be a more precise way to put it. i don’t want to pray god help me please survive this
This kind of being enclosed “together” with other people when each is staring into his/her/their own screen, attention completely oblivious to what’s going on around them (I was reading a monologue in Ukrainian out loud to myself and nobody even noticed). Following all these rules: go here, don’t go there, show a card, something scans, something beeps. We are not performing actions. We are not even performing rituals. It is not clear WHAT we are doing or who we are serving and because of that, it is NOT OURS. But then whose is it? Is this kind of activity without agency not a channel for the movement of forces of evil?
I’ve asked friends how they cope with long-distance flights and many say they take medications to knock themselves out for the entire trip. What kind of situation is this where the only options to get through it are to distract yourself (films, sudoku), numb yourself (alcohol, sleep), or use drugs to completely knock yourself out? For what can you do with the violent feelings that arise if you actually allow yourself to sense what you’ve agreed to (and paid nearly $1000 for)?
When I travel in Ukraine, especially nowadays (before the newly intensified war Ukrainians too were starting to adopt habits of polite self-involvement), I always have companions. They’re often people I’m meeting for the first time, whether volunteers or military or civilians, in a car or in a train. We share the journey; I learn something about what’s going on in other parts of the country (or abroad); I discover how they think. (I think people used to take curiosity and interest in one another like that; it was, shall we say, natural.)
Strangely, that closeness of sharing a room in a train sleeping car for 12 hours with 3 other people, eating, sleeping, being in your presentable pajamas, feels so much more civilized than sitting elbow-to-elbow staring at your own screen, isolated by earphones and “respecting the other’s personal space.” Why did we choose this degradation that we call technological progress? Am I the only one who also craves common space, free space, space for movement?
Ukrainians today are demonstrating to the world what it is to take care of yourself. It is not: go to the gym to compensate for your lonely hours at work at the computer and then to the psychologist to talk through your inabilities to relate to other people and find satisfaction in activities and a way of life that are fundamentally unsatisfying. Why do we not care about and take care of our places, our environment, one another, ourselves? What are we so busy with? How did we come to voluntarily constraining our movement in—and interaction with—the world around us, enclosing ourselves in protected boxes, afraid, separate, and “secure”?
We prefer to isolate and not breathe on or touch one another because human beings are dirty smelly disgusting creatures. Our regard for one another is indecent. It is dangerous, risky, frightening to communicate what is actually on your mind; to voice a question that could reveal what you don’t know; to call into question the words or actions of an authority or one in a position that you think requires deference; to call another person or organization to responsibility for what they claim as theirs.
Why do modern “civilized” people keep striving to maintain their institutional positions by toeing the party line and insisting on civility when there is nothing civil about genocide, invasion, or flouting the very rules that bear up behaviors of civility? Why should I restrain myself if those rules have been violated, endangering my very life and way of living? What is the moment where it becomes UNETHICAL to remain civil and practice restraint?
PS I made a gross error in my last post. When sharing the clearly conservative count of Ukrainians killed by russian forces since Feb 24, I omitted the tens of thousands killed in russia’s seige of Mariupol. I remember statements made by the city’s mayor last spring estimating 20,000+ killed by the invaders’ daily bombardments and shelling. This does not include those people, including children, forcibly deported to russia. Never again will those people enliven that Mariupol, which was their home. We must remember them and keep fighting to end russia’s occupation of Ukraine.
Heroes Ukraine is supporting the design and development of new drones for this purpose. You can help get them into action sooner. Paypal: firstname.lastname@example.org