We have quickly gotten used to living in the middle of a war. Frighteningly quickly.
Our children are no longer waking up in the night upon hearing the sounds of firing. They don’t even flinch. They’ve gotten used to it.
But we still do. And straight away we look around: is everybody home? Yes. This means we can go back to sleep.
And we sink into a dull, heavy, dreamless oblivion. Our dreams aren’t meant for pictures. Our dreams are meant for resting before a new hard day. Perhaps, the last day of our lives.
Kids…Kids have changed. They are little grown-ups. They no longer act up. They have become quiet and obedient.
Upon hearing the heavy roar of a helicopter’s engine in the sky, they get out of the sandbox, peel off the swings, collect their toys, and run home, all by themselves.
Whenever they hear loud explosions somewhere, far or near, they grab our hands and look up at us with a strange calm. They are waiting for us to tell them what to do. They already understand that in a war, you have to follow orders.
Students are no longer skipping lessons to go party with their friends. They don’t act willful. After the bell rings, they stay in class until we come and get them. We come. Sometimes we even run—if there are rumors that armed men have appeared near the school.
It seems to the children that we know what to do. That everything will be alright.
Of course, we don’t know. We are only learning. Learning how to live at war.
“The bus will only be going as far as Panfilov Prospect. Further on, there are combat operations,” announces the driver on the loudspeaker. He has learned not to stutter anymore.
Everyone is quiet. Except one young woman, who says to no one in particular:
“But, as a matter of fact, it’s scary… Probably…”
I can hear a note of surprise in her voice. It’s strange for her: she is supposed to be scared, but she isn’t.
We are learning.
First lesson: don’t go anywhere unless absolutely necessary.
We have learned how to live without going on walks, going to cinemas, cafes. To not give into our fleeting whims. To not stay in public places longer than we should.
Our movement is now strictly functional. Work, home, ATM, shop.
Idle shopping and other pleasures of consumerism are no longer for us. We aren’t purchasing for entertainment. Only for survival. Only the necessities, in accordance with a previously compiled shopping list.
The main thing is to be quick.
You have to make it home before dark. Whether there’s a curfew or not is unclear.
So it’s better not to walk about at night at all. You can’t go wrong with that. Night is the time of war and nocturnal hunting for the predators of the concrete jungles.
We have forgotten about traffic jams and rush hours. Our streets are empty. Public transport isn’t clogged with passengers at any time of the day.
Unemployment no longer seems like a tragedy. On the contrary, we are happy about any opportunity we get to stay at home. Fortunately, we aren’t starving, for now. Indigence isn’t driving us into the streets in search of dinner.
So it’s better to stay home. Fortunately, water, light, and gas are supplied without disruption. I mean, no worse than usual. It’s surprising, actually.
Our life has moved to the courtyards. But every step outside the area marked by the square formation of high-rise panel apartment buildings is a lottery. A long, hard journey with no guarantee that you’ll return.
Toward evening, once-crowded alleys and squares turn into Silent Hill. Stillness and hush. Almost imperceptible, a barely tangible taste of danger.
Second lesson: stay as far as you can from armed men.
People with weapons are messengers of death. Of ours and of someone else’s.
They attract death.
Learning this lesson wasn’t easy.
We used to be peaceful people. We grew up on action movies, books and games romanticizing heroism, where death isn’t scary, but beautiful, with special effects.
Barricades, tanks on the roads, gunmen on the streets, helicopters in the sky. It was new, it was interesting.
Someone said that a woman from Sloviansk was accidentally injured because of her curiosity. She went out onto the balcony at night to look at the ‘battle’ through a pair of binoculars. When the optics glared, she was hit right away, by a mortar or by a grenade launcher. It is not known exactly who hit her.
A bit later we realized that there is no precision where death is sown. A random bullet or fragment could hit anyone.
In only one day, on Monday, the 28th of May, three peaceful citizens of Donetsk were killed, and ten more were wounded in Sloviansk. And the day before, three deaths in Sloviansk and one in Mariupol.
On top of that, since the start of the combat actions, several children have been wounded. From 4 to 17 years old. Fortunately, none of them died.
We have learned this lesson. The streets empty instantly if there is a column moving along them. Or if the ‘republican’ patrol is walking about. Or if off-road vehicles without license plates are rushing somewhere, full of camouflage-clad, bearded men.
Armed people are leading their own eventful and difficult lives. They divide up into military alignments. Form strange alliances, shaky and impermanent.
In the beginning, they stand at one checkpoint, under one flag. Then they call each other names like ‘marauders’ and ‘traitors’.
And they fight.
Sometimes with the Ukrainian army. Sometimes amongst themselves.
It seems as though they themselves don’t remember where it all started. But they’re unable to stop.
Death is running after them, but it’s not certain that it will catch up with them. Perhaps one of us will bear whatever was destined for them.
So it’s better to avoid them.
Third lesson: don’t trust. Anybody. Ever.
We have learned to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Once upon a time we enjoyed arguing and openly proving our cases. Talking, joking around, defending our mad theories.
Now we weigh every word. Especially if we’re talking to strangers.
Who knows what your interlocutor will react to, or how? Will he rush to the nearest patrol, screaming “Get him, he is a benderite!” Will he smash your face with the words: “Now listen here, separatist bitch?”
It’s better not to test it. It’s better to stay quiet.
The TV keeps frantically reporting ‘negotiations’ and public dialogue. Dialogue with whom? With us?
But we won’t be the ones talking. We have already grasped that keeping our silence is a guarantee of safety.
The last remains of trust are shattered by the people you are closest to. Good for those whose friends and relatives hold the same views. Those who have no doubt about who’s on their side in this war.
But this rarely happens. A carelessly spoken word, like a match, stirs up a fire of outrageous quarrels. Family ties crumble, old friendships shatter into pieces.
And from the corner, kids silently and sorrowfully watch the shouting, filthy mouthed, sputtering adults.
But they aren’t crying. They have learned. Or have they forgotten how?
We no longer trust public statements and official reports. Especially those statements and reports that talk about peace and safety.
We have already realized: safety is only temporary. Peace existed once upon a time. It doesn’t anymore.
We call our friends, buddies, acquaintances:
– Listen, I have some business to get done in your area. Are they shooting where you’re at?
– They were for a while this morning; now it seems to be quiet.
– The roads aren’t blocked?
– At the old checkpoint, no new ones have been set up…
We share the coveted, the most important and useful information, with those whom we distrust a bit less than the others. It could be about shops and ATMs that are still open. About checkpoints.
About the curfew:
– So does it actually exist or not?
– Who the hell knows?
Above all, we distrust the police. Before, we were rather afraid of them, but still considered them representatives of the authority. And who are they now?
My friend is having dinner at home. A doorbell rings. His neighbor is in tears:
– My husband was taken away! The ones with the machine guns were bothering someone, and he stood up to them. They took him to the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] building. What do I do? I reckon I shouldn’t call the police, right?
– Of course! What police? Listen, the ‘Republic’ published phone numbers that you should call to tell about people being kidnapped, eh?
Calling the terrorists to inquire whether they could ask their colleagues to set the hostage free. Here and now the thought of it doesn’t seem crazy.
Maybe it is the only chance for salvation. Calling the police is completely hopeless.
Nowadays we just can’t comprehend—who are these strange people wearing ridiculous blue uniforms? It has been said that they get paid. Rumor has it, in return for their wages they are supposed to uphold law and order and ensure the safety of peaceful citizens. Hilarious…
Nevertheless, they could serve a purpose. The same purpose as white mice on a submarine—when there is a lack of oxygen, the mice are the first to suffocate.
And when there is shelling due to take place in Donetsk or another pogrom in the name of the ‘Republic’, the policemen are the first to flee the streets.
It means that we should scatter, too.
…We are putting enormous effort into preserving the vestiges of our humanity. We aren’t yet bursting into the stores broken into by looters. It seems shameful to us. But only because our families aren’t yet on the brink of poverty and hunger.
The most conscientious ones are blaming themselves for keeping quiet back when a word still had the power to change something.
The most honest ones admit that they were stupid to believe that their concept of happiness was a good enough reason to take up arms.
We are still holding back from sinking into total chaos.
We have also finally found out what’s keeping us together. Regardless of prejudice and personal sympathies.
All of us, while concealing it from one another, look up the starry sky in the evenings from behind the curtained windows, and we pray: “Dear God, let this be over soon”…
Translated by Dasha Darchuk, edited by Robin Rohrback
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