Years will pass, and what will remain as memories of those terrible times? Only photos on the phone and personal notes documenting the era and reminding future generations that war is not what is written in history books. As long as there is injustice in the world and a desire of some to keep others in fear, the shadow of war can always appear in the sky above us.
Like everyone else in our country, I was woken up at about five in the morning.
Muffled thumps, as if some lunatic was pounding a pillow with a sledgehammer before dawn, pulled me out of oblivion.
I didn’t blame my neighbors. Only sweet old ladies live in our house. But there was a clammy foreboding of something incomprehensible and inevitable.
I put on my shirt. Lighted my first morning cigarette before the balcony. The next step was like into a chasm.
There, in the east, where my wife and I used to meet the dawn with a cup of morning coffee from spring to autumn, while our kids sniffed softly in their beds, a black spot of smoke was sticking out its tacky disgusting tongue…
Do you know how in the blink of an eye your heart sinks into an abyss? How your mouth instantly goes dry, from the very tip of the tongue to the stomach? How you want to scream, but the scream freezes somewhere in the depths of your being…
– Dad, why aren’t you sleeping? – My younger daughter’s voice breaks through the hurricane of frantic thoughts. The baby has a habit of running to my couch in the middle of the night and sleeping there until morning, curled up next to me.
– Sleep, honey. Go back to sleep. It’s Daddy who has woken up.
– I will and then I have to go to the kindergarten.
– Sleep. You will not … go to kindergarten today. Sleep.
I tiptoe to my wife. She’s sleeping sweetly, hugging our elder son. Serhiy never learned to fall asleep on his own without his mother, in his own bed. He’s autistic – we’ve got used to this, and we understand his needs. I’m sorry to wake them up. But I have to.
I barely touch my wife’s shoulder: “It has begun.”
But I saw she understood everything without words… She covered the son warmer. She wrapped herself in her robe. Then she rushed for a suitcase.
– Shall we come back here again?”
– Yes. Believe me, everything will be fine.
The morning city greeted with unusual silence. The city of shipbuilders also froze in an anguished shriek. It bristled in heavy anticipation.
I broke through the stern guard (guys, let me in, I have to, be human, fuck you!) into my editorial office that had become so dear to me after so many years. Twiddled some trinkets in my hands. Tucked my old headphones into my pocket. Paused for a moment at the portrait of the late editor-in-chief, looked into the wise eyes of a man who had passed away so soon and so unexpectedly: “You see what’s happened. What we brought to people – light – that you brought them for decades – poetry, beauty, intelligence… Everything disappeared in an instant … Farewell…
… When I closed the office, I had a feeling that I would not return there again. But for some reason I put the keys into my bag. Why?
It is difficult to walk along the city streets. Two days ago I ran around Soborna with a camera, smiled through a Covid mask, greeted friends.
Today there are queues, gloomy-frightened, worried faces of townspeople and intimidating, marginal-looking and out-of-place guys.
They appeared in the city suddenly, as if an invisible hand had stirred the stinking barrel of a “night soil man”. They lingered in the queues near pharmacies and shops, sat at public transport stops, and asked passers-by defiantly like no local people ever did: “What’s up? Why are people so sullen? ”
You couldn’t touch that marginal rabble … Fear of some contagion outweighed the threat of an imminent invasion. And those who did get caught and pounded were left to wipe the snot at garbage dumps – you could take them nowhere and to no one.
– Dad, where are we going? – My daughter was fidgeting underfoot. – Do you need a big bag?
– Yes, my precious. I do. Dad is going to a new job. – I’m packing a bug-out bag with semi-army, from 2014, stuff and photo tools (how can I do without them?). – And you and Serhiyko will go to see Granny. You wanted to go to the village, right? Look, Mom is also collecting your things.
– Okay. We’ll go to our granny. But you’ll come to us. You will!
– I will definitely come, darling.
I hugged my smart three-year-old… You can’t lie to a child, but it’s hard to tell the truth and she won’t understand. Even we, adults, did not fully understand what had come to us. The mind of a completely peaceful person, who knew the word “war” only from books, TV and stories of ATO friends, refused to understand the new reality.
My always chatty and cheerful father-in-law hastily smoked cigarette after cigarette, looking at the sky and at the clock.
I threw my children’s bags into the trunk and also lit a cigarette.
We stood in silence, listened and thought each about our problems.
– Did it fly in the morning? – I ask and understand I said something stupid just to fill a pause.
– It did…
– Take care of yourself, – I squeeze my wife’s father’s shoulder.
– I will. But please come back alive.
We understand each other without words.
Facebook was in a frenzy: “Bombers are flying at us! Lots of them! The Russians have already captured Kyiv. Kharkiv surrendered!!! They’re coming and coming from the Crimea – tomorrow will be in Myko! They’re leaving marks everywhere. What shall we do?!”
For the second day, my head was bursting with a flood of half-truths, unverified information and rumors.
I managed to pull myself together: finished the shooting, which I had abandoned on February 22, and gave it to the newlyweds, who had got married right before the disaster. Wished them happiness and peace.
And what’s next?
In such cases, I always recall my petty officer’s words: “To keep silly thoughts out of a soldier’s head, harness his hands to work!”
My messages to dozens of friends: “Need help? There are free hands!” did not bear any fruit. Then I got it: they haven’t come around either.
Of course, a large volunteer community hasn’t disappeared since 2014. They’ve had time to get their bearings and have already set to work in full. But you, who wrote sketches about them and made photo essays for some important dates – who needs you now, man?
A phone call from a friend interrupted my bad thoughts: “The guys at the new checkpoint have been hungry for two days. Can you make something to eat? ”
The speed with which I cooked that borscht, made cutlets, and mashed potatoes would probably make Klopotenko and Héctor Jiménez-Bravo jealous.
— Captain, may I stay with you? – to the sound of the first sirens, I ask a concerned, civilian-looking man in a military uniform that is not perfectly fitted, but with captain’s “diamonds” on it, to whom I brought the bags full of food and two dozen bottles of “Bandera smoothie.” My friends and I made them last night, so they came in handy.
The captain looks for a moment, nods in response: “Plus… Conscript? What’s your occupation?” I tell him about my very, very civil journalistic path. But I see that the captain is a little sick of that.
— Do you have good computer skills?
— Yes I do. But I would like to have a weapon … — Friend, now everyone would like at least some weapon! Go to the car. Later, later we’ll work out everything.
The following days – a frantic rhythm of running around Mykolayiv steppes, spending the night in cold cellars and an unbearable desire for a cup of hot coffee.
I kept my word given to the captain – “to do magic” at the computer. – I did what I could do, almost on the run: there was very little time.
However, no matter how thrilling it was with the local “guerrilla detachment,” it sucked to endure the rigors of the army happiness that suddenly fell on you without weapons, warm clothes and equipment left at home.
You are a volunteer. A civilian who accidentally found himself among self-defense fighters –cool, “adrenaline-fueled” men of different destinies and occupations, united by one common goal and circumstances – the war that broke into our land.
We had to return to the “big city”.
Mykolayiv, the already severe land of shipbuilders, met us with white sand bags, barricades on Soborna Square, checkpoints, empty shelves in stores and even gloomier faces of people.
While I was “jumping around the fields”, the Russians almost surrounded Mykolayiv, landed troops twice (destroyed by the Mykolayiv paratroopers in a few minutes) and rushed into the city from the south with tanks.
Every day sirens wailed insistently and kept me awake at night. Who could sleep, when Caliber and Tornado missiles fly under your nose?
At such a moment, frightened old neighbors crossed themselves and prayed on the ground floor stairs. Together with a boy from our house, we almost forced them to leave their apartments.
Sending a wife and two young children to an unknown place on their own is a senseless suicide. It’s not like visiting the mother-in-law in her native village. And it’s not in my nature to leave my family in trouble.
That’s why the wheels of a commuter train gradually tapped a rhythm known only to them for more than an hour. Ahead was the “Pearl by the Sea” — Odesa. And then…
— How can we go without you? – my wife leaned on my shoulder. I looked at my sweetheart’s face, tucked a wisp of blond hair.
— We’ll get to the border together. You won’t be alone. But I have to stay here. I have to. There is no other way.
— I know…
War has many faces. There are so many of them that it seems impossible to list all of them in one short life.
This is a worried face of a volunteer who devotes himself, sometimes without a trace, to the Victory.
And the Makhnovist-anarchist physiognomy of a volunteer combatant, whose crazy fighting impulse is picked up by ATO veterans, police and newly formed territorial defense forces.
And a dirty mug of a looter, your former neighbor, who got his claws into other people’s stuff.
There is also a face of an evacuated civilian.
What happens to this urban gloss, intelligent manners and iPhone? Where, in what acids, does the experience of a manager, accountant or mid-level journalist accumulated over the years dissolve?
Everyone is equal before an evacuation train door.
Odesa railway station.
Crush. Foul language. Cries of children amid the jostling of the crowd. Fists. The wailing of women. The roar of men. The mournful meow of a cat. Bags, packages, backpacks, suitcases.
To be on time. To break through to the cherished car. To run first. To find a piece of free space.
The train started.
A camp on wheels. “Volunteer” cars crammed to the stage of a tumor. Kids sobbing. Mothers and grandmothers consoling. Hot tea. A cigarette in a crowded vestibule.
Soon the western border …
About two weeks of frantic races for survival and a complete “failure of peaceful landmarks” can do wonders with a person.
For example, you run to eat not when your stomach reminds you of itself, but when necessary. You go to bed not at night, but when you feel physically tired. You even go for a wash at the first opportunity and quickly. And the sacred question: “Where am I?” recedes before the more urgent. You feel it especially when you open your eyes: “I am alive. That’s lucky.”
You become even more conscious of such changes when you are not just a civilian, you are not really into military science at all. “A journalist is a creature that cannot reproduce in captivity,” we usually joked. Used to joke …
When a large crowd gathers, it always leads to something. To some consequences. But when those people are enormously motivated – you should not expect anyhing bad.
Among those who joined the Mykolayiv Territorial Defense in the first days of the Russian invasion were software designers, businessmen, officials, drivers, students, doctors, journalists, retirees… Those who had extensive military experience and those who never held a Kalashnikov machine-gun. But definitely not “random people.”
In those days, Her Majesty’s Fate brought me and real warriors together. It was interesting and even a little strange to watch how distinctions in the age limit, social status, etc., were instantly blurred. Even the number of “diamonds” on the field pixel uniform was of lesser importance than experience, decency, honesty and mutual support.
I will always remember a March evening when the destiny of Mykolayiv region really hung in the balance – Russian orcs were within a tanks’ range from the city.
Through my panic attacks, I watched the clear actions of my new comrades-in-arms. I watched always smiling Palych murmuring to himself at an old laptop, melancholic Vlad sitting quietly in a corner and making some unfamiliar marks on a field map, and our stocky commander calmly drinking lime tea with honey and scrolling Facebook – and the horror receded, giving way to confidence in the victory of the forces of the Good.
I will never forget another day. Hundreds of voices joined in one united impulse: “I swear to defend the Ukrainian state, to stand firm on the guard of its freedom and independence. I swear never to betray the people of Ukraine!”
Oleksandr Saikovskyi, “Vechirniy Mykolaiv”, Mykolaiv
May 14, 2022
The material was created under the joint project of Ukraine Crisis Media Center and the Estonian Center for International Development with the financial support of the US Embassy in Kyiv and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia.