Unfortunately, I have memories that I will probably never share, but let these notes, written from memory, remain with me. Here is the city of Bucha near Kyiv, under shelling.
A man draws circles across the sky with his finger, then furiously hammers the imaginary ground with his fists. This is how the deaf man shows me shelling that he is only able to see. Broken glass underfoot, abandoned things, the chaos of war. A man’s corpse by a shot-through car. About a week ago, people covered up the body with a blanket. Snow and ashes fall on his gray, tired face. The dead car still has unshot wheels.
Our neighbors are taking off the wheels. My brother and I help roll them to the house. Wheels are needed to change out tires. When combat operations only just started, some unknown person punctured the tires on expensive cars. At first residents thought it was saboteurs, but later, an experienced person of uncompromising appearance informed us that this was probably the work of criminals. Broken windows and robbed car interiors corroborated this interpretation. The neighbors change out the wheels and prepare for evacuation.
Cars bunch together in columns and, under white ribbons and flags, move out of the city in nervous lurches. The sides of the cars read “People,” “Children.” Tired people look indifferently at those remaining in the city. The remaining, too, for the most part do not pay attention to the departing. Everyone has their own reality and their own tasks. By the houses there are fires, people making food, people laughing, listening to the news, helping each other, sharing medicine, food. People are living through another monotonous ashy day. The next day is declared the day of evacuation under the protection of the Red Cross.
Several thousand people have gathered near the city administration building. Many are in high spirits, even though a car with a “200” on its windshield is driving around in visible proximity. The car is collecting corpses from the streets. Here it is worth saying that the streets are not littered with dead bodies, but there are dead people. Children examine the military with sincere curiosity.
Unexpectedly, a closed mail van stops near the filing refugees. The car is inscribed with “Children”. The driver, insistently, with a shout, declares that he will take only women with children. His humanitarian appeals are ignored by large, broad-shouldered men. Only a few women manage to get into the van. The driver, bewildered, waves his hand and gets into the car. The departing “children” are sent off with laughter and whistles: “Here are our defenders,” the women laugh, “children,” “orphans.” They leave. The remaining wait for the Red Cross several more hours.
We slowly drive through the city. Traces of battles, pogroms. Emptiness.
On the street, a man playing the role of the intellectual drunkard, looking by turns at me and at the war, rhetorically remarks to the sounds of the cannonade: “Ah, but I am a purely civilian person, and I could shit myself.”
The unexpected, new reality has not yet become a fact. TikTokers on skateboards are making videos against the background of a destroyed military convoy. Communication with the outside world still works, and many feel that everything will soon end or even already has. Incredible rumors and optimistic plans for the future. To Bach’s partitas, through the window, we observe helicopter attacks on Gostomel airport. Then aviation and artillery. Flashes. Lights off.
Electricity, water, heating, everything has been turned off. Snow fell on the morning of March 1st. The temperature in the apartment falls: 15, 14, 13, 12… It’s cold and monotonous. People are cooking food on fires. Our bomb shelter is just a basement. The people of our house, neighbors, often meet for the first time by the fire. We are finally getting to know each other after living together for ten years. Very valuable are the meetings with people you know.
“You didn’t leave, Alexander Vladimirovich?” A neighbor greets me. I shake my head. “The people’s lot, and ours too,1” she concludes looking at the droning sky and goes about her business. A new social hierarchy has arisen very quickly within the group of people near the bomb shelter, and those who in the past, before the war, had more significant positions in society have remained on the sidelines. People of a different tactic have come forward, i.e. those who give orders, even silly ones. All of this is expected and natural. The ability to obey and command is now in demand. It calms people down. Everyone becomes a group that “absorbs” stress together. There is boiling water, food, night duty with an axe. Next to us is an abandoned bulldog cut with shrapnel. Everyone calls him Patron2.
The departing let their dogs and cats loose onto the streets. But in this house, in the apartments, animals are still locked up, we hear cats going crazy, left without food and water. We can’t help them. People are afraid of marauders, who break into places under the guise of saving animals.
My brother and I go outside and notice strange, jovial agitation. Outside some of the houses, swollen-faced citizens have organized festivities. A little further on, we come across a man with bags full of beer and cider. Seeing me and my brother, the man is clearly frightened and begins to confusingly explain that “everything has already been snatched up, but you can look.” Understanding nothing, we move on until we stumble upon a looted beer stall. Then they started breaking down the shops. Later, the merchants themselves opened up the storerooms that had not yet been broken into.
The city’s food logistics are paralyzed. Emergency services, medicine, have remained inaccessible to us. Snow, broken glass, and sky soot.
After what was written
During the last days of my stay in the city, I did not take any pictures or videos. The war rolled in and became commonplace. A complete change in the informational space, in a broader sense than “the media.” The concepts of morality and mercy voluminously unfold. Everything changes, including one’s perception of people. Everyone adapts to constant stress in different ways here. Often, one reality disrupts into another. A girl who addressed even animals with the formal-you, now, under mortar explosions, cheerfully, enthusiastically talks about her niece. When the fire subsides, her face changes and she suddenly exhales hysterically with a cry, “Blyad’, when will this fucking hell be over.”
We are in Kyiv. Conversations with Volodya and Lisa Zhbankov, Polina Lavrova, Olga and Varya on abstract topics. In the morning, unexpected sun on the boulevards of an empty city.
February 24 – March 12, 2022
Bucha – Kyiv
1 Literally: As for the people, so for us. An ironic proverb.
2 Besides “boss,” Patron also means “ammunition round.” It is common to name animals after military effects during wartime. This time around, we have also seen Javelins and Bayraktars.