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One War Year Later

Artist Taya Kabayeva, from the VR performance "Neverland"

On the morning of February 24th, 2022, I was woken up at 5 am by a phone call from my mother, who simply said: “A full-scale invasion has begun. I am hearing explosions.” My flatmate, who is also from Ukraine, was standing in the doorway of my room on the phone with her parents, receiving the same information. We looked at each other, she ran up to me, we hugged and fell onto my bed. Since then the life of every Ukrainian has changed forever.

I was in Kyiv just two days before the full-scale war began. The atmosphere in the city was very tense. I went because my passport had been stolen and I was full of anxiety that it would not be ready in time. Somehow, I was convinced that the war was just about to start. The media was full of messages about Russian troops gathering up on the border, information about the closest bomb shelters in each city, the foreign diplomats and journalists were warned to leave Ukraine as soon as they could. I was meeting my friends and asking them whether they thought the invasion was imminent, and if they did, why weren’t they leaving now before it became next to impossible. Most of them were joking around and saying that they didn’t believe something big would happen, that it is just Russian propaganda. People were sharing their creative plans for the next months and dreaming about the summer. The only ones who were as “paranoid” as me were internal refugees, already displaced from Crimea and the east of Ukraine. They shared a feeling of deja vu. They remembered how back in 2014 they also left their house completely unprepared that they would never see it again, and how now they carried their passports, power banks, water, snacks and all other necessities handy, in case the history will repeat itself.

On February 24th, I opened my messages and all those friends I saw just two days ago, happy and smiling, were posting photos from a bomb shelter, crying videos, sending messages - “This is the scariest day of my life”. The next days, weeks and months seemed like a blur. Every day was spent in a flurry of trying to help everybody we know. Planning safe evacuation routes, raising funds for paramilitary equipment, collecting humanitarian aid, helping friends and family that made it to Berlin to find where to stay for those first months, trying to understand how to help those that stayed. Most of the Ukrainian people abroad that I know, temporarily quit their jobs and focused on simply assisting their close ones and complete strangers to survive. It felt absurd and surreal to go to your daily job, when there were rockets falling on the street, where you grew up on, and everyone you know is in mortal danger.

Now it has been a year since the war began. We have all changed, we all found some kind of “war-life” balance. Some people, including myself, went back to their daily jobs and continue to raise awareness and donate, some people are still volunteering or working for the army, and some people are fighting directly at the frontlines. Some of us had a choice of whether to leave or to stay, which vector of activity to choose. Some of us don’t have it and, instead of “war-life balance”, their life IS war. We are not scared any more, we are angry, determined, and intoxicatingly alive. Being Ukrainian means being politically active. We realize that it is impossible not to be, when your life is at stake. Now every Ukrainian artist has at least one piece of work related to war, military, death, blood, and anger. This massive pain, anger and loss has become a part of our identity. Every Ukrainian has lost something or someone. We have all been confronted with thousands of deaths, exposed to brutal violence and have had to reinvent our lives in the new historical context. The saddest part of all is that we cannot go back to the somewhat naive pre-war version of ourselves that did not experience pain and loss of seeing people dead and tortured on a massive scale, that did not wake up to scroll through pictures of dead bodies and explosions, did not wake up hearing explosions nearby or seeing the city they have lived their whole life in erased from the face of earth, whose Instagram feed is full of obituaries and cries for help.

I talk to my friend from Kyiv in Berlin and she says: “I miss this childlike, silly girl I was when I lived in Kyiv. I was always laughing, I had massive rose-coloured glasses on at all times and I did not know much about the world but I had so much fun with it. Now I really want to be as fun and carefree again but I know it is not possible because there is so much suffering in the background of my mind that I cannot unsee, and there are so many issues I have to struggle with daily, I cannot just pretend that they don’t exist and laugh the same way I did back in 2021. My life before the war seems like a distant fairytale, it was just so good. I like being in Berlin but I wish I was different, and not a refugee.” Her words mirror my own feelings. I look back at all the happy memories of pre-war Ukraine and I know we will never have another carefree summer like we used to do, because half of the people I was experiencing it with are fighting at the frontlines right now and they will never see the world in the same way.

However, this year has also shown to all of us the power of unity, the value of freedom, and it has made us stronger and prouder than ever. We know our history and we are proud to speak our language. We have learned that even when everything in your life is breaking to pieces, together we can be a force much bigger than each of us individually and effectively fight to protect our home and our values. We learned that there are so many people around us that genuinely care and I am grateful for all the beautiful acts of kindness and generosity I have witnessed in those 365 days. When I visited Ukraine during the war, this feeling of unity was almost palpable. I felt like every taxi driver, every shop assistant, every person passing me on the street is my family. We are all living the same reality and the same experience, we often end up in a bomb shelter full of strangers, and leave it with a handful of new friends. Everybody is so warm and sensitive with each other, understanding just how much each of us has to handle and how fragile our reality is. Although I am worried about the future of our generation, in which every single person is burdened with trauma, I am also excited for the future of post-war Ukraine. The future, in which nobody will be a bystander, in which everybody will cherish the simple pleasure of being alive, and in which we know that we are the change that we want to see in the world. I hope this exciting future is coming soon.


Header image: Artist Taya Kabayeva, from the VR performance "Neverland"


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