oDR: Interview

Ukraine’s Donbas conflict: a personal reflection on loss and war

A writer charts her journey through grief as she mourns her brother, killed on the Donbas front line, and reflects how war has changed Ukrainian society

Thomas Rowley Olesya Khromeychuk
27 October 2021, 12.00am
Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, has been under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014
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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The war in Ukraine’s Donbas is now in its seventh year. Fourteen thousand people have been killed. Two million people have been displaced. And with constant stalling in diplomatic negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, there appears to be no end to the conflict in sight.

The Kremlin-backed war has had profound consequences for Ukraine, with the conflict penetrating many areas of Ukrainian life. People displaced from the country’s east have had to find new homes, jobs and lives. Veterans have returned from the front line with the physical and emotional consequences of war. And military symbols, rhetoric and practices have become commonplace as the country tries to deal with a war that is simultaneously close yet so far away.

A new book, A Loss: The Story of A Dead Soldier Told By His Sister, by London-based writer Olesya Khromeychuk aims to show how the war has affected both people in Ukraine and outside the country – through her own journey of loss and mourning for her brother, who was killed while serving on the front line.

openDemocracy spoke to Khromeychuk, a professional war historian, about a conflict that increasingly feels forgotten.

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Olesya Khromeychuk's brother, Volodymyr Pavliv (right) | Image: Olesya Khromeychuk

Let’s start at the beginning: who was your brother, Volodya, and what happened to him?

My brother decided to volunteer for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2015 and go to fight on the front line in the war in Donbas. It was his decision. Strangely, he wasn’t drafted – he had served in the army as a young man. But his draft notice never arrived. And so after some time thinking whether he should join up or not, he decided to volunteer and went to the front in 2015. He served for nearly two years in Donbas, and was killed at the front line in 2017, near the town of Popasna in Luhansk Oblast.

We remember him as a soldier now, but I also remember him as an artist, as a traveller, as an eccentric – a really interesting and complicated brother to have as well. And someone who left a huge gap in my life.

This is essentially what I try to discuss in the book: I tried to make sense of losing my brother, for me and for my family. I also tried to make sense of the war as an individual who was affected by it in such a profound way. I might be someone who lives really far away from the front line in complete safety, but my life was completely changed by it. And then I tried to make sense of the war as a historian who studies war and political violence and how societies respond to them.

Finally, I also tried to make sense of it as a woman, and as a civilian, and all of these voices come together in the book in a strange tapestry.

For me, this is one of the many powerful aspects of the book: you see these different ways of looking at the world in the book, and the ways in which you are grappling with them.

There are two sides of me trying to come to terms with this loss: as a historian, and as the sister of a soldier who was killed at the front line.

I wrote very critically about the militarisation of Ukrainian society, as well as how history was being instrumentalised to further militarise the country, right from the start of this conflict. This was me trying to understand how I respond, as a historian, to this war – a new conflict that is happening in the middle of Europe, and something that nobody expected.

Wars are not about numbers, they are not about abstract forces, and they have very long lasting effects. We need to be honest about them. We need to talk about grief, we need to talk about trauma. And we need to talk about it together. Collectively and honestly

I also was quite critical of the fact that the Ukrainian state seemed to have taken a back seat at the start of the conflict, allowing volunteers and civil society to look after the Ukrainian army. In the first months and years of the war, they were the ones who secured the resources to buy equipment, to buy uniforms, boots, and everything else.

And while I admired the efforts of the volunteers, I felt reluctant to engage with them so closely myself: I felt like we were just allowing the state not to deal with corruption in the army and elsewhere. And then my brother volunteers and goes to the front and he says: “Well, it would be really good to have a decent pair of army boots,” which were not available in Ukraine at the time, and: “It would be nice to have a good uniform that I won’t freeze in in the middle of the Ukrainian winter.” And of course, what do I do? I went online, and started buying all these things, just as my friends did the whole year before that.

I did not change my principles, I did not change the way I viewed the system. But if you know that a Celox sachet, which can prevent heavy bleeding, is likely to save your brother’s life or that of his comrade, then you're going to go online and buy it and you’re going to send it as quickly as possible. I understood that I can be right and wrong at the same time – I can still have the same principles. But in practice, the war does something to you where you have to act differently.

The other tension that I felt was related to my own vulnerability. I taught war to students, wrote on war, and in my professional environment I did not want to be perceived as the sister of a soldier who died. It was difficult managing my anxiety around speaking at conferences, not being perceived as a “token sister”, essentially. In the end, the way I’ve tried to come to terms with it is this: that vulnerability is there, it's important, and we can channel it to help people understand this really complex war.

This is the most powerful book I’ve read about the war in Donbas. And one of the reasons for this is that you show your reader your search, your path through the system, without glossing over anything. This includes Volodya himself, who was, as you say, a complicated person. In the book, you talk about how the real Volodya didn’t really come through in obituaries that appeared after his death.

Yes, it was a strange feeling. The obituaries started to appear almost immediately after Volodya’s death in regional newspapers and some national newspapers. And they all sort of did exactly the same story, and they even repeated each other’s mistakes.

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Olesya Khromeychuk | Source: Personal archive

The press described him as a hero who leaves a comfortable life in Western Europe and comes to the front line.

But there was something strange inside me when I read them: I couldn’t quite recognise my brother in this hero that they created.

He did not rush back from “his comfortable life in Western Europe to fight at the front”. He didn't have a particularly comfortable life in Western Europe.

He lived in the Netherlands as an immigrant, which is not always very comfortable. And he didn't return to fight at the front line. He actually came back a few years before that.

I couldn't understand why we can’t tell the stories of fallen servicemen and women in a human way. Why do we have to make them ‘heroes’? And why do we have to make them fit a particular narrative?

I really hope this book resonates with others who are grieving. There are so many of us now in Ukraine and outside the country. Already 14,000 lives have been lost in this conflict, and perhaps some people can recognise some of the stages of grief they are experiencing through my book. I also hope that it explains a little bit of the war in Donbas through the universal experiences of loss and grief. Because I think, especially in the West, a lot of people don't know that the war is still ongoing. It’s been seven years now.

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Your brother is not the only person in the book. There are also other people who accompany you on your journey – whether it’s in the military commissariat or civilian registration office – or even a former soldier sitting alone in a military cemetery. And you describe them in detail. Why was it important to you to describe these people with such depth?

When we think about histories of war, we tend to think about the front line, trenches, military equipment, guns and uniforms. Of course, all of that is part of the story of war, but war affects an entire society. And I think for me, it was really important to give the civilian story of this conflict, including the civilian experience of loss. And that meant talking about other civilians, too.

My family went on this journey and encountered so many people that made it bearable for us. It started off with a message I received on Facebook from someone I didn’t know, asking if I knew someone with my mother’s name and her details. I figured out this person was working for the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and so I realised something must have happened to my brother. I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, but I knew something bad must have happened, right? There was, in effect, a whole team of people whose job was to get in touch with relatives of soldiers who were killed at the front. Even if this meant finding them via Facebook.

Through these encounters – there are more in the book – I realised that there’s a whole body of people who are involved in this conflict outside of the army, outside of the front line, outside of the immediate war zone

Then, there’s a woman, whose name is Liuba, without whom I think the week of the funeral would have been completely unbearable. She was a volunteer, and she met us at the airport. And from the moment we met, she guided us through all the difficult bureaucracy and offices we had to go to.

And through these encounters – there are more in the book – I realised that there’s a whole body of people who are involved in this conflict outside of the army, outside of the front line, outside of the immediate war zone.

At the end of the book, you include a letter to your brother, and it’s a very powerful ending. In one of the final paragraphs in that letter, you attack a series of groups that you believe are benefiting from the war or keeping it going, whether it’s the military, people involved in the contraband business, politicians, “patriots” or the international community. Immediately after that comes a reply from a priest – the ending is framed as a church confession – who says in response: “It sounds as if you really loved your brother.” If you wanted readers to take away one thing about this book, what would it be?

One of the aims of writing this book was to battle my own demons: the hatred, which appeared in me – and which I’ve never experienced in the same way before – with my brother’s death; the feeling of resentment towards those who actually profit from this war.

Of course, here we can talk about the Kremlin: without the Kremlin’s involvement, none of this would have happened. We can also talk about some of the people who profit on the ground – who know that if they don’t deliver the drones, for example, then someone at the front line will have to do their job for them. My brother died in a trench reporting to his comrades where enemy fire was coming from over the radio – that’s not a job for a human being in the 21st century.

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It was very difficult for me to overcome this resentment. I knew it was a perfectly natural thing to feel, but I also knew that it was consuming me from inside. So writing this book was one way of dealing with it. This war is going to finish sooner or later, but afterwards we – as a society and as individuals – will still have these difficult feelings to grapple with. After having so much blood, so much loss, so much pain, I know that one thing that has to happen is some sort of justice – and the war criminals have to be punished. But still, internally, we need to find ways of finding some kind of peace.

We have so many euphemisms (‘enemy forces’, for example) that make it easier for us not to confront the reality of war. But I always want to explain to my students that wars are fought by humans. Wars affect humans. Wars are not about numbers, they are not about abstract forces, and they have very long lasting effects. We need to be honest about them. We need to talk about grief, we need to talk about trauma. And we need to talk about it together. Collectively and honestly.

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