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‘We’re different people now’: A Ukrainian writer reflects on months of war

Writer Andrei Krasniashchikh fled Kharkiv with his family in March. They are now among the millions of internally displaced persons in Ukraine

Andrei Krasniashchikh
10 May 2022, 11.58am

5 May: Bomb shelter in Saltivka, Kharkiv

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(c) ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Kharkiv in north-east Ukraine is the second-largest city in the country after Kyiv. It’s also the only city that has been shelled continuously since the Russian invasion started on 24 February.

Andrei Krasniashchikh, a leading Ukrainian writer, called Kharkiv home for years – but on 21 March he finally left the city, fleeing with his elderly parents. His wife, daughter, mother-in-law and their cat had left four days earlier. They joined close relatives in the city of Poltava. That central Ukrainian city is now home to tens of thousands of displaced persons, who live in school gyms and assembly halls, kindergartens or apartments if they can find one.

Compared to Kharkiv, Poltava is “paradise” – almost a peaceful life.

The only reminders of the war are the howling of air raid sirens several times a day, as well as huge queues for humanitarian aid. Here, Krasniashchikh writes about his experience as an internally displaced person.

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Different people

“Day 27.”

“The 32nd day is drawing to a close.”

I remember 24 February. As for the rest, it’s all a blur. A siren. A hallway. Behind two walls.

The lift is out. Walking downstairs is a whole separate story for my father. For my mother too. The last flight has no railings. I hadn’t noticed that. My father halts.

It thuds nearby, loud. No pauses. Leaving the building is frightening. Frightening, too, to stay there. We leave. Outside, explosions grow even stronger.

A house has lost its corner, living rooms exposed. A hanging chandelier, a wardrobe nearby. The stage design… of warfare.

A marketplace called ‘Fairytale’. It’s gone. ‘Fairytale’ is no more. The ‘Class’ supermarket, windows broken. I don’t take pictures, I just memorise. We are leaving Kharkiv, I’ll remember it in this state.

I wait for it to pass, to unclench inside. Here’s the ring road. We turn onto a road. First village. The same feeling as when I walked through the city: at any moment…

We’re on the border between regions. A petrol station. We stay there for a long time. I step out. It’s spring here. In Kharkiv, it was winter. I have escaped.

There’s a queue at the regional executive committee.

“Cat?”

“Animal.”

“Putin?”

“War.”

“Death.”

We are playing word association.

“Aeroplanes?”

“Putin.”

“Bombs?”

“Putin.”

At the end of the line, a young woman faints. They help her up and lead her away.

In Ukraine, a displaced person. A refugee abroad.

Poltava is my childhood city. I was born here. My relatives live here. And yet, I am displaced.

The long queue for social assistance is Noah’s Ark. Two thousand hryvnia [about £54] each; pensioners receive 3,000. There are some supermodels among us, as if straight from a restaurant. Class difference flares up and fades away. We are all similar here. At least, as far as our facial expressions are concerned.

The regional executive committee is a nest of vipers. But not today. Today, the people are different. I have never experienced treatment like this. Not anywhere. So gentle. As if we are made of crystal, and can be broken. We, too, are different people.

pjimage (3).jpg

Images by Nadiia, Andrei Krasniashchikh's daughter

Liudochka, my childhood friend, is in Lviv. She tells similar stories. She’s waiting in a hospital, her husband in surgery. Someone approaches, brings her water. Offers her a bag of food.

“No, thank you, we’ve got some.”

“Take it, keep it for dinner.”

Awkward.

Awkward is the self-perception of the displaced. Awkward in someone else’s cosy apartment. In the gym, where a hundred people have gathered. Awkward with receiving so much attention as a perfectly healthy adult.

Awkward to admit that you’re displaced now. To recognise it.

Even more awkward is the fact that you left, but someone else stayed behind. Friends. Relatives. You are in paradise. You even read news reports differently now. Before, in hell, they came across as more optimistic.

“Good morning! How are you?”

“Good morning.

I’m alright.

No heating.

No electricity.

No internet.”

Not a tourist trip; a much longer journey. We don’t have a change of clothes. We rummage for our sizes.

“Don’t take any spares. Someone else might need it.”

Before, we would have helped ourselves to an armful of stuff. For free.

Depeche Mode plays on my phone. ‘Walking in My Shoes’. Grateful to the person in whose shoes I walk now.

The displaced can be recognised by their backpacks and the plastic bags they’re carrying, filled with humanitarian aid. Also, by their rapid pace. The displaced move fast: from explosion to explosion.

A shopping queue. At once, it’s apparent who is local and who isn’t. The local has extra items in his cart. Fermented milk, not just milk. A spiced bun. A can of herring. A displaced person has the basics. White bread, pasta, canned meat. Potatoes, onions.

Sometimes it’s the other way around. Potato chips, sweets, Coca-Cola – this is a displaced person too.

We call a plumber. He’s a neighbour from downstairs. He sees to everything, explains how to use things.

“Thank you very much. How much do we owe?”

“How much do you pay for this apartment?”

“Nothing.”

“And nothing for me, either. You already said thank you.”

The apartment belongs to a childhood friend who is in Italy now.

I thought that once I’d broken free, I’d walk a lot. Just walk everywhere. But I sit at home and listen hard. To everything. The rustling of tyres outside – aeroplanes. A refrigerator door slamming. Stomach growling loudly.

My wife and daughter, Lena and Nadya, have been here for several days. They say this will pass.

At five in the morning, the upstairs neighbour drops something. Nadya and Lena leap up and run. So do I.

The displaced arriving from Donbas in 2014: impudent and noisy. Now I’m the impudent and noisy one. Except, also quiet.

Others see us. They encourage us. They sympathise and comfort us. But we are, in truth, runaways. From the war.

A volunteer from Lviv hands us some medicine: “Hang in there. Everything will be OK.”

He’s heading to Kharkiv. To the war.

I run into an optician. A hairdresser. A teacher I once gave some advice to. Acquaintances from Kharkiv that I hadn’t seen for years. Half of Kharkiv is now in Poltava. The other half – all the destroyed buildings – have stayed behind.

The cat has started to purr again. She hadn’t purred for a month. She just mewed. Like the rest of us.

Children who get released from basements come to life first. We follow suit – after the children and the animals. But the war is far from over.

And it won’t be over when it ends. You will continue to carry it within.

My daughter says: “We will remember the war as something historical, ancient. Something we’ve gone through; we’re going through.”

I shave off my beard bit by bit over the course of the month. Every day. A shorter moustache. Off the cheeks. The temples. A bit from the chin. I’ll encounter myself soon.

We scream in our sleep every night. We don’t remember those dreams. Most often we shout “No!”

Not everything that happens gets revealed these days. A lot is kept secret. I don’t know what’s happening inside of me, either. And what I do know, I don’t reveal much, either. After victory, all of these things will be divulged.

I understand where this writing style comes from. It’s the style of news channels on Telegram. They’re all I’ve read since the beginning of the war. Facts and the state of things. We will analyse and reflect later, after the victory. Right now, others analyse and make plans for us. We can only feel and live through it.

“I was in the wrong yesterday. I realised that you shouldn’t be loud and quarrel in wartime. So as not to be like Putin. During the war, there should be peace in the family at least.”

Classes have resumed. Yesterday I sent a message to the students.

In the newsfeed today:

“A third-year student at the VN Karazin Kharkiv National University, Vadym Pavlenko, perished along with his father while trying to flee Izyum.”

And a photograph. I get to see him for the first time. We’ve done distance learning up to now, with just our avatars online.

He had signed up for one of my courses for the second time. He attended every lecture. He asked questions.

Translated by Tanya Breslin Zaharchenko

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