September 2, 2014
The war is always there, but it isn’t mine. Stepping off the train in Kyiv, walking into the crowd, everyone seems to swirl around me at a half-beat faster rhythm than my own. Beautiful young Ukrainian women stroll by indifferently; young men bump into my shoulder on a hurry somewhere. I’m stuck in another place, at another speed, living within. My mind is locked to Semyonovka.
I was there yesterday, near the war’s front lines. Whole neighborhoods flattened by artillery. Trees stripped bare of leaves and branches by the blasts. An old woman with her arms folded stands on a street corner, framed by the ruined leftovers of her hometown.
“I have nowhere else to go,” she says, shrugging her shoulders.
An old man with leather-skinned hands sits on a bench down the street; the wall behind him speckle-scarred by shrapnel. He looks at me suspiciously.
“Nothing you write will change anything here,” he says, pointing down the cratered road with an upturned leather-skinned hand.
At a street corner a few blocks away a woman and child wait for a bus to take them away from this wasteland. Behind them workers rebuild the destroyed bus station.
The fighting has stopped in Semyonovka, but the war is always there. It could come back, but no one knows.
A few hours by train and I’m back in Kyiv. Far enough from the war to make it feel like fiction, but there are subtle signs of it here.
Blue and yellow ribbons on women’s purses. Soldiers with Kalashnikovs standing around the Maidan. Ukrainian flags hanging out windows and trailing from the radio antennas of cars. Posters on Kreshchatyk Avenue ask Ukrainians to support their troops. I go to dinner and the restaurant is giving a portion of its revenue to support wounded soldiers. But the war here is a cause, not a real war. It’s a rallying cry, not a real war. It’s a reason to be proud and wave the flag and debate politics and somberly shake one’s head at the sad news coming from the front everyday. But it’s not a real war here, even though it’s always there. Just like back home. People take a minute to thank the troops, and then life goes on. The troops, though, are never done. They can’t move on because wars never end for those who fight them.
The real war touches Kyiv lightly, like a feather. It’s easy to miss if you don’t look for it or don’t want to.
There, at the entrance to the train station, a young man in uniform with his military rucksack is kissing his girlfriend goodbye. He holds her face with both his hands, controlling for a second longer the only thing he can. Bullet holes are still in trees and street signs at the top of Institutskya Street near the Maidan, where Berkut thugs and snipers gunned down protestors in February. Now the place is covered in flowers and tourists march past.
In the metro a young woman listens to music on her iPhone, and students laugh and talk. An old woman sits on the bench, a cane in one hand and a plastic bag full of something down between her feet. What her life must have been like—at least six million dead in Ukraine during the famine of 1932 to 1933, hundreds of thousands killed during Stalin’s purges from 1934 to 1940, about seven million Ukrainians killed during World War II, and then a half-century of Soviet rule. She stares forward, emotionless. Maybe she’s thinking about her wars, maybe she’s thinking about what to make for dinner.
After Semyonovka I stay in Kyiv for a few weeks. I keep writing. I want to go back to the front, but there’s talk now of the separatists kidnapping and murdering foreigners. I think about James Foley, and I remember the news that Chechens are fighting with the rebels. A friend offers me a ride to Donetsk. I say no.
And then Russia and the separatists invade southeastern Ukraine and there’s talk of a siege on Mariupol. I reflexively buy a train ticket for tomorrow and make a hotel reservation.
It’s time to go now, and I’m scared. What if I go and it spirals out of control? What if it ends up like Semyonovka?
The train leaves at five, and I have some time. I think of a lot of reasons not to go. I leave myself a way out, and it doesn’t seem so real.
I lie down on my bed and read a book. I get comfortable and decide I’m not going. Then I wonder why I’m here, and what it’s all worth if I don’t go. I decide I’m going. Not much time left now, so I pack my bag in a hurry. Everything ready and I open the door to leave, I stop. I flash forward to flashing back to this moment as a memory. I wonder if I’ll regret this decision, this one right now, to go to Mariupol. What if the separatists break through the lines? What if I can’t get out and I’m kidnapped? I think about James.
I close the door and put my bag down. I’m staying.
The war is still there, but this isn’t my war. It can’t be worth it to leave Kyiv and go to the fighting. I think about what I’ve seen in Afghanistan and Iraq and Semyonovka. What’s the point? Not enough people read my stories for them to make a difference, and even if they did, what do I owe Ukraine anyway?
It’s a sunny, late summer day in Kiev and there are cafes where I can work and write, streets to wander and explore, and bars to visit at night to drink beer and talk politics with friends.
But then, without thinking, I pick up my bag and I’m out the door. Walking to the metro station like I’m skiing down a hill, willfully giving myself to gravity, constantly gathering momentum. It’s easier to keep going this way than to turn back around. I’m off the metro, back into the train station. I’m moving at the right speed now. I’ve been cured of the war by the few weeks in Kyiv.
Soon I’m on the train and pulling away. The train picks up speed, the world blurs by but I’m slowing down inside. That familiar feeling of sliding into a warzone returns. My senses pick up. There’s a constant, inescapable sense of dread. My stomach rumbles, but I’m not hungry. I wanted to write on the train ride, but that hunger is gone too.
The train goes into the night and south toward the war.
The girl in Kyiv sends me a text, “Be careful,” she wrote. “Remember, this isn’t your war.”
She’s right, this isn’t my war. But I’m still drawn to it like it’s my own. Is it just because it’s there? Is it because I want it to be mine? I already have my own war, after all. But maybe when you have one war you have them all.
No matter now. I’m on a train heading back to war, and I can’t get off. And when I’m back in it, the war won’t care whether it’s mine or not. And neither will I.