On the Brink

When we were learning about wars at school and reading wartime literature, everyone thought: “Thank God we do not live in times like that.” No one could imagine that we would have to go through the things our grandparents went through in the 20th century. When older people raised their glasses at the family get-togethers and toasted, “May there be no war on our land,” we were surprised and thought, “Of course, there will be no war!” But if we said “never again” commemorating the victims of World War II in our homeland, then our neighbours, the aggressor country, bragged, “We can do it again.”

Historical memory is an interesting thing. Instead of learning the lesson that war is terrible and brings only deaths and devastation, that people should do anything to prevent it, and that war has NO excuses, our neighbouring country learned another lesson that they could always start a war again. And they did, but now they are fascists and war criminals. And I sincerely hope none of their crimes will go unpunished.

When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started, our days, without exaggeration, split into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ When it started, we tried to accept the new reality. We have long been keeping two dates in our minds. The first one is a regular calendar date, and the second one is a ‘reference system.’

“What day is it?”

“The twenty-eighth of February, the fifth day of war.The fourth of March, the ninth day of war.The fifteenth of March, the twentieth day of war.The twelfth of April, the forty-eighth day of war. The first of May, the sixty-seventh day of war.”

But sooner or later, the war will end, and there will be no more days of the war. We will count the days after our victory instead. Actually, we have already won. With the advent of war, our national spirit rose, and the Ukrainians united as never before. War is not only about expensive and high-precision equipment — it is first and foremost about people, both on the frontlines and in the rear. The advantage is always on the side of those who defend their land, fighting for the truth and their people. As President Zelenskyi said in one of his speeches, “Life will overcome death, and light will overcome darkness.” This phrase has already become iconic.

What power the word is endowed with! Our famous Ukrainian writer Vasyl Sukhomlynsky said: “The word can kill and revive, injure and heal, sow anxiety and hopelessness and spiritualize, dispel doubts and sorrows, cause smiles and tears, engender faith in man and sow despair, inspire work and constrain the soul…”

In times like these, we have learned the power of words — the terrible power of words. In our reality, the word carries propaganda, a terrible lie that persuades people to support the aggression or even take part in this bloody war.

Before the war, when sensible Russians laughed at the nonsense that propagandists had been spreading on TV and wondered who could ever believe in this absurdity, the same propagandists did their job and did it quite successfully, so much so that most Russians support this war and wish success to their soldiers who went to kill in Ukraine.

How come Russians do not notice the similarity between their infamous Z symbol — which they paste on every corner and line up children in kindergartens and schools to recreate its shape — and the Nazi swastika? Is history not taught to us to learn from past mistakes and not repeat them in the future? With the advent of the war, more and more questions arise.

Now you remember life before February 24 with a smile. The days when a failure in a school competition or in personal life was like the end of the world. Now you understand that all those problems were not problems at all, but just small failures that you should not have worried about. Now you better understand what it means to live in the present moment. Strange, very strange, but now I am not so worried about the future as before the war. Everything can change in a moment.

I didn’t understand what was happening in the early morning of February 24, so I looked up the news on the Telegram channel. There was just one short phrase: “The war has begun.” Never. Never in my life have the words evoked such mixed emotions. Frustration, loneliness, sorrow, and anger. Such a terrible event; so much was already happening in Ukraine, on the battlefield and in the people’s minds — and just a few words, a phrase to describe everything. “War” — one word that was the beginning of everything.

On that day, it felt like they are closing in on you and pushing you from different directions, and you didn’t know which way to turn. This is what was happening to Ukraine.

Now we know the true value of things and people. When you flee from war and danger, you can’t take much. But some things are far more important than material ones. Knowledge, life experience, human values, and sweet memories that warm your soul like nothing else. Life seems so empty when all the time you save money for something to buy in the future, forbidding yourself small joys in life, such as traveling or a pretty outfit that fits you perfectly.

During the war, you understand the importance of words of support. It is essential not to feel alone in this world, and you start to appreciate your loved ones even more. There is a joke that at the beginning of the war, a simple question “How are you?” sounded like “I love you.” And it really did.

During the war, memes also change. Everyone now knows that Arestovych works better than any sedative. There are even songs about javelins. And our farmers not only raise the economy but also, if necessary, can drive away a couple of enemy combat units with a tractor.

How do I imagine Ukraine after the war?

Happy, free, and prosperous. I think we have already shown that our people are strong enough to become part of the EU. There is also a joke that earlier, Ukraine wanted to be a part of NATO, and now NATO wants to be a part of the Ukrainian army.

As the war started, all people reconsidered their values, and their worldviews changed. So many people have done so much for Ukraine after the war began, and many have given their lives for it. So, now your duty, as a citizen, is to live up to their expectations of a prosperous Ukraine.

The younger generations were already more progressive and responsible. I am sure they will remember the great deeds of their defenders and build a better future for their country.

* This text was written in English in 2022 for “Antytvir”, a writing contest for teens. It is an educational project of Mystetskyi Arsenal within the International Book Arsenal Festival. Its goal is to promote creative writing among high school students and create a platform for expressing yourself in a non-standard way. The organizers designed this project in 2020 and 2022 to support Ukrainian youth in highly stressful situations by allowing them to write and make their voices heard. Illustrated by Cultural Hub NGO within the “Wars. Ukrainians. Humanity.” programme.

Author: Mariya Shlyk, 16 years old

Translator: Hanna Leliv

Illustrator: Nastia Haidaienko

Content Editor: Maryna Korchaka

Program Directors: Julia Ovcharenko and Demyan Om Dyakiv Slavitski