People Are Coming Back

People are coming back to their villages and towns. They return home, even though they often no longer have one. Their homes turned into skeletons. A few walls and a pile of ash several centimeters high — it’s all that remains from their apartments. Everything burned down to the ground, and you never know how much of this ash is furniture, clothes, and toys, and how much — human flesh.

People are coming back, even though schools are ruined, and nurseries closed. Even though their cars are rotting in car graveyards. Even though roadsides are dotted with signs warning, “Danger! Mines!” Your street is still empty, but every day you come across someone you know who is also back. Most shops are still closed, but some display signs saying: “We’re with you again.” People are coming back.

They return to Rusaniv, just outside Kyiv, which used to be a frontline village where the streets on both sides of the river were bombed. They return to Saltivka, a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv, where every single building in Nataliya Uzhviy Street turned from white to black. They return to Borodianka, where children are playing at a playground next to the wounded Shevchenko and nine-story apartment blocks destroyed by Russian air strikes. There is a pond behind the playground where they splash, laughing loudly. Death was here, but life is advancing on it again. It pushes death out of its dominion. It pierces the frontline with children’s laughter.

Some of the returnees live in modular towns. They leave for their vegetable patches in the morning only to return in the evening. Vegetable patches are continuations of their bodies — neat, plowed land plots next to the destroyed houses. Green shoots are already peeking out of the ground — yet another advance on death. Life hides deep down, in the darkness of Ukrainian black soil, in the shadows of Ukrainian trees. It will always find a way up.

People are coming back, even though there are no jobs. The stores where they used to work were bombed. The factories where their parents ‘worked’ were looted. They can’t walk through the woods or fields because they have not been cleared of mines yet. You feel like you return to nowhere, but this ‘nowhere’ has its name, its history, its smell. You grew up in it; you wish to die here someday. You feel like a trunk without branches since everything you’ve become overgrown with over the years was burned or taken away. People are coming back, anyway.

The bigger distance from the wounds, the harder it is. The farther from the frontline, the larger your inner front. Sometimes, it feels more peaceful right next to the war. Peace must be the norm of human life, but when war is raging around you, peace becomes an anomaly. Laughter, smiles, jokes, joy — they all become symptoms of a disease. You look at happy, carefree people as if they were terminally ill. You feel sorry for them. A healthy person cannot be happy after anything like that.

It’s not that it was terrible out there that you’re coming back. It’s not that you weren’t accepted. It’s not that you have no prospects. You are coming back because you just can’t live without these places. You can’t walk down other streets. You can’t learn other names and toponyms. You can’t swim in other rivers. You can’t drink other H2О. When someone takes away your home, you feel like a part of you has been amputated.

People are coming back, even though they risk losing their lives here. But the risk of losing their lives-here, in their home country is bigger. Life gets intertwined with a particular place; it takes root in it.

People are coming back because they feel like cells of one blood system, like red blood cells. They have hated their neighbors secretly their whole lives, only to realize they won’t survive a single day without them. And so they move like little ferries from one neighbor to the next, carrying bags of things people need at the other end of their street, their town, their country. They become part of a larger whole and thus rediscover themselves. Their faces mirror back millions of others. Thousands of names shine in their eyes.

People are coming back because we are plants, too. Because our motherland is the garden of divine songs. We fear strangers more than death. We fear losing our roots more than losing our arms or legs.

After all, we know they are always waiting for us here. Our soil is waiting for us. Its smell, its firmness, its uncompromising attitude. And if there are people and soil, there will always be a garden — the garden of songs, divine and human.

* The Ukrainian version of the text was written for the Kraina Magazine, translated into English for the “Wars.Ukrainians.Humanity.” programme with the author’s consent.
People Are Coming Back-2

Author: Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian philosopher, writer, translator

Translator: Hanna Leliv

Illustrator: Nastia Haidaienko

Content Editor: Maryna Korchaka

Program Directors: Julia Ovcharenko and Demyan Om Dyakiv Slavitski