What stays with you

War separates you from what’s always been with you, what’s always been you. It leaves you alone with some scant remains of you. Because you are not you without the color of your walls. Because you are not you without the cracks on the pavement of your yard. Because you are not you without a squeak of the swing in the nearest playground. Because you are not you without the look of your neighbor who always smiles when she sees your children.

Those who have left their cities write love letters to them. Google them in the news, tag them on social networks, invite them to dates in their sleep. What has happened to that store on the corner of the streets nearby that I used to walk every morning? Who of the neighbors has stayed, who has left, and who may have already returned? Do traffic lights work at intersections? Are apricots blooming in your backyard?

People who are so uncertain, so groundless, so nomadic suddenly turn out to have their roots so deep in their land, like plants, like flowers. They cling with their roots to the damp bricks of their houses. They are happy to come back to the places where it used to be banal or even sad to come back to. They ask their relatives or friends who stayed here: take a picture of my yard for me. Go into my apartment and tell it I love it.

But some people won’t have a place to go back to. Their spaces have been amputated, and it will take them a long time to raise new ones. Raising space is like raising children. First you take care of them, then they take care of you. When your space is gone, you suddenly realize: you no longer have a body. Because you can’t call that homeless lost piece of matter with your hands and feet your body. Too little. Too weak. Too unhuman.

War teaches us that we are much more than what we are. That our bodies include the space of our homes and our cities and our country. That our memory goes much deeper than the memory of our last few decades. That the spirits of our dead talk through us, penetrating the bodies of those who are still to be born.

War teaches us that things can talk. That they, too, have the right to change their meanings. In this world, a window is no longer a window, but, for example, a source of danger. And light is no longer light, but a signal for the enemy that helps them identify their targets. And a selfie at a roadblock can cost someone their life. And a plate of rice porridge made by a volunteer for an IDP is a sign of love.

Things have become texts that tell us new stories. You assess the surrounding reality based on a simpler and stricter logic: what will help us survive, and what can kill us? The space ceases to be homogeneous: ten kilometers north, and you will find yourself in a place where you can be killed. Time ceases to be homogeneous: a few hours of delay, and you may not see the end of the day. Time and space today have turned into ups and downs. Everyone builds their own paths in them, and no companions will help with that. Everyone follows their instincts.

War reveals how flawed individualism is. How we are interwoven into a lace of collective bodies. How we feel our people, how we know that these people on the roads, in the cities, under the ruins, with weapons, behind the frontlines are us. And those who walked these streets a hundred years ago, created, and fought — it’s also us. And those who will come after us to rebuild these lands or explore new planets are also us.

These people, these things, these memories, these hopes are what lives with you. War tears them away from you, but makes you feel them even deeper. War is a state of accelerated loss. It increases our chances of losing everything we love. Everything we are. Relatives, loved ones, ourselves. But it can also provide an opportunity for gains.

Russia started this war because it had lost itself a long time ago. With its insane destructiveness, it has only one thing in mind: to make others feel this lostness. For losses to become the law of history. If it has lost itself, what right do others have to preserve themselves?

But for us, Russia is not a law anymore and hasn’t been for a long time. However painful our losses are, we keep saving and gaining. We cannot lose ourselves because we have already recovered ourselves.

We have recovered what we live with, what is always with us, what will always be with you. Your forest, your field, your village, your roadblock, your lovers, your to-bes. We won’t lose it. For what makes us ourselves is what we are willing to defend. What we seek to keep at any cost.

* 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.

What stays with you-2

Author: Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian philosopher, writer, translator

Translator: Halyna Bezukh

Illustrator: Nastia Haidaienko

Content Editor: Maryna Korchaka

Program Directors: Julia Ovcharenko and Demyan Om Dyakiv Slavitski