There are no words that can truly capture the lived experience of war. But I will try to impart a sense of things, by sharing my family’s ordeals at the front in Ukraine.
Today I was asked how the last year had felt for me, as a Ukrainian-Australian, with community connections and family living across Ukraine. Somehow, I had to find words.
Anxiety. Anguish. Devastation. Defiance.
For the people of Ukraine, who endure daily strikes by Russian missiles and rockets, or live the terror of Russian occupation, one should add three more words.
Rape. Torture. Murder.
For both Ukrainians and diaspora communities across the globe, two final words.
Resilience and resistance.
In the early hours of 24 February 2022, one year ago, a video call sounded on my phone. The call was from my cousin in northeastern Ukraine.
“I only have a few minutes”, he told me, “but I had to speak to you, in case I never see you again.”
He was with two other men. They were dressed in army fatigues. He was holding a weapon in his hands.
“It’s time for me to go.”
I had known for some time this moment might come. Throughout the build-up of Russian troops along the northern border, my cousin maintained that he would ensure his parents, wife and children evacuated to safety — but he would stay to fight. Despite knowing this moment would come, I was speechless. I felt useless, powerless.
“Sing us a folk song, before we leave,” he asked.
My daughter, who was beside me, sang in Ukrainian as she struggled to hold back tears. We parted abruptly.
Instead of giving his usual goodbye, “farewell,” he said.
It wasn’t until 1 May that he called again and we knew he was alive. It was only then that he explained why he had ended the previous call so suddenly: the folk song had brought the three of them, soldiers armed with weapons, to tears.
Come 4 February this year, I receive a series of calls from this same cousin and his mother.
He calls to tell me there is a bad situation developing on the border and that he’s needed there. His voice is hurried. It is a different voice from the one I’ve known for so many years. He speaks briefly, with a foreboding urgency.
Next his mother calls. She is frantic. She has rung to say she may need to evacuate again because another invasion from the northern border is imminent. She is visibly distressed; her face is pale and her voice trembles. She doesn’t know what to do.
Her husband doesn’t want to go anywhere – he’s not facing reality. He is old and sick, she says. It is true he is a shell of the man I knew before February of last year.
“What should I do? Where should I go? Should we wait and see whether this is a provocation?”
As one of my friends said the next day, if the bullets and bombs don’t kill people, the stress will shorten their lives.
“More days of waiting. Waiting to know whether my cousin will live or die.”
I promise to try to help and begin calling family members and friends in western Ukraine.
“May the Lord hold his hand above the head of your cousin and all of our men,” one of my friends says.
She is an activist volunteer who works on the ground with a group of senior citizens, acquiring and distributing humanitarian aid, despite being close to 80 years old. She has already lost one precious grandson on the front. Six more young men in her family are serving in different military units.
My cousin calls again. I tell him that relatives on my father’s side of the family will be able to take his parents to Poland. Or they can stay in my father’s village, west of Lviv, in one of our family homes.
His response is terse and to the point: “If you can organise this, then I’ll join my unit immediately and go to protect the border.”
I feel the weight of this responsibility, and endure a sleepless night, waiting.
I frantically search news outlets, but nothing is mentioned about the northern region where my family resides. On Instagram, an individual soldier posts a spoken message, saying the threats of a northern invasion are at this stage a provocation, designed to frighten the population. “The enemy wants to break us morally, using disinformation. Do not be afraid,” he says.
Two days later, a local regional news site publishes a statement: “Everything is stably controlled at the border. Unfortunately, the number of shellings of populated areas along the entire demarcation line has increased.”
More days of waiting. Waiting to know whether my cousin will live or die.
In Ukrainian, we describe an experience beyond human endurance, a horror that is beyond comprehension, by saying ‘Nemaye sliv’ [Немає слів].
There are no words.
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