Markéta Vorel. A volunteer in Ukraine.
Photo journal entry. Kharkiv, March 16, 2023
Last day in Ukraine. I am resigned to my departure. The dread of its Sunday-night-blues inevitability pulsates to amplify the loneliness. All of Kharkiv laid bare below my perch on the top floor of this pristine, Ikea-furnished hotel room, encased in what was once a beautiful building but now stands half shuttered, post artillery strike. The architecture, I am told, is Stalinist Imperial; I try to divorce the title from the art form. In another life, I would be 22, living in this apartment long enough to find a place that makes good coffee. A thousand gently glowing windows beneath me illuminate a thousand other lives and conjure the familiar unrequited longing I haven’t been able to shake since I was a child. The glitter of my hometown felt like this ever since I could peer over the window sill to absorb its glow. Other shining cities who later cradled me felt the same. A Washington State ferry gliding through Rosario Strait lit up like a birthday cake. A passenger train flashing through the night in southern Moravia. A garland of island lights twinkling from an indigo horizon. Each light briefly illuminating an existence I cannot touch, a moment that remains secret, something out there I have missed out on. It is the wistful, primordial light of distant stars that died millions of light years ago.
Another aerial alarm. During the day its siren competes with the tolling of the Orthodox church bells in a bedeviling cacophony that blends the old Ukrainian normal with the new Ukrainian normal. At night its blare makes the glowing windows below blink with vulnerability. I do not associate the aerial alarm with danger; I have been lucky here.
My pulse is slow, resonant, a palpable whoosh of coagulated liquid. It’s been days since I wrote anything, my thoughts do not come pouring out, they seep inward. My hotel room reeks of the vapors rising off a heap of damp, bloody, mud encrusted clothes, boots, gloves and a tank helmet that I am drying on the radiator – my loot from the abandoned russian trenches. Molecules of diesel, earth, smoke, body odor, other human smells…I taste iron on my tongue. So much to “unpack” in this disgusting pile but I callously just worry about how I have to get this “treasure” across a few international borders. The smell hangs on the curtains and my windows are open as far as they will go; I am not intentionally punishing myself with the stench of death.
I need to start focusing on the next thing. Train to Poland, getting back to the distant galaxy that is home, click my heels… I’ve never watched the Wizard of Oz to the end. It is a terrifying children’s story. Make a list, make chaos linear. Passport, boarding pass, credit card, get rid of my last hryvnia, wrap up the charred molten glass that was once some mother’s kitchen window a year ago. (“Art project?” asked Zhenia – he did not realize how good his guess is). Bag up and tie off the rancid, drying heap, punch it into two duffels, layered over bottles of Ukrainian vodka I am smuggling out. Wash the mud off my boots, fill commuter mugs with coffee, buy sunflower seeds from the train station vendor. Click, click, click.
My encounter with the sunflower today – I’d rather think about it later, put it to bed, ignore it, unpack it on some distant day. But the flower insists. It will pester like a tired child, fester like an infected sliver.
I went with my guide Zhenia to kick around some rusty carcasses of destroyed russian tanks, sift through charred and twisted shrapnel and poke around abandoned junk in trenches dug by russians a year ago, when they were pummeling North Saltivka and Kharkiv from the hilly countryside.
Like a kid, giddy, filthy and forgetting to follow Zhenia’s footsteps to avoid a missed mine, unexploded ordinance or a booby trap. How is there time to booby trap things behind you if you’re running in retreat? Leaving mines behind is diabolical yet logical, but booby trapping must take extra time. I think about asking Zhenia but decide to Google it later instead. He’s visibly annoyed with my language skills.
Now, in my path, this dead sunflower. Between a young orchard and a ribbon of bullet riddled trees, some blown apart midriff, some fallen over, cauterized branches whispering what happened in the trenches beneath….. the flower stands.
A sentry. A specter, haunting these bleak hills. A gut punch. Unfinished business.
I’ve been in Ukraine for nearly two months, I have seen things I never imagined humans would see again, let alone do again. In my lifetime, in the year 2023, in a land that was a democracy a year ago, things like this could not possibly happen and then happened.
I never got good at explaining to my friends and family why I had to come here. Would they accept that I am compulsively drawn to these apocalyptic scenes of destruction, suffering and loss? I never turn away; I step closer, probe deeper, peer as far as I can into the black abyss of depravity and then scrape the bottom for more. What is the line between voyeur and witness? Intent? I hope.
I have felt an overwhelming duty to be a witness for the Ukrainian people, to observe and document the horrors of their existence, to convey, in some way that, “I see you…I see all this…we don’t have words for it yet, but know that I see what is happening to you, and it cannot, will not, stand…”
For weeks, I have been absorbing stories, picking through rubble, crawling up condemned apartment buildings, traveling artillery cratered roads, avoiding mines on either side, rifling through a madhouse jumble of humanitarian supplies, boxes of medicine, syringes, first aid kits, baby formula, body armor, diapers, flashlights, cans of food, radios, errant bottles of wine, gas canisters, water jugs, toilet paper, batteries…whatever is required at the next stop to help someone get by. Despite the somber purpose, it’s not a stretch to say that on most days, this exercise feels more like driving a fucking clown car, crammed with a finger-crushing, shoulder popping assortment of jack-in-a-box delights, klaxon a-honking.
Our dream team consists of an exhausted driver, a barely weaned, refugee camp pup, and this DayQuil incapacitated navigator. One notepad, two phones, three mobile map apps in as many languages, none of which indicate which bridge was recently blown up. Desperate to project confidence, I divine directions in Ukrainian from Valentina, a sainlty woman searching for us at military checkpoints. I don’t understand what she’s saying, I don’t understand road signs, I’m wrestling a baby wolf with worms wriggling out of his bunghole. I don’t know what I’m doing. It is the small things that get you in the end, a topic sufficiently covered by its own journal entry from Snihurivka.
The pace doesn’t allow for much introspection. Whatever feelings of existential angst or helplessness that percolate through the frenetic days are easy to suppress. Exhaustion, late-night conversations of the heart with people you’ve met 3 hours ago but realize they will be in your life forever. Camaraderie, potty-training a pup at 4:30am, embarrassing myself in three out of four languages every day, sometimes the errant bottle of wine… these faithful companions keep introspection at bay. Shall I congratulate myself on nearlyeight weeks here without some great unravelling? Cheer the well-meaning prognosticators of my mental demise? Should my lack of unraveling be celebrated? Feared? Dismissed? Professionally diagnosed? Should I cry over not crying?
Of course, all along I knew there was a warning buoy demarcating a depth beyond which the tide may rise and pull me under. Perhaps I have ignored the line getting frayed and taut. Hubris ignores persistent gnaws of friction, brazen nibbles of erosion, the haughty pull of the Moon, until the sudden, fatal ripping in the undertow. Fifty three years on this earth, I smirked with the self-satisfaction of mercury whose vial has yet to break. I have circled back to the blood-soaked fields of my home continent to be summoned by a flower.
A revenant. A reconning. A farewell from a timeless entity whose ancestors have grown in these fields for millennia.
A warning. A scream. A command. A plea. Here are no innocent bystanders. Do not let slip away what you see here. Hold it. Swallow it. Inhale it. Taste it. Remember it. Remember these fields, these tanks, these blackened, roofless homes, these shattered molten windows, singed curtains, burned toys, tattered lives. Remember the children without fathers, mothers without sons, fields without farmers.
Remember the women, girls and boys who were brutally violated here, a stone’s throw away. Remember the men and women who were tortured and executed in a neighbor’s cellar just over there, in this village. And the other village. And that other village. And the next one…
Remember that you stand, in this very spot, where sunflowers, armored vehicles and bodies of young soldiers were all blown apart. Flowers, metal and flesh atomized into immortal dust that settles at your feet. When you scrape the mud off your boots tonight, remember the blood that soaked the earth you trod on. Remember for those who may not be here to write the next chapter or the last one.
Remember these fields are our fields, they have always been our fields and they will always be our fields. We may perish but leave behind our seed in this fertile soil. Not negotiable. Inevitable. We will bloom here again.
And I know this defiant, ravaged, artillery-singed sunflower, rooted in its native soil, unapologetic, unyielding, unconquered…..stands for all the stories I’ve heard here. The Ukrainians have demanded nothing of me in all the weeks I have been here. Not money, not help. Some have asked that we don’t forget about them. This fierce flower is demanding.
And I am undone by a flower.