My name is Jane. I am a photographer from Ukraine. The war caught up with me when I was in my village, Cherkas’kiy Tyshky, with my grandfather and grandmother. We were occupied instantly on February 24, 2022, at 6 a.m.
15 kilometers is the distance that separated our village, which is under occupation by Russian forces, and Kharkiv, which is held by Ukrainian troops.
My village, which is between Kharkiv and the Russian border, is still under occupation. I managed to escape, but I spent twenty days there, which I will describe in this weekly column.
My war was absurd. At every turn, I bumped into absurdity. When I found a boiled egg in the cellar, I thought about whether it had gone spoiled or not. I ate it and was guessing whether I was going to die of it or by bomb. Absurdity.
There was a Russian soldier who had been constantly begging me to give him a mobile phone, so he could call his relatives because he did not have a connection. They were always playing the pity card, while you would like to get some sympathy as well, but could only feel anger and rage towards them. And they were asking for pity, telling us that they had come for studies and exercises, that they did not know, that they were only 18 when the government sent them as cannon fodder. And then they went to shell Kharkiv. Absurd.
“Good day!” and “Everything is going to be alright”, they said. That “alright” sounded like a horse storm, as if a blade went into my ear, and slowly cut through my head, neck and chest. It would crawl down further and further, till I was cut apart in two with that “alright”. Absurd.
The 15 kilometers that were between us and Kharkiv felt like millions of light-years. It was inaccessible. In peaceful times, 15 kilometers meant 10 minutes. During the war, it became an eternity that divided us from freedom. We knew that the Ukrainian army was on the circuitous road. But we could reach it only with our thoughts; we could fly there only in our dreams. If you went there or drove there, you would be shot down. We were in a cage on our own land. Absurd.
No one wanted to go to Russia, but we had no other choice. The thought of it was disgusting, but there was no other way out. With each day, the intensity of the shelling rose. Everyone was afraid to go to Russia, because you could have been arrested or pushed back. The thought of living there was unbearable and revolting. It would be better to die than to live without hope and freedom. It would be better to die than to hide your identity while walking among enemies. Not only that, but it was terrifying to die while still living. Absurdity.
On the 20th day, the horrible shelling had started. There was no other way except to leave. When we went to the street, each second house was on fire. We were next. There were no strengths to play for time. We tied white strips on the car and drove to Belgorod.
We were stopped at a blockhouse. Soldiers quickly went through our stuff and documents, and then let us go.
“Bon voyage and good luck”, they said at each blockhouse.
And then they bombed Kharkiv.
Maybe we are from different planets, where the word “luck” means different things? Perhaps, for them, it means war, grief and death?
“Bon voyage”, they said at another blockhouse. The closer we were to Belgorod, the more sincere this phrase sounded. Meanwhile, there were piles of stolen goods at each of them. Treadmills, TVs, toasters, computers—there were so many things. At least Russian soldiers live in wealth before they die.
“Bon voyage and good luck”. Absurd.