According to the original – UJE

September 2022. Photo by Lis Bukreyeva. Source: @lisa_bukreyeva

By Svitlana Oslavska

Originally appeared @Krytyka

What we, journalists, and all war documentarians are doing today is a memorial. Russia failed to conceal its actions from the world and from history. Testimonies of these atrocities are preserved.

In the first month after Russia’s invasion, I didn’t write any reports. I had always been a freelance journalist. That means I could set my own work schedule, write as much or as little as I wished, or even take a pause and not work at all. Besides, I am a feature writer, not a news reporter. That’s why I wasn’t responsible for covering daily events. As a feature writer, I wrote longer, slower-paced pieces.

After February 24, this freedom played a cruel joke on me. Like many authors who didn’t deal with the “here and now,” it seemed to me that our work was no longer necessary. Survival became the main concern for Ukrainians, and telling stories that weren’t direct accounts of the invasion was seen as superfluous. Moreover, the opportunity to focus on longer narratives became an unattainable and even unnecessary privilege.

I lived far away from the conflict zones. However, I had family, friends, and acquaintances in eastern Ukraine. So, aside from keeping up with the news, my daily tasks included helping a relative evacuate from Sieverodonetsk, settling former neighbors in western Ukraine, and searching for honey for the bars made by volunteers for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the kitchen of a new restaurant in Lviv that hadn’t opened because the owner went to the front line. I also worked with foreign media as a fixer and translator.

A few weeks into the invasion, I came to the realization that I needed to resume my professional duties. I recently came across this realization in an interview with sociologist Natalia Otrishchenko: “When you spend years acquiring a good education, sensitivity, and professional perspective, you must professionally respond to circumstances.” Indeed, it was my duty to tell the stories of what people were experiencing in the war.

“Fearless grannies”

In the second half of spring, I traveled to liberated villages. Why villages? In the two years leading up to the full-scale invasion, I, along with my sister and colleague, photographer Anna Ilchenko, worked on a documentary project about the architecture of Ukrainian villages called the Old Khata Project. By February 24, we had gathered material for a photo book, but continuing the project in its previous “peaceful” format was impossible. Therefore, we reimagined it, adapting it to wartime conditions, and traveled to liberated regions to include the stories of people in those villages who had lived through the occupation.

In the first days of the invasion, people had the illusion that they could hide from the war in villages. While Russia failed to capture regional centers, the surrounding areas found themselves under occupation. And the villagers had stories to tell.

In Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kyiv regions, I saw bomb craters for the first time on sandy roads. There were destroyed tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other military vehicles. I heard firsthand accounts of houses destroyed by incoming shells, of women giving birth in basements, of families shot dead on the roads. Now, these memories are fading, but in the beginning, even a crater from a shell in a village near Kyiv seemed like a parallel, impossible reality, not to mention the executions.

It was a time when some regions began to recover after a month of occupation, while in others, it persisted. It was a time when it was difficult to keep track of everything that was happening: Bucha and Irpin, Yahidne, and Trostianets were making headlines in early April. The shelling at Kramatorsk station, where people waited for evacuation. Azovstal. The occupation was consolidating in Kharkiv, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions.

At the beginning, Ukrainians were in a state of shock, having lost the ground beneath their feet and their basic sense of security. But by May, I saw that trains were running, banks were operating, and supplies of grains and canned goods were still stocked in the pantry. There was no hunger, except perhaps for the one felt by the energy system.

I now recall that several-month period of fuel shortages at gas stations as a series of anecdotal situations. A kilometer-long line at a gas station on the Chernihiv-Kyiv highway. A person on a bicycle emerges from the bushes with jerrycans hanging from its handles and rear rack. They slowly and confidently pass the line, heading towards the gas station. You watch this tensely from your car, but there’s nothing you can do. Finally, it’s your turn—and, of course, the fuel has run out. Or there’s a series of gas stations where you can get gas with coupons. These coupons are sold by scalpers on OLX. Grabbing such a coupon, people drive around the city from gas station to gas station, and Telegram channels notify in real-time where gas has been delivered and what type it is. When you get to the right place the air raid siren sounds, and they’re closed.

Thanks to a grant from Europeans, the car we rented ran on gas. Gas was almost everywhere, and that’s how we started listening to stories from the occupation.

Kyiv region. In Granny Nina’s village of Kukhari, the shelling claimed the lives of her bees. Chernihiv region. A family with young children from Shestovytsia lived in a cellar, while a group of occupiers stayed in their house. The commander only washed his face in the house and always asked for a towel. Endless stories of looting: “They looted the whole corner,” “One of them put on my mom’s shoes and drove away,” and “They loaded the doghouse onto the car.” Upon returning to their homes, people found mementos left by the occupiers: a note “Petya Churkin, Rostov-on-Don,” a Buchenwald brochure from 1976, a water bottle with a label containing a prayer for the acceptance of prosphora.

Initially, I was afraid to touch upon the most horrifying aspects and distanced myself from the topic of death. But death, in these narratives, would inevitably surface.

Sumy region. In Boromlya, a man was kidnapped and taken to Russia. In Velykyi Sambir, a column passed through the village; the family was in the garden. The women and children hid behind haystacks, while the father hid behind a tree. He and a neighbor were shot. The son displays close-up photos of wounds on his phone. What’s it like to carry these pictures with you constantly?

The stories were unexpectedly life-affirming. Eighty-year-old Granny Motrya planted watermelons in the shell craters, “so the land wouldn’t go to waste.” Another woman would venture out under bombardment to tend to her roses:

I didn’t yet know what those drones were. It was warm, and I thought, “I’ll go open the roses.” And something was flying: “Z-Z-Z-Z-Z.” I stood there thinking, “Did flies or bees come out at this time?” I was such a fearless woman.

It was a period of wild heroism. In Pidlypne, Sumy region, a woman filmed a video that the entirety of Ukraine saw. Russians entered the village in tanks, but hundreds of villagers blocked the road and cursed at them. A woman’s voice off-screen shouts to a group of Russian soldiers on foot: “Glory to Ukraine!” In that village, the Russians never established control—the people didn’t allow it. They retreated and stood beyond the fields, trying to break through (“We need to get to Kyiv”—”I’ll show you Kyiv!”), but the villagers pruned century-old linden trees to block the road and chased the Russian armored personnel carriers through the village like mischievous cats.

Whenever they could, people made fun of the Russians. We captured these moments because we wanted to show Ukrainians’ ability—people’s ability in general—to endure the worst and move forward. Here’s a dialogue from a husband and wife about the Russians in a village in Mykolaiv region:

She: “We put my mom in the car, and I waved a white cloth from the window. We drove to the middle of the street, and they were ahead of us and started shooting. The man stepped out, his hands raised. ‘Give me your passport.’ But we had a Lviv registration. Well, I thought, we’re screwed.”

He: “They finally found Stepan Bandera.”

Back then, what struck me and seemed worth documenting was how people fled cities under shelling. A young mother from a village in the still-occupied Mykolaiv region recalled:

Our relative fixed an old Zhiguli. We covered the children with our bodies because we heard that cars were being shot at. We wrote on sheets in big letters (so one letter fit on one sheet): “ДІТИ”—meaning “CHILDREN.” Well, we actually wrote in their language: “ДЕТИ.”

I reread those interviews and see how our sensitivity changed. After Bucha, Mariupol, and Izium, artillery bombardments no longer leave an impression. The remnants of destroyed houses seen in person—a chimney, a sack of metal, and two buckets of bricks—don’t evoke much surprise either. The shelling of cities has become so mundane that we forget: this is not normal. It is also a crime, and it has its name and qualification in international law.

A basement in Yahidne

On the five hundred-somethingth day of the great war, few people still confuse war and war crimes. We have internalized and continue to reinforce the vocabulary of war. The phrase “war crime”—a crime committed during war against civilians—has become commonplace. “We document war crimes,” you say somewhere in a village near Kharkiv, and another fearless granny waves her hand dismissively as if to say, “We know, we’ve seen it all before.”

Indeed, after Russia’s full-scale invasion, for journalists and anyone versed in interviewing and writing, the best way to apply their skills became documenting the experiences of people who have lived through and are still enduring the war. Documenting means recording, capturing, and retelling. Your authorial voice isn’t necessary here. Giving a voice to the witnesses is crucial. Documentary formats have become the most appropriate. Writers I knew started penning reports and documenting war crimes.

The next step was to document in a way that these interviews could serve as the basis for legal cases. I joined the team of journalists “The Reckoning Project. Ukraine Testifies” to record witnesses of Russia’s war crimes precisely for this purpose: to prepare these testimonies for the moment of accountability, settling scores (hence the term “reckoning”). Regardless of how the legal proceedings unfold or when they occur, we must be prepared. That means having specific witnesses who will testify about what the Russians did. Although it seems obvious—there are so many video proofs of Russian atrocities—the most credible testimony still comes from a person in an international court. At least that’s what the lawyers from “The Reckoning Project” say, who have worked on cases against Syrian war criminals in European courts.

Some investigative journalists focused on Mariupol, others on Luhansk, and some on the occupation of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant. They recorded testimonies of missile strikes: Chernihiv, Kramatorsk, and Kremenchuk. Tortures, deportations, and executions. For several months, I worked on the topic of Yahidne in Chernihiv region, where the Russians imprisoned 368 people—almost the entire village—in the basement of a local school for the entire month it was under occupation. They established their headquarters in the school, using the civilians below as human shields.

Ten people died from suffocation, horrendous living conditions, and lack of medical assistance. They were forced to live in an overcrowded dark basement without ventilation. Half a square meter—that’s the space for one person (“like this chair,”—the prosecutor working on the Yahidne case explained vividly). If you wanted to sleep, you did it sitting upright; if you couldn’t, you didn’t sleep. Over three hundred people were crammed into five basement rooms and a corridor. They sat on whatever they could find. They cooked food on a fire they built at the exit from the basement. They cooked with products they found in the school cafeteria and managed to bring from home. The Russians provided them with nothing necessary for life. During the day, they were allowed to go out to the outdoor school toilet, but at night, there were buckets that people somehow managed to find. In the largest room, there were three buckets for the entire night for about a hundred and fifty people. Not everyone had the strength even to reach the bucket. Before death, people went mad and started talking to long-deceased relatives.

When a person died in the evening, the Russians did not allow the body to be taken out of the basement until morning. The body remained next to the living, next to the children—the youngest of whom was only a few months old—until morning. They were not allowed to bury the dead for many days. When they finally allowed it, men managed to dig two graves for five people. They only had two hours to do everything. The Russians warned them if they didn’t return in time, they’d start shooting people from the basement. The deceased were properly buried only after the village was liberated.

This brief description captures only certain details of the hell that the Russian occupying forces created for the residents of Yahidne. Yet, these details are enough to say this torture, this inhumane treatment of civilians led to deaths and significantly affected people’s mental and physical health.

In the first weeks, the people in the basement were in shock. Life had not prepared them for this, and although Russian tanks in the village reminded some of World War II films, people couldn’t imagine they would find themselves in such a reality. They were cut off from the news, and in the initial weeks, this ignorance morally sustained them. Kept in the basement, they didn’t believe the Russians’ words that Kyiv and Chernihiv had already been captured; they didn’t believe in the worst. However, sometime around the end of March, a wounded man was brought to the basement. He was a man from the outside world, and he knew the news. He told them what had happened in Ukraine since the beginning of the month. He talked about Mariupol and the Drama Theater. And then, as one woman from the basement said, she became certain they wouldn’t come out of there alive. Another woman marked the days on the wall with a piece of charcoal. Valentyna explained why she was doing this:

We thought we wouldn’t survive, that they would bury us here. Someone would come after all this and see how many days we’d been sitting there—how long we endured.

The third woman, Olha, kept a diary. Sometimes she would write by the light of a flashlight, and sometimes she would do it in the dark. In the darkness, she used her finger to measure the width of the line to avoid falling on top of each other. Now, the pictures of this calendar and the photo Olha took in the basement right after the Russians left have spread worldwide. These women and other residents of Yahidne survived and are now testifying to journalists, human rights activists, and investigators. They patiently give one interview after another. There’s also Valeriy, who became the “basement elder.” The Russians appointed him as a liaison between them and the people, and at the same time responsible for all civilians. Svitlana overheard a conversation between a cancer patient and a Russian officer who controlled the basement: the patient asked to go home for medicine, and the sadistic soldier advised him to go hang himself in the woods. Lilia asked a Tuvan soldier on the first day they entered the village: “Are you going to kill us?” The answer was yes. Dmytro, one of the “burial brigade” members, took the dead to the cemetery in a construction wheelbarrow. Tamara lived next to the school before her house burned down and brought apples to the basement when she was allowed to go home for food.

Hundreds of people survived inhuman conditions but at the same time retained their humanity. This is evident in the pain with which they recall the wounded cows left in the fields and the joy with which they remember the animals that returned home a few weeks after Yahidne was liberated: “I went out and saw my Rudyi sitting under a cherry tree!” They also retained the hope and strength to live on, otherwise, why would they have planted beds just a few weeks after the Russians left?

When the Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated Yahidne, they found people shot in their homes, both locals and strangers. Fresh graves were discovered in the forest. Yahidne is a place of one horror, composed of many individual crimes. The justice system cannot deal with a single chaotic, complex horror; it must break it down into specific crimes. The Chernihiv prosecutor’s office has already handed down sentences to individual soldiers. These sentences are in absentia, as none of them were captured. Some of them died. Nevertheless, the reckoning for Yahidne demands the condemnation of those who gave the order to hold people in the basement and those who directly kept them there, along with those who prevented the doors from being opened when people inside were pounding and screaming, “The child is suffocating!” and those who recorded on their phones mothers grabbing moldy bread from a cart.

The right words

How do documentation and regular journalistic interviews differ? The former is more detailed: it focuses on the details of the crime and the perpetrator. What was the uniform like, the badges, the name, the appearance (the Russians hid their identities, wore balaclavas, hence the emphasis on nicknames, etc.)? Another difference is that these interviews serve a different purpose—they are meant to form the basis for legal cases. But the main distinction lies in the approach to the conversation.

First and foremost, you learn to use the right words. Not victims, but survivors—or those who endured. You pay attention to the context of the conversation. You need to give the person control over the situation and foster a sense of predictability because in a traumatic situation, like when they were tortured, they didn’t have that. Allow them to cry, but don’t console them, don’t pretend to be a friend, and, God forbid, don’t try to cheer them up. Don’t steer the conversation back into their emotional experiences, but operate in the cognitive realm: instead of asking, “What did you feel during that?” you inquire, “If we were to revisit that situation, how would you describe what you felt?”

And I always remind myself that you cannot reduce a person to the worst experience they’ve been through, no matter how horrific it might be, an event they have witnessed. By listening and asking questions, you remember that you are speaking with a person, not just a crime witness.

Of course, there are doubts. Do I have the right to question this person now? You don’t always know which question or tone to start the conversation with someone who has lost loved ones. But psychotherapists say that sharing one’s own story can actually help the victim. “We help put together the puzzle pieces and archive this experience by telling it,” said psychotherapist Oleh Romanchuk during a training session for documentary journalists. I imagine it this way: the lived experience can be a chaotic heap of darkness within a person, but by narrating it, they structure this experience and can look at it from the side and understand later on that it’s all behind them, it’s in the past.

Often, during interviews, people arrive at a broader understanding of their experience, at those glimmers of hope they held onto during the darkest times. For example, a young man from Kharkiv, who was abducted from his home by the Russians and kept in a tight cell for seventy-three days, never learning the reason for his detention, concluded his story like this:

When they took us to the toilet, there was a crack in the fence, and I constantly looked at the garden. There was a tiny bush. It grew enormous during my two-and-a-half-month captivity, taller than the fence. Swallows flew around, you stood and watched with such joy. But for you, that joy was fleeting, gone in a moment.

The ability to listen to people’s stories and relay them without adding my voice became a lifeline for me as well. Before the invasion, I was preparing a book for publication about Sieverodonetsk. Besides the introduction, I managed to add only a single monologue after the invasion. It’s the story of a woman who left and dreams of returning to Ukraine. It’s an edited narrative but still a first-person account without my voice.

“Memorial forever”

Our present times are often referred to as “the most documented war.” By the second year of the great war, we found ourselves in a phase that demanded not just straightforward documentation but also interpretation. While documentation retains its significance, journalistic texts require an emphasis on specific aspects. Journalists must select topics, especially for an international audience. The dilemma arises: What to highlight? What to convey?

Ukrainian journalists publish materials in foreign media, while journalists from global outlets work in Ukraine. Therefore, people worldwide know what is happening here, they know what Russia is doing. Perhaps publications about Russian crimes prevent Russia from committing even more of them, forcing them to be more cautious in their actions at times. Representatives of the International Criminal Court were in Ukraine, including in the basement of the Yahidne school. This means there is hope: the investigation into the crimes in Yahidne will not stop at the judgments being passed in absentia by Ukrainian courts.

In March 2023, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin and the Russian Children’s Rights Ombudsman, Maria Lvova-Belova, for deporting Ukrainian children to Russia. This is a specific result that all documentary initiatives have worked for—from very small ones, like the Old Khata project, to larger ones, like The Reckoning Project and major human rights organizations.

But by July 2023, the prosecutor’s office had documented over eighty thousand Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Who, how, and when will they be processed? Much will be recorded only for history and memory. Recorded testimonies are already the basis for artistic works. Recently, I spoke with a British documentary theater working on a play based on the testimonies gathered by journalists, because today, just news alone is not enough to maintain interest in Russia’s villainy in Ukraine.

I often go to the mountains. Trekking in the Carpathians is quite relaxing for the mind, allowing me to return to work with a fresh perspective. During these trips, I enjoy examining human traces—not clearings, but small shrines and roadside crosses adorned with flowers. Recently, in the mountains above Mykulychyn, I stumbled upon a metal crucifix. There was an aluminum Jesus, an iron plaque, and the inscription “A memorial forever” from the families of so-and-so, 1987.

What we, journalists, and all war documentarians are doing today is a memorial. Russia failed to conceal its actions from the world and from history. Testimonies of these atrocities are preserved. Forever—perhaps that’s too optimistic. But at least for years. It gives strength to keep working, although sometimes, I just want to lose my smartphone in the mountains.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan.

The “War Is… Ukrainian Writers on Living Through Catastrophe” essay project is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization.

Svitlana Oslavska
Journalist, critic
Culturologist, journalist. Author of reports from Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, Greece, Iran, Turkey. Editor of the bibliography department of Krytyka magazine. In 2019, the Choven publishing house published her book of reports from Turkey titled The Crescent, the Cross, and the Peacock. Travels to Mesopotamia.

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