On the train from Berlin to Przemysl, a bad joke comes to mind for a second: “It looks like an evacuation train.” There are people everywhere – no seats, not a piece of ground is free, neither in the carriages nor in between. This is due to the train’s route: it stops every half hour and travels across Poland. In the last few hours, however, only a third of the passengers remain, most of them Ukrainians – homecomers, visitors who miss their homeland too much to stay away from the war-torn country.
I meet a family of two from Dniprorudne (a small town near the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant currently occupied by the Russians), mother and daughter. They are on their way back from Zielona Góra, the older son works there. “You know, we didn’t buy any souvenirs or chocolate,” says the mother. “But a lot of tomato paste. You can’t find that in Kyiv.” I nod. Most of the tomato paste came from Cherson, now the city is occupied by Russians.
The daughter tells that she left her beautiful winter clothes in Dniprorunde. The family fled the occupied territories at the end of May. They had to wait outside for three days – in their car, on the street, in the sun in over 30 degrees. This type of evacuation often works like this: You wait as long as the Russian soldiers like.
“We will not buy any new winter clothes,” says the mother. “I don’t think we need to stay in Kyiv that long.” When you arrive in today’s Ukraine, the first thing you need to do is to install the Air Alarm app on your phone. It’s easy to use: just select one of the 24 regions, set the alarm sound level and hope it doesn’t catch you in the shower. However, the shower is not the only inconvenient place where there is a daily chance of being killed by a Russian missile.
Life in the bunker
At four o’clock in the morning I open my eyes in the pitch-dark room of an 18th-century building in Lviv. The air alert went off on my phone. I’m not afraid, I tell myself. Yesterday I was smart and careful: clothes, documents and money are right next to my bed. It only takes me a minute to get changed and I’m good to go.
Then the speakers on the town hall tower suddenly turn on. An airborne alarm siren – that’s a long high-pitched sound that goes on and on, then falls off, then rises again. “Attention citizens, there is a risk of missile attack, go to the nearest shelter immediately. Help those who are having difficulty moving around on their own. Don’t ignore this alarm, our enemy is insidious. Attention citizens…” Ok, I understand you. I take the backpack, the bottle with the water, my coat. I close the door.
I sit down between two walls at the entrance of the building. My logic is simple: so thick and many walls will protect me from the missile debris. And if the missile hits the building itself… well, that’s it. I open the air alerts map. All of Ukraine is bright red – there is a possibility of a missile attack on all regions. Millions of people are awake and looking at the same map. I’m waiting.
“What happened in Vinnytsia? My God…” A new cafe on Drukarska Street in Lviv. I was planning to have a nice Instagram friendly breakfast here with my mom; she just arrived from Zaporizhia. But the air alert started at ten o’clock and lasted two hours, so it’s more like… lunchtime now? I open the Telegram channel on my mobile phone and see exactly what I didn’t want to see – a woman’s torn foot next to a stroller with a dead girl in it.
Images of dead Ukrainians on social media
Every now and then something like this happens. I wake up, open the news and see the video of a Russian castrating a Ukrainian soldier. The charred corpses of captured Azov regiment soldiers burned by a Russian missile at the Olenivka camp. The new body of a Ukrainian civilian – hands tied behind his back, a clear sign of torture. My atheism ended on February 24th, so I believe in God – or rather, God’s punishment for those who deserve it. I just wonder how soon it will come.
The Armenian Cathedral is my favorite place in Lviv. No electric lights inside, just a few rays of sunshine through the windows. On the walls are frescoes created by the Polish painter Jan Henryk de Rosen in the 1920s. Saint Christopher, but without a dog’s head, carries Christ across the river. Angry angels holding the head and body (separated) of John the Baptist. Every time I look at this fresco, I wonder why exactly the angels are so angry. Probably because they know what will happen later.
All in all, no wonder I decided to rent an apartment next door: the house is in the courtyard of the cathedral. One evening a street musician plays his guitar under my window. Just one song all the time – the most unexpected and ridiculous for the circumstances: “Imagine”.
There is no audience here, the curfew starts at 11pm; but also no police or territorial defense. Only I – my mother has already returned to Zaporizhia – and the statues of the cathedral, some of which have been carefully wrapped in cloth, are listening. I look at them and think: How is this material supposed to protect the stone saints and angels from being shattered? Then I understand that the cloth should only serve to hold the fragments together.
And so it goes with “Imagine,” which hasn’t aged well at all. The quiet city with its curfew, a universal irony. At around 11:35 p.m. the song ends; the musician goes, the cathedral stays. At five o’clock the air alert will go off again. Millions of Ukrainians will wake up and be told to go to the shelter immediately. Imagine.
Anastasiia Kosodii is a playwright and director of the Theater of Playwrights in Kyiv. She currently lives in Berlin. Nadine Lange translated her text from English.