By Yaroslava Tymoshchuk

On a September afternoon in Kramatorsk, Donetsk region, I take a selfie. My sunglasses reflect the railway station. I still have a few hours before my train goes to Kyiv, and I want to capture the moment. It was 2021, quite recently — given that Ukrainians perceive the time after February 24 as a continuous endless day.

After the rocket attack on this station, with 50 dead and a hundred wounded, I tend to think that old metaphors no longer work.

I am returning from a media training in nearby Sviatohirsk, from a secluded hotel in a pine forest with a swimming pool. I’m in a good working mood, which comes when you talk to colleagues, and new projects and ideas are born from your conversations. Participants are public activists of the Donetsk region, and I share my expertise on how to write engaging texts, how to take care of metaphors and plot twists, and how to weave intrigue and evoke emotions. Six months later, after the rocket attack on this station, with 50 dead and a hundred wounded, I tend to think that old metaphors no longer work. The language in which we document war histories is gradually changing.

I talk to people who have suffered from the war differently for my reports. Someone’s house burned down, a woman saw her husband’s legs torn off, someone was shot four times by Russians but survived, someone has survived in the basement, someone exhumed the bodies of relatives, and someone could not even find them. At first, I was worried when I was going on such business trips: my house was not bombed, I did not live under the occupation, and none of my relatives were killed in front of my eyes. Some of my colleagues feel embarrassed that they are wearing protective gear while communicating with people standing on the ruins of their homes, and the clothes they are wearing are the only clothes they have left.

Some of my colleagues feel embarrassed that they are wearing protective gear while communicating with people standing on the ruins of their homes, and the clothes they are wearing are the only clothes they have left.

In the documentary novel about the rape of Bosnian women by Serbian soldiers during the Yugoslav war in the 1990s, Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic writes of her heroine: ‘Her attempts to talk about the violence in the camps later resembled a conversation with a deaf person who doesn’t have a hearing aid.’ I was also worried it not be such a conversation.

However, in my experience, people in the villages and towns recently liberated from the Russian occupation are now extremely willing to talk. It seems they have never been in such easy contact with journalists before. Some believe that their testimony will change the situation, some find it a little easier after the conversation, and some hope for help.

People in the villages and towns recently liberated from the Russian occupation are now extremely willing to talk. Some believe that their testimony will change the situation, some find it a little easier after the conversation, and some hope for help.

A woman from a liberated village in the Kyiv region, when we knocked on the ruins of her house (the interiors were burned, only the walls remained after the shelling, not even all of them), happily said: ‘Сome in, record everything here for all to see.’

She believed that her testimony would help restore justice. Her neighbor was sitting on a bench with fellow villagers, bent over as if from the burden of her experience. At first, she waved her hands and, through tears, said: ‘No, no, I will not talk. I am scared they will come again.’ She was afraid but still wanted to talk, so we agreed that her story would be anonymous. A tank was standing next to her house, another one shot at her farm — destroyed a barn. Her chickens and a cow were burned alive in it.

All the words I know do not seem strong enough to describe what I have seen and heard. I no longer need to choose metaphors. Witnesses of tragedies, probably without knowing it, now write the most genuine, most terrible literature. Reality itself chooses the most accurate metaphors.

Each story is similar and unique at the same time. There are destruction, devastation, and tears in each one of them. Sometimes faith breaks through; sometimes it doesn’t. All the words I know do not seem strong enough to describe what I have seen and heard. I look at the bodies taken out of mass graves to be taken to the morgue and then finally buried normally. I look into the eyes of people who do not know where their relatives are after the occupation. I no longer need to choose metaphors, look for plot twists, scatter hooks on the text to hold the reader’s attention, specifically looking for some drama.

Witnesses of tragedies, probably without knowing it, now write the most genuine, most terrible literature. A woman who spent three weeks in a basement in Chernihiv and now stands in line for several days in Poland for social allowances says: ‘We have survived a hell uncomparable to anything. This queue is paradise: you are being fed, can walk while waiting, and everyone around is kind. Hell is a queue for bread, in which they shoot at you.’ 

Reality itself chooses the most accurate metaphors, creating short and piercing sentences, like shots: ‘А dog brought a bone to the yard — probably a human one.’ ‘They did not take embroidered shirts with them, [Russians] could shoot at them.’ It is enough to listen and record; the form is now more secondary than ever.

The details seem eerie: a red manicure on the nails of a mayor — with an ornament on the ring finger — just like the woman who died in Bucha. The mayor recounts how her village spent more than a month under occupation, how her daughter crawled out of the house on fire, and how she ended up homeless. She can even smile when she tells all this. My colleague says: ‘They are still lucky here.’ Suppose we may say so about people who lived in the occupation for more than a month. Each such story is scary even without a particular structure, and I do not want it to be less important because it contains fewer victims.

These days we are more than journalists. Many of my colleagues joined the territorial defense or joined the Armed Forces. Between texts and business trips, we look for where to buy bulletproof vests and helmets, transfer military uniforms by train, raise money for cars for the Armed Forces or look for shelter for abandoned animals.

These days we are more than journalists. Documenting human stories in the war is now one of the journalist’s main tasks.

The volunteering results are quick and easy to track: medicines delivered to the liberated territories provide immediate relief. Dozens of walkie-talkies connect combat units. The impact of journalism is more abstract and time-consuming. But documenting human stories in the war is now one of the journalist’s main tasks. First, media coverage of the war could be evidence in international courts. Secondly, such stories give the war a human dimension, allow us to see everything through the eyes of eyewitnesses, and create empathy.

Each such story prevents human casualties from becoming statistics.

The author is a Ukrainian journalist/reporter and editor.

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