Notes on One War
Lina Romanukha, a curator and cultural worker from Kyiv, Ukraine, shares diary entries from her daily life during the early days of war – alongside original collages made at the end of the Maidan uprising in 2014.
Days have passed since the beginning of Russia’s open military invasion of Ukraine. However, the Russian-Ukrainian war itself has been going on since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and initiated military confrontations in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia, of course, has constantly denied participation in this war, but has regularly held so-called “training sessions” near Ukraine’s borders. Even still, most people were not prepared to imagine that, in 2022, the worst-case scenario would take place. Here are some notes I’ve kept since the middle of February, tracking events as they’ve unfolded on the ground.
Saturday, 12 February 2022
The United States is ready for any scenario in Ukraine. President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin held telephone talks that lasted more than an hour.
Ten Russian ships went to the Black Sea to “study” near the Crimean Peninsula.
The March of Unity against the Kremlin's aggression is taking place in Kyiv.
At noon I received a message from a friend from China: “Dear, are you in a safe spot? Please take care!! The world is crazy.” The last time she wrote to me, the coronavirus pandemic began shortly thereafter. This fragile curator associated me with the herald of the apocalypse.
Around 3 p.m., the leaders of the EU project for which I work write in a Telegram chat that they are being forced to evacuate from the country. These messages magically coincide with news that Ukrainian oligarchs are leaving the country on charter flights.
It seems that only now am I really starting to think about what to do if a war actually starts. Where to go? What to pack in my bags? What to do with my cat?
But the first wave of panic only lasts until the evening, because my friends and I have grand plans. First, I go to a concert by a strange female musical duo, in an apartment that has been converted into a BDSM space (with all the appropriate equipment). I am meeting an artist friend and her boyfriend. We are talking about rumours that the attack will begin on 16 February. A friend jokes: “Why can’t they wait until the eighteenth? Otherwise my birthday will be too fatalistic.” Her Lithuanian boyfriend was called from the embassy and urged to leave Ukraine.
Cinematic jump cut: I’m queuing to get into a nightclub. The line is so long, with so many young people, a lot of them foreigners. “Apparently they all came to have fun before the war. It’s like a farewell party.” I joke, not knowing how prophetic my words will be.
“What's in your bag?” we are asked at the door.
“This is his crown of thorns. But today he will be a fallen angel.” Small talk with biblical metaphors, describing my friend’s getup. What could be better on the doorstep of a techno club?
After a very thorough checking, much more meticulous than at the airport, we get inside the club, redress and – voila! – transform into a priest of the Egyptian temple in high-heeled Mango shoes, and a punk aristocrat in a frilly, diagonally-cropped leather jacket. First, we go to the bar, then investigate the dance floor, and finally hide in the darkroom, where we take ecstasy. About half an hour later, I start to feel like the heroine of a film co-directed by Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Thursday, 24 February 2022
Russia opens a military attack on Ukraine. A large-scale invasion along the entire length of the common border from Luhansk to Chernihiv, as well as from Belarus and occupied Crimea.
The Russian army fired artillery at Ukrainian border posts. At the same time, more than forty military infrastructure targets were struck, including from the air, in almost all regions of the country.
Martial law and general mobilisation have been declared in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin called it a “special operation in Donbas” and declared “demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine” as motives.
From the first day of the invasion, Russia has violated the rules of warfare and committed mass war crimes – destroying housing infrastructure, killing civilians, looting.
I wake to the sound of sirens and can’t understand what is happening. I switch my phone out of sleep mode and one of the first messages I receive reads: “Lina, wake up, the war has begun!” At the same time, I watch the news and see that the Russian army is bombing airports all over Ukraine – Vasylkiv, Lutsk, Ivano-Frankivsk. Feel panic. The phone is going wild with messages and calls. My brother tells me to leave Kyiv immediately.
I go outside to withdraw cash. There are huge queues everywhere, at ATMs, pharmacies, and food shops. The ATM only dispenses 200 UAH notes, one per session, so the tension in the queue increases every minute. On the way home, I find out where the nearest bomb shelter is. A man in a military uniform asks us to bring some chairs there. On the advice of our neighbour, we fill the bath with water and seal the windows with scotch tape so that the glass does not shatter from the waves of an explosion.
Despite the situation, I have three business calls. During a collective online meeting with foreign leadership, we talk about the situation in the country for only five minutes. The rest of the time is spent discussing the need to continue enrolling people in language courses and the ability to take work laptops home. As a gesture of support, they propose to let us take one month’s salary in advance, but inform us we will have to return the money later. It all looks absurd, like a Beckett play.
During the second siren signal, my neighbours and I go out – cats in carriers – to the bomb shelter. People around are calm and friendly. Everyone talks politely to each other, watches the news and periodically goes outside to smoke. The bunker has light and bottled water. However, the space is not suitable for overnight accommodation. I remember that I did not bring food for the cat, and I understand, now, what is still missing from my backpack. I need a yoga mat, snacks, a charged power bank, a lighter.
When we get the all-clear, I return home. I continue to work, writing emails to participants and speakers for a training laboratory for art critics and researchers, which was supposed to start on 1 March, but is postponed indefinitely. For the night, we go to stay with a friend who lives nearby, on the ground floor of a brick house. Four of us are sleeping in one bed. We wake up at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of an explosion. One of the girls goes to sleep in the corridor, on the mat, because she feels safer there, away from the windows: the rule of two walls during an explosion.
Friday, 25 February 2022
Russian troops are bombing civilians in Ukrainian cities (Kharkiv, Chernihiv). They fired on a kindergarten in Okhtyrka, in the Luhansk region. The crossing to Kherson was taken under Russian control.
Thirteen Ukrainian border guards are believed to be prisoners of war on Snake Island. When asked to surrender, they said “Go fuck the Russian ship”, and the phrase became a catchphrase of the opposition.
The Ukrainian government called on international partners to provide Ukraine with weapons and equipment.
The Ukrainian railway launches additional trains to evacuate people.
Russia has restricted access to Facebook. The UEFA Champions League final has been moved from St. Petersburg to Paris, and the Russian Formula One stage has been cancelled.
In the morning I find out that my ex-boyfriend, who I was with for seven years, left Kyiv without even writing me an SMS to ask how I or our cat were. It seems to shock me no less than the beginning of the war itself.
My friends and I go to the grocery store. There is no bread; payment is possible only in cash.
I’m on the phone all day. At 1 p.m., it already feels like it will be evening soon. I decide to go home to have a shower and repack my backpack. I regret this decision as soon as I go out onto the bigger street. Soldiers with weapons are standing at the crossroads, and it is not clear who they are – ours, or from the Russian army? I hear them speaking in Ukrainian and calm down. Then I notice that some of them have yellow ribbons on their sleeves – made, however, with tape.
The air alarm starts. I run. In the apartment, I am bombarded with messages: “Lina, how are you? Aren’t you alone? Hold on, please!”; “Are you safe, Lina? Better not going outside now.” Immediately after that, another message: “Kyiv has entered the defence phase. Now in some areas of the capital shots and explosions are heard. The Ukrainian military neutralises Russian sabotage groups. Due to the approach of active hostilities, the city authorities are urging Kyiv residents not to go out to the streets because it is dangerous. Stay indoors, at home or in shelters. You can only leave if, at the signal of the air alarm, you need to go to the shelter.”
A wave of panic rises with the worry that these may be the last minutes of my life. Feelings of absurdity and injustice towards everything that happens. I repack my backpack; my neighbours call at the same time and ask me to take some things. I drink valerian to calm down and take Spasmalgon to relieve my headaches, which are apparently caused by nervous tension.
I return to my friend’s house very quickly. Near the front door, I smoke a cigarette and catch a suspicious glance from grandmothers passing by.
In the evening, I make the decision to go from Kyiv to Western Ukraine to stay with relatives. I put on my backpack, take the carrier with the cat, and go to the subway. The streets are quiet. In the subway station, I can’t understand why the turnstile doesn’t light up, then I realise that the entrance is free because it is being used as a bomb shelter. Stations are crowded with people, mattresses, children, and pets. The subway car itself is half-empty, and I easily get to the train station.
The railway station is not lit, probably to make it less visible to aircrafts. Sounds of explosions ring out and their light glows on the walls. There are many people of different races and nationalities around. I’m waiting for the gate number on the board. I’m meeting a woman named Olga. She is also going in my direction but, unlike me, has a ticket. Standing on the platform, we share our memories, and over the course of our conversation, I realise that only two days of war have passed. There is a commotion and panic at the entrance to the train car. First, they’re letting in those who have tickets, then women with children, then lastly, men. I go inside and take a random side seat, which quickly becomes overcrowded with other people. Some go all the way in the vestibule; other families decide where to go while the train is running.
An hour later, the train stops in a field. The engine and lights are turned off. We stand still for two hours, listening to explosions somewhere nearby. I remember playing childhood games like this in the dark, but this time, the inability to stay still could cost us our lives.
Saturday, 26 February 2022
A rocket hit a building in a sleeping area of Kyiv. Airstrikes in the cities of Sumy, Poltava, and Mariupol.
Russia used their power as a permanent member of the Security Council to veto the UN resolution on aggression against Ukraine.
Journalists from Radio Liberty and Nova Gazeta were detained in Russia for covering the protests against the invasion of Ukraine.
In Kyiv, the curfew was extended from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m..
At 12:30, I get off the train in Rivne. Instead of the normal seven hours, the trip took fifteen. I stand, smoke, and understand that I finally want to roar, which I did not allow myself to do all these days. I go to my family’s home by trolleybus. Near the military enlistment office is a huge queue of men, signing up to join in the defence. I walk down the street and remember the times when I was a student coming back from Kyiv with my bags. Nothing seems to have changed.
Elevators do not work all over the city. I climb up to the ninth floor and think that this is my little version of the biblical Golgotha, and at home, my chamber paradise is waiting for me. My relatives are happy to meet me, and especially my cat, Shkoda. Mom sets the holiday table and takes a bottle of Piña Colada from the cabinet.
After lunch, I go to buy a litterbox and kitty litter from the pet store. At the entrance to the “zoo shop” sits a black adult cat with traces of cream on his muzzle. Inside the store, a young man standing in line behind me asks if I’m a local. I say that I was born in Rivne, but I have lived in Kyiv for many years. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to pay for things you want to buy.” I’m confused, but since I don’t have enough money – I’m in the red on my credit card, and it’s two days before payday – I agree. I expect that he will ask for a phone number, but he says that in the city centre, in the “People’s House”, I can get some more help. I thank him, leave, and want to cry again. After recovering, I ironically think that I should have washed my hair before going to the store.
Back at my parents’ house, I look through my clothes and bring two packages to the local volunteers’ centre. I asked if they need my help and immediately joined in sorting things: men’s, women’s, and children’s clothes. There were many volunteers, people constantly bringing clothes, food, and medicine. Another air raid alarm rings and we shelter in the basement of a bar, which, like all other things in the city, is closed because of the war. The siren gives me an opportunity to relax and check the messages on my phone.
In the evenings and at night, for security reasons, the city does not turn on the streetlights. The military asked citizens not to switch on the lights in the rooms facing the road. The curfew in the city lasts from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m.. I hear the constant phantom sounds of the siren. Children are born in bunkers.
LINA ROMANUKHA is a cultural manager and curator based in Kyiv, Ukraine.