Andriy Lyubka

At Achilles’ grave


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War spares no one, but those who had struggled before the war broke out suffer the hardest blows from it.

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An acquaintance of mine, Ania, couldn’t evacuate from a small town near Kyiv because she had to take care of her sick mother. They both suffered from first the shellings and then the occupation by russian forces: Ania – because she couldn’t flee, and her mother – because she felt guilty that her daughter was putting her own life at risk for her sake. I cannot know exactly what their conversations were like, but I can tell for sure that both of them were right, and both acted out of love. It was love that wouldn’t let one abandon her ill mother, and it was love that would make the other beg her daughter to run for safety. 


I am not personally acquainted with Kateryna, but her plea for rare medicine reached me through a long chain of “friends of friends of friends”. Her child is epileptic, so the total collapse of logistics compounded the terrors of war as such, of having their house destroyed and the necessity to flee their hometown. The pharmacies are empty due to the supply crisis, and the poor mother is making rounds of calls from dawn till dusk – asking pharmacists, doctors and volunteers for help.


Another family was preparing their child for a complicated surgery, which now cannot be carried out; the consequences of the unfortunate delay will stay with this child for life. Yet another family evacuated their brother from Kyiv. The man is in a wheelchair. They could not arrange for special transportation, so they just carried him down the stairs in their hands and sat him in a car, which then took over two days to get from Kyiv to safety. Two days, during which a person with special needs couldn’t even use the restroom, let alone leave the car. 


At the railway station of Uzhhorod I see a grandma with two small grandkids. They had come by an evacuation train from Kharkiv. Cold, hungry and frightened, they cling to each other and go everywhere together, so as not to lose sight of each other. Today they will be housed in a huge gym, together with hundreds of other people sleeping on mattresses.


It’s warm, clean and safe there, but still the displaced people will not get a corner to themselves, where they could hide from the world and cry. Cry over a former life which will never come back, will never be the same as before the war.


War strips people of the right for privacy, and it is this privacy that makes one a personality. War wants to wash away individual stories, concrete names, so as to turn people into numbers on the statistics chart. Isn’t it symbolic that people who are driven out of their hometowns and offered a lot of humanitarian aid, including clothes, most often ask for the most personal, the most intimate items – socks and underwear? That is because this particular type of clothes doesn’t end up in the second-hand shops. People don’t share knickers and socks, and so they don’t make it to the humanitarian shipments. People fled their homes in such a rush it was impossible for them to pack even the most basic things, and now they’ve ended up somewhere where they cannot hide to even have a proper cry. Not only were they robbed of their private possessions, but of their privacy as well.


In downtown Uzhhorod I see a long queue in front of a restaurant which has now become a giant soup kitchen for refugees. People mostly stare at their own feet or at their phone screens – they are ashamed to raise their eyes. Most of them are middle class and once owned nice houses in Bucha and Irpin. Only a month ago they took low-cost flights to Europe on weekends, and now they have to queue for a free hot meal.


Among them are two young girls, Svitlana and Mirka, who lost almost nothing – seeing as they didn’t own much. Students in Kyiv, they rented an apartment together, enjoyed their carefree life and posted photos from nightclubs on Instagram. Like most young people nowadays, they weren’t saving up ‘for a rainy day’, simply because this generation of young Ukrainian Europeans never thought in terms of ‘a rainy day’, and their grandmas, who would hoard coins from their pensions under the pillow and buy flour by the bags, seemed to them a little bit funny only a month ago.


And now these girls are queing for food, have no money, and are in a city where it is almost impossible to find a job because of the refugee influx. The girls could easily cross the border and get asylum in a rich European country, but they prefer to sleep in a gym, get their ration from the good-doers and stay in Ukraine. And how can they leave with their boyfriends having picked up arms and now fighting at the frontlines?


War has hundreds of thousands of faces, and all of them are black with grief. Today’s Ukraine is a multitude of types of grief and pain, and each has its own personal story and bio. And even so, those people I’ve described earlier are lucky – lucky to be alive. Any grief or problems, humiliation or misery, is uncomparable with the fate of those struck by bombs while in their homes or in evacuation columns. 


Ukraine has now turned into a stage for Ancient Greek tragedies, the life stories of the commonest of Ukrainians can serve to highlight the deep philosophical subtleties of classical literature. That’s because everything here has been simplified to the very essence of things, to the deep-flowing and ever-reiterating storylines of Western civilization, to man’s humanistic nature. If you want to know about grief, pain, tragedy and loss – then welcome to Ukraine. If you want to know about love, sacrifice, friendship and good – then welcome to Ukraine, too.


The war in Ukraine is not a geopolitical conflict, it’s a battle for the very core of European civilization. It’s a war for the right for dignity, for the right to choose, for the equality and equal value of all people, and for the right for life – also equal for all. For the healthy and the sick. For the rich and the poor. One must admit that Ukraine is far from a perfect state. It’s a poor state, quality of life and standards here are lower than in Western Europe. It suffers from corruption and nepotism too. But doesn’t such a country have the right to exist, to make its own choice of political course and future?


It took European civilisation thousands of years to affirm the ideal of equality, respect for an individual and for a community, support for the utmost diversity. European civilization has been developing so that in the XXI century people are equal and have the right to dignity, so that the poor, as well as the rich, can get access to healthcare, so that absolutely everyone has the right to vote, so that a person in a wheelchair can live with dignity and fulfill his or her dreams.


This is exactly why both the EU and NATO are built on the premises of equality and respect for all: within these structures the smaller and poorer states, such as Slovenia or Lithuania, have the same vote as mighty Germany or the USA, and are not considered in any way worse. Russia, instead, has decided to forbid Ukraine its independence and uniqueness, has refused Ukrainians the right to even exist, claiming there is no such people at all.


So what’s going on is not merely a russian-Ukrainian war, it is a war for the very foundation of europeanness. On the 24th of February, the first day of the russian invasion, there was a battle for Zmiinyi Island which made it to the history books with the catchphrase by a Ukrainian warrior about the proper course for the russian military ship. It was then that this tiny island, almost a rock in the Black Sea, gained worldwide renown. But in the crazy flow of the news, the world didn’t have time to realize that it’s not just an island.


Zmiinyi is a rock opposite the estuary of the biggest river of Western Europe – the Danube. It’s called Zmiinyi – Snake Island because the river would bring snakes into the salty seawater, and they would find shelter on this small piece of land. This area was already considered special back in the times of Ancient Greece. Medea, when she was fleeing Colchis (territory of modern Georgia) and her pursuers, passed somewhere close to Zmiinyi. 


And it was Zmiinyi that the goddess Thetis lifted from the bottom of the sea to shelter the soul of her son Achilles – yes, the very hero of the Trojan War, whose heel became part of the ancient dictum. According to myths and legends, he was buried on this very island, and over his grave a temple was built, and the ruins of the temple persevered until our days and became building material for the naval lighthouse on Zmiinyi.


One of the first battles in the war for Ukraine took place on the grave of the Trojan War hero – the famous Achilles. As if to remind us that Ukraine, back in the times of Ancient Greece, was already a part of the Ecumene, the inhabited civilized world, and stood at the beginnings of Europe and Europeanness. And it is this civilized European world that Ukraine is defending today – with the lives of many heroes, whose bravery and courage is no less than that of Achilles.


The myth of a new Europe, a Europe which fights and battles for its values and its dignity, from now on will be built on Ukrainian examples. Glory to the heroes!


Original article was written for


Andriy Lyubka (1987) — Ukrainian poet, writer and essayist. He graduated from Mukachevo Military School, Ukrainian philology at Uzhgorod University and Balkan studies at the University of Warsaw.


The author of the books of poetry: «Eight Months of Schizophrenia» (Uzhgorod, 2007), «The Terrorism» (Lviv, 2009), «40 Dollars Plus the Tips» (Lviv, 2012); collection of short stories: «The Killer» (Lviv, 2012), collection of poems in German translation «Notaufname» (Austria, Innsbruck, 2012), book of essays «Sleeping with Women» (2014), novel «Karbid» (2015, short-listed to top-5 books of the year by BBC Ukraine; Polish translation was short-listed to the Central-European award Angelus in 2017; Slovenian translation was published in Ljubljana in 2019, English translation was published in London in 2020), collection of short stories «The Room for Sadness» (2016), book of essays «Saudade» (2017), novel «Your Gaze, Cio-Cio-san» (2018), travel essay about the Balkans «In search of barbarians» (2019) and novel «The Small Ukrainian Novel» (2020).


The winner of the prizes «Debut» (2007), «Kyiv Laurels» (2011), recently he received literary award of Kovalev Foundation (USA) and became a laureate of Shevelov Prize for the best book of essays of 2017 in Ukraine. He is the member of Ukrainian PEN. He is also the translator from Polish, Croatian, Serbian, English and the curator of two international poetry festivals.


Lives in Uzhgorod.