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Words and Bullets
Yevheniya Podobna: Russia has clearly shown that it has its mind set on our total destruction22.05.2023
Yevheniya Podobna, a journalist, war correspondent, media trainer and lecturer, has been working on the topic of war since 2014. At first, she covered the events of the ATO and JFO on Channel 5. Later, she decided to show the war through the memories of female soldiers. That’s how the book Girls Cutting Their Locks, which was awarded the Shevchenko Prize in 2020, came to life. From the first days of the full-scale invasion, Yevheniya began documenting eyewitness testimonies and published them in two books: Fierce February 2022 (co-authored with Daria Bura) and Cities of the Living, Cities of the Dead. She considers it her main task to continue telling the story of the war through the prism of human stories.
As a part of the special project Words and Bullets, implemented by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, we talked to Yevheniya about whether we could have prepared better for this stage of the war, why it is important to record not only dry statistics but also human emotions, whether we will be able to preserve the true memory of everything that is happening now, and why we should set ourselves up for a long distance, even if the war is over.
– You spent a lot of time in Donbas and saw the war up close long before Feb. 24. You were convinced that the great war was inevitable, prepared for it and urged others to be ready. Was there anything about the full-scale invasion that came as a surprise to you? What struck you in particular?
– In fact, it is impossible to be prepared for war. Until the very last moment, I wanted to believe that Russia would be smart enough not to do it and that they were just showing off. Of course, there was no hope that their humanity would wake up or that they would suddenly realize that attacking another country and killing its people is unacceptable. But I thought that someone among them realized that by starting a full-scale war, they were signing their own death verdict.
I expected there to be air strikes, but I didn’t expect permanent missile attacks, and in such numbers across the country. I thought that the invasion would begin closer to mid-March and that a large-scale offensive would begin in Donbas. I assumed that they might try to attack Sumy, Kharkiv, Kherson, and possibly Chernihiv regions.
photo courtesy of Yevheniya Podobna
I thought that the accumulation of the troops on the border with Belarus was a distraction to draw some of our troops from the East to the northern border. But the fact that Belarus did let the Russian convoys through and became a springboard for the offensive came as a shock to me. I thought it was almost impossible to occupy the Chornobyl zone, because there are dense forests, marshlands, rivers and only a few roads on the border with Belarus.
After all, I could not imagine that I would see the first battle from the window of my house (in Irpin) on the first day of the full-scale invasion. And that even my street would very quickly become a battlefield and fall under occupation.
– Do you think that we, as a country and individually, could have prepared better for this stage of the war?
– Of course we could have. The fact that despite all the warnings from Western intelligence, we were so unprepared is a crime. A lot could have been done in a few months (before the invasion): checking and arranging shelters, developing instructions and action plans for various institutions (of course, there were those who did this, but they were few), developing evacuation plans for various cities, at least those along the border.
Although, to tell the truth, we should have started preparing for this from the very beginning of the war – in 2014. After all, when you have a crazy neighbor, you should put up a high fence and get a pitbull before he comes running to you with an axe. Back in 2015, we should have started forming the TDF (Territorial Defense Forces): when we had more or less recovered from the beginning of the war and when, after the several waves of demobilization, we had enough people with combat experience in absolutely every region. I would like to say a lot about the army, but it’s not the right time now, and I will definitely do it after the victory. Long ago, we could have taught our children in health and safety classes real things that could save their lives and health, introduced adequate medical lessons, and so on.
In general, we had two issues. The first was that for years many people preferred not to see what was happening in Donbas and therefore sincerely did not believe that this was possible in the whole Ukraine. The second was that many people did not realize that we are actually adults. That our lives depend primarily on us and we are responsible for saving ourselves and our families. Some of my friends laughed and said I was paranoid, when since 2014 I have always had a supply of cereals, several carboys of water, matches, candles, a flashlight, and a supply of medicines at home. In early December, before the invasion, I bought a new tourniquet, a bandage, a hemostatic, a thermo-blanket, and a few days before Feb. 24, I carried it all with me in my purse.
I remember how a few days before the full-scale invasion, I withdrew cash and bought some more food, water, and pet food. The cashier looked at it all and joked that it looked like I was preparing for the war. “That’s exactly what I’m doing. And I advise you to do the same,” I replied. Two weeks later, the Russians would smash this supermarket, and a month later, they would almost raze the entire street to the ground.
I remember how Facebook reacted aggressively to posts about grab-and-go bags and the basic information for survival. I was among those who wrote a post about a grab-and-go bag and some obvious things about preparation. But I faced such a wave of hate, mockery, up to accusations of being “a paid Kremlin agent, who was deliberately spreading panic.” Some of my neighbors reacted in the same way to my suggestion to open the basement and bring down basic things: put a potbelly stove, benches, and firewood. They looked at me like I was an idiot. Some people even called me that. Moreover, even when I was arranging the basement with three of my neighbors on Feb. 24, many people did not take it seriously. Later, many people would die while trying to get water, food or firewood. Of course, it’s impossible to predict everything, but it was possible to prepare in a basic way and thus minimize the risks.
photo courtesy of Dirk Skiba
– In your opinion, what events of the first year of the great war were significant? What do you consider to be a symbol of our current struggle?
– The first hours and days of the great war were already turning points, when we managed to hold up the “second army of the world”. The liberation of the Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson regions gave us a lot of optimism and faith in our strength. Every victory – big or small – is another turning point.
There are many symbols of the struggle for me, and they are always people. The man who was stopping the tank in Chernihiv region, the black hands and red eyes of a soldier in a trench, the old ladies running towards our military with flowers cut in their garden in Kherson region.
– What are your most valuable personal memories of this time?
– First of all, it is the time spent with my family, friends and relatives. Meetings with my beloved. He is at war, we rarely see each other, but every minute with him is worth its weight in gold. The liberation of Irpin. I remember very well the moment when the city was liberated a few days before and I came to my wrecked house (our entire neighborhood was literally destroyed). This feeling that even in such a state, your house is liberated and Russian hooves are no longer walking here, is incredible.
People, complete strangers or barely acquaintances, who offered to stay with them for a while. It was a pleasant shock for me, and I will never forget it. Meetings and conversations with those who are no longer with us. I try to preserve every memory of them, as if it will help to keep them here, in the world of the living. Hugs with strangers after the de-occupation or with those who came back from captivity. Because now joy and pain are shared by all. Communication with the military. I am very proud to know many of them personally, because our army is the best thing that has happened to our country in my lifetime. The kitten we once took from the front line, which still lives with me. Now it is a very cool kitty that senses my mood well: when I feel bad, she comes and starts to rub against me. It was easier to sit through the shelling with her.
And, of course, perhaps the most memorable moment: when the assault on Hostomel began on the first day of the full-scale war not far from me, the ground slipped under my feet. But when I saw the first downed Russian helicopter, which went up in smoke, I came to my senses, and this was a turning point for me personally. Since then, I really wanted to find the National Guard soldier who shot down that helicopter and thank him for restoring my faith. I managed to do it a year and 10 days later. He is alive, his name is Serhiy, and he is still defending us.
photo courtesy of Yevheniya Podobna
– After Feb. 24, you wrote and published two books: Fierce February 2022 and Cities of the Living, Cities of the Dead. Tell us how they came about.
– It was my reaction to what was happening. When you do what you know and love and devote a lot of time to it, you don’t have time to sit down to cry and feel sorry for yourself. Work disciplines you and brings you to your senses.
There came the moment when it was no longer possible to stay in Irpin and I had to leave. In the car, I cried a lot, saying that I was running away, abandoning my city and my home. My mom was reassuring me: “Someday you’ll write a book about everything that happened here. A true book.” This war began with lies, including the falsification of history. Therefore, it was very important for me to preserve the truth about everything that happened so that no-one could rewrite our history later. Also, when I saw that almost the first thing the Russians did, for example, after the seizure of Volnovakha, was to throw away and destroy books, I realized that I had to write and publish them with a triple effort. Russians fear the truth as the devil fears the holy water. At least that is worth working for.
– These books, like the previous one, Girls Cutting Their Locks, are testimonies, memories, and stories of individuals. Why is this format of storytelling important to you?
– I am really afraid of this war becoming faceless. I am afraid that it might be reduced to numbers only, because numbers will never be true, exhaustive and final. Let’s be frank: we will never know the exact number of people who died in this war, will never know how many people were captured. We will never know the fate of many, they will forever be deemed “missing in action”. Numbers are forgotten, but human stories are not. If a story is true and sincere, it always touches you, sinks into your soul. If you recall family stories: no one tells dates, everyone tells stories. And stories live on for centuries.
photo courtesy of Yevheniya Podobna
The women I interviewed for the book Cities of the Living, Cities of the Dead said very succinctly about the work I do. There were five of them. They were sitting on a bench and telling their experiences very actively. I asked them a lot of questions, and they kept interrupting each other, saying, “It’s not important, it’s not interesting.” Instead, I told them that everything is interesting and that they should tell everything: the part about the pot is important, and the part about the cat is important. We were recording them for a very long time, and when we finally finished, one of them said: “So are you going to be our voice then?” and the other one replied: “She will be our scream.”
I remembered this phrase very well. Because that’s what I really do. No monograph about the war, even the most objective one with correct, verified dates and figures, will give a complete picture of the war: with human emotions, experiences, feelings, everything that a person goes through during the war. When I record stories, I try to record facts, feelings, and reflections, and thus cover the full picture using an example of one person’s story.
In general, it is very important to record people’s stories, because behind every victory, every defeat, every meter of regained land, there are specific people with specific names. It is a simple manifestation of justice and honesty to at least try to record them: the names and stories behind them.
– What books about the war do you think everyone should read?
– I think that if every Ukrainian had read Stas Aseyev’s book The Torture Camp On Paradise Street about the Izolyatsia torture chamber in Donetsk, many people would still be alive. When I recorded the memories and testimonies of people in the towns and villages where the Russians committed genocide, many said: “We could never have imagined that they would do such a thing, especially to civilians.” And Stas described it all. Another important one to me is Oleksandr Tereshchenko’s book “Життя після 16:30” (Life After 4:30 P.M.), which he wrote after losing both his arms and an eye. It is very motivating. A valuable book was written by Valeriia Burlakova – “Життя. P.S.” (Life. P.S.). This is a sincere story about the loss of a loved one who died in the war. It is about both pain and love. Another really interesting book is “Конго-Донбас” (Congo-Donbas) by a pilot Vasyl Mulik. He also writes sincerely, without hysterical pathos, sometimes rough, sometimes funny, sometimes painful. Vasyl is also a very talented poet, and I hope he will publish a collection of poetry someday.
In general, every book about the war is important in its own way. There is a lot of war literature being published now, and I’m sure there are a lot of awesome works out there. But unfortunately, due to my workload, I don’t have time to read them.
Among the foreign authors, I would like to mention Slavenka Drakulić’s book They Would Never Hurt a Fly (about war criminals) and Wojciech Tochman’s Like Eating a Stone (about the genocide in Bosnia). I’m currently reading a book by my friend, a Bosnian Jasminko Halilovic, called War Childhood. He is from Sarajevo and survived the siege as a child, and then created the Museum of War Childhood. This book contains his own story and quotes from Bosnian children.
– How do you assess the level of our war journalism? What has changed in it since the beginning of the great war? Which of your colleagues do you follow most closely?
– We have a very high level of war journalism – we’ve always had and still do. I am delighted with the work of Nataliia Nahorna, Yulia Kyriyenko, Olha Omelyanchuk, Yehor Lohinov, Stanislav Kozliuk, you can’t name them all. These are the people who have been in war journalism for a long time and who have cared since the first days of the war. I am very proud of those colleagues who went to the army (such as Yevhen Nazarenko, Oleksiy Kashporovsky and others), but I am also a little sorry because they are highly professional military journalists and are sorely missed in the media space. Also, unfortunately, we are suffering great losses. Maks Levin and Oleksandr Makhov were not just professionals, they were, without pathos and exaggeration, outstanding people in the profession who could have done a lot more. Both Maks’s photographs and Oleksandr’s works will go down in history.
photo courtesy of Yevheniya Podobna
What has changed (for the worse) is the dominance of bloggers, who for some reason have begun to be called journalists, or even worse, war correspondents. Back on Feb. 23, they considered it acceptable to travel to Russia, bring Russians to their interviews, and fight back the requests to stream their channels in Ukrainian. They did not care about the thousands of dead soldiers and what had been happening for years in Donbas. And now they have become “ardent patriots” who have managed to either remember or learn Ukrainian… I don’t know what it is: an adjustment to market conditions or an enlightenment, but I have a clear attitude towards this category of people. I don’t provoke conflicts or hate them, because now they have finally started making content for victory, but I can’t respect or trust them either.
– What is the most difficult thing for you as a war correspondent to report on? What material do you value the most?
– It is always the hardest thing to talk to the mothers of the deceased victims. This is something that tears my heart out. The book Cities of the Living, Cities of the Dead was very difficult for me. I will never get used to recording interviews about murders and torture, and I cannot film or record the stories of those who are in pain and distant myself from them. I pass each story through me and later relive it for a long time, so I cherish every piece of material.
photo courtesy of Yevheniya Podobna
The most valuable one for me is probably the one taken before the great war, in 2018, an ordinary news story. I recorded an interview with a soldier. He really didn’t want to talk, but I managed to persuade him. Three months later, he would die. A year later, I learned that this story changed his life a little bit. Since childhood, he had a difficult history with his mother, they did not communicate at all. But when the mother saw her son on TV, she found him and had been calling him constantly since then. It’s important to me that before he died, he knew that his mother loved him. This is the work I am probably most proud of in my life.
– Our memory tends to erase the most traumatic memories. Sometimes people deliberately refuse to talk about their experiences to avoid retraumatization and pain. We all remember well how the generations of our grandparents and their parents who went through famine, torture, and persecution often remained silent about their experiences, never saying a word for the rest of their lives. In your opinion, will we be able to preserve the memory of this period of our history and pass on to our descendants the testimony about it without concealment or omission?
– This is actually one of the reasons why I try to record everything that happens as much as possible, because memory really erases a lot. I noticed this during the ATO. Therefore from the first days of the full-scale war, I tried to record as much material as possible: interviews, memories, testimonies. Often, people who later received books with their stories would read them and be surprised. Because a lot of things were really forgotten in a year.
photo courtesy of Yevheniya Podobna
I wouldn’t compare us to previous generations, though, because in the Soviet Union people were really intimidated. Often our grandparents were very reluctant to talk about the Holodomor, repressions, and partisanship, because “something might happen.” The fear sown by the soviets was very strong and lived in people for a long time. Our generation is different. We grew up in freedom, and we are not afraid to speak up. In my experience, very few people refuse to be interviewed. Today I recorded a mother who lost her child, yesterday I recorded a girl who survived the horror in Mariupol, went through filtration and lived through very terrible events, and before that I had recorded former prisoners and survivors of the occupation.
Given how actively journalists, writers, and historians are working now, I don’t think that this time it will work out like in the Soviet Union – to just rewrite it in their own way.
– We all have very different experiences of this war. How do we bridge this gap between us in the future? What should become our points of contact after the victory?
– All Ukrainians, regardless of their experience of this war, are united by the fact that thousands of other people have given their lives for the lives of each of us over these 9 years, and especially over the past year. Such a tremendous price has been paid for each of our lives that it obliges us to be grateful and responsible. For the sake of the boys and girls who died or sacrificed their health: who lost their arms, legs, went blind, and received other serious injuries, we must not only protect this country, but also develop it, make it better, and live according to our conscience. I think this should be our main point of contact.
– During the first months of the war, we were on adrenaline, then the adrenaline gave way to hope that it would be over in a little while. After a year of active hostilities, we are noticeably exhausted. How do we keep going, where do we get our strength from?
– I have never had any illusions that everything will end soon, rather the opposite. We should draw strength from the banal realization that if we do not fight back, we will be gone: neither our country nor ourselves will exist. If we lose, the whole of Ukraine will turn into the Bucha of March 2022, as Russia has clearly shown that it has its mind set on our total destruction. Therefore, if we want to live and let our families and friends live, we must fight, volunteer, and help.
Once a woman from Avdiivka told me an important phrase: “Only by taking care of others could we survive in those days.” In the worst moments, it is vital to be together and support each other. When you take care of others, you simply do not have time to feel sorry for yourself, and the feedback from the efforts you put in inspires you to keep working.
It is also important to realize that when the war is over, it will be too early to exhale. There will be many more challenges and work ahead of us. We will have to disentangle this story for many, many years to come, because war is poison, and detoxification from it will take a long time and a lot of effort. Things will never be the same as they used to be. We have become different, and after the victory, a different life awaits us. The sooner we realize this, the easier it will be in the future.
Words and Bullets is the special project by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine about Ukrainian writers and journalists that joined the army or started volunteering when Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year. The name of the media project symbolizes the weapon used by the heroes and heroines of the project before Feb. 24, which they were forced to take up after the outbreak of a full-scale war with Russia. The special project is being implemented with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
This publication is sponsored by the Chytomo’s Patreon community
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