The Lightness is Gone
A Ukrainian reflects on loss and rebuilding.
Last spring, Kateryna Kibarova wrote “We Did Not Ask for ‘Liberation,’” a searing account of surviving the Russian occupation of her town, Bucha. In September, she described how residents were beginning to rebuild even as the war remained omnipresent. This January, she recounted the horrors of winter amid constant Russian attacks on the electricity grid.
When Persuasion contacted Kateryna in late May for this most recent dispatch, Russian drone and missile strikes on Kyiv had forced her to find shelter on a near-nightly basis. What follows is her story, in her words.
— The Editors
by Kateryna Kibarova
Winter was hell. Now a new hell has begun.
You know how psychologically, if you are hit once, it hurts. The second time you get hit, it doesn't hurt as much. And the third time, when you are hit like that, it seems to be the norm.
But then a new constellation of events forms: your friends and relatives are fighting at the front line, and you begin to lose them. A close friend died before the New Year. It was a time of crazy grief for me. A new emotional phase begins, when you can't understand why. You saw death in the beginning, but now it touches you directly.
Before, just a few rockets came down during air raids. Now, the Russians have developed their tactics to intimidate civilians. We face near-nightly barrages around Kyiv. As soon as the attacks start, all the car alarms go off. We wake up to horrible explosions. You watch the huge red balls flying, and you don't know where they’re headed. On one night last month,1 for example, the Russians launched six Kinzhal missiles, nine Kalibr-type cruise missiles, three anti-aircraft ballistic missiles, six Iranian suicide Shahed drones and three Orlan-type reconnaissance UAVs. During a recent attack, my balcony doors were blown out by the shock wave.
When the raids start, we all run to the basements. Sleepy children are picked up by their mothers and carried. We sit there for three or four hours. By then, it's morning. You come back to the house, have a coffee, take a shower, and go to work. The first time, you can do it. By the third day, you don’t have the strength anymore.
Everybody talks about stress, all the time. It's a pain we share. We had more or less already adapted to the lack of electricity and such things. We took precautions; we bought generators and some other equipment. We warmed up in each others’ apartments so there was as little space as possible to heat. But now that a more psychological phase of the war has begun, we hardly sleep at night, and we still have to go to work during the day. In these conditions, you come to an emotional dead end. You don’t understand what to do next.
Everyone tries to think about something else. At work, I look at my colleagues, and we have no energy at all. The management suggested that we should all take five days off to go to the mountains somewhere—maybe the Carpathians or Poland, where we won’t hear the explosions every night. We can’t go for a break in the woods closer to home, because they have all been laid with mines.
For many, our nervous system is at its limit. I take sedatives both for sleep problems and psychological problems. The most horrifying thing, it turns out: you can't live without a future. You live and you don't know what awaits you. You don’t know how to organize your daily routines, or how to plan anything. You have no future, and this makes life eerie and terrifying.
On my way to work, I'm bound to meet military equipment. At first it was creepy, because we have huge tanks and APCs going down the road. I got scared a few times. Psychologically, it’s difficult to reconcile oneself to the sight of huge military equipment every day.
The fastest way to work takes me past a cemetery. At first, I couldn’t pass without crying. But after a second time, and a third, and a fourth—now, I just watch as the number of flags marking warriors being laid to rest increases. Many cemeteries have become these graveyards of heroes. In our apartment building, we’ve had three men die already: one in his 20s, and two in their 40s. It’s a horror to be at those funerals. You want to cry your eyes out. I wouldn’t wish that on an enemy.
Recently, I read that the best warrior is the one who has lost everything. There was a story about a man in Odesa who went out for groceries at Easter. A rocket flew into the house and killed both his wife, his two-month-old baby, and, I think, the mother-in-law. He came back home to find his relatives—three generations—gone. And so he went to fight.
There are so many like him. It’s not only patriotism, but also boundless grief. It's like total courage—but it's different from when you are walking next to your mom as a child, and you're not afraid of anything. This is when you have so much pain inside, when you already know what pain—maximum pain—feels like, and you're not afraid of anything any more. This is a mix of anger, pain and aggression, all bubbling up in you.
I don't know of any punishment in the world that would be fitting for the people who are responsible for this. But I very much believe that the Russians will bear the consequences of their atrocities. They will be held accountable before God—and the Hague.
Of course, we get together, we can go out for coffee—not many people go to restaurants anymore, because we're not in the mood for it. But you have to be prepared that at any moment an attack can start. And very often, it does.
Speaking personally, I don't feel comfortable walking or having fun or going out anywhere. When our guys are sitting in the trenches in horrible conditions, defending the country, how can you have fun? Children’s holidays are still celebrated, which is understandable, because our children have lost their childhoods. There is still social interaction; you try to be social, to go out somewhere, to go for a walk in the park. But the ease is gone.
Even the way people drive has changed. Before, someone might cut you off. Now, everyone has become very tolerant and respectful, especially toward military vehicles. Another example: there isn't the same antagonism that there used to be, with “You're from that region, I’m from this region.” When the people from the Donetsk region moved to Kyiv in 2014 [fleeing the Russian occupation], there were stereotypes about them (and also about people from Zaporozhye, where I'm from.) But now everyone is treated the same, because we also now have gone through the same thing. We know what it's like to be without a home, what it's like to leave and not know what happened to your home, what it’s like to feel that the first thing you want—no matter if there's light, water, or electricity there—is just to be home, to be within your own walls.
Here in Bucha, the rebuilding has begun. Howard Buffett's2 charity has contributed very much, and he's been coming to see the progress here. It was so touching. The houses at the train station are already completely rebuilt. There has been unbelievable progress. A lot of public organizations help. We still have work to do, but now another organization has joined in and should finish everything in the next month or two. Online, there are psychological and psychiatric help centers. I've heard that Israeli psychologists are going to organize courses for our psychologists in Bucha, because Israel has been in a similar situation for a long time, and their population lives with it.
Many people from our apartment building, especially those with children, remain abroad. But our building has new residents: those who come from Kharkiv, from Mariupol, from the Zaporizhzhia region. There is a migration of sorts, with those from Kyiv going west and those from the east coming to the Kyiv region.
Almost every week, ambassadors, presidents, prime ministers and other dignitaries come to Bucha. We had a somewhat comical case at the church where I go on Sundays: traffic was blocked, and we didn’t realize what was going on. It turned out Boris Johnson was visiting. The church has become a memorial of sorts. There are pictures of people who were exhumed from mass graves. That such a thing is possible in the center of Europe in the twenty-first century—no one can believe it until they see it with their own eyes.
Kateryna Kibarova is a Ukrainian economist and resident of Bucha.
Translated from the Russian by Julia Sushytska and Alisa Slaughter.
About the Translators: Julia Sushytska was born in L’viv and is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at Occidental College. Alisa Slaughter is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Redlands. They recently co-edited and translated a selection of essays and lectures by Merab Mamardashvili, “A Spy for an Unknown Country” (ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart, 2020).
This transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.
Also by Kateryna Kibarova:
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below:
May 16, 2023.
American businessman and philanthropist; son of Warren Buffett.