Lessons from war: A love letter to Ukrainians

Journalist: Edgar Baghdasaryan,

Illustrator: Tina Chertova

09.05.22
Topic: Conflict

Each story must begin with an introduction: who is the author, where did he come from and where is he going? This story is not an exception, but, the problem is, that after what I have experienced in Ukraine, I don't know the answers to those questions. Instead, I can only write about who I was and how my life was forever changed by people I knew for mere months.  

 My name is Edgar Baghdasaryan. For many years, I have identified myself as an Armenian journalist and TV presenter—a fighter for justice and national honor. I am among the unfortunate masses who have seen war with my own eyes. In fact, I found myself in Ukraine because I tried to escape war in Armenia. The whims of fate.

 Until the Russian invasion, I lived in Kyiv for around six months, the happiest in my life. I met amazing people who taught me to not fear change, to celebrate every holiday like the birth of your own son, to value your health more than work and money, to dream and plan and be true to yourself.

 This essay is about them, about how the war divided their lives into “before” and “after.” Their names, professions and bank accounts no longer matter, since the war has leveled us all, turning us into ants who are trying to save their lives from a cruel boy who sticks a stick in an anthill.

 There were five of us. We came together to film a documentary about paranormal activity. I was the only foreigner; all other crew members were natives of Kyiv. They were young, creative, and free from family obligations. They could afford the luxury of wandering around the country in search of mystical secrets and mysteries. This was my first time on this type of road trip adventure, and it  captivated me completely I never dreamed everything could change in an instant.

 On the night of February 24, none of us slept at home. We spent the night reviewing and editing the footage--everyone was tormented by a premonition, like the fear you experience when you sense something dangerous behind you. It is not that we believed the war was imminent—or perhaps we simply did not want to believe.

 That is probably why, when we heard the explosions, we each realized our world collapsed. After the shock came panic. What to do? Where to run? What to save? A hellish kaleidoscope of events began to spin around us. There were explosions, the declaration of war on TV, reports of bombings in the east and the south. Then… three days without sleep. We spent our days listening to endless air raid sirens while we descended into the basement. In my mind, I can still feel the dust, dampness and fear that the ceiling would collapse on us. I still see the empty store shelves and long queues at ATMs and gas stations. Eventually four of us decided to leave Kyiv and headed to the train station...

A few days later, we learned that in the capital, hundreds of people were dying without life-saving medicines. Patients with diabetes, cancer, epilepsy and asthma could not get a single pill, not a single injection. On the first day of the war, everything was swept clean from the shelves of pharmacies. Our manager, who stayed in Kyiv, organized a group where people could order drugs. He found out where to find them, and traveled there to get people not only the medicine they needed but also lifesaving moments of hope.

But, I digress. The four of us were at the railway station. Standing on the platform, I realized what people value the most: a frightened mother clutched her baby to her breast. An elderly woman comforted a cat in a carrier. A man carefully held the case with the violin. Everyone saved what held his soul.

In the end, only three of us boarded the train… The sight of the defenseless people drove our producer straight to the draft board. We heard from him a week later when he contacted us from the city of Gostomel, a town wiped off the face of the earth. In a few days, he aged 20 years. I will remember his words all my life: “Guys, it’s just a meat grinder on the front line ... Yesterday we did not pull a single survivor from the wreckage ... Minced meat from hands and feet.” We will never know the terrible agony these people experienced in their last moments, those truths are never included in the news. Why sow panic?

Following that phone call, our group became just two: our screenwriter, the producer’s girlfriend, decided to go as close to Gostomel as she could to wait for her beloved. She followed the path of hundreds of soldiers’ wives and mothers across the country.

Their fate is the most bitter: to pray and wait ... wait ... wait for a short message: “I'm still alive! We are at war!”

And so, the two of us arrived at a remote village in western Ukraine to wait and endlessly read the news on Instagram. Many posts are stuck in my memory from those first days, like fragments of glass shattered by an explosion. Somewhere a bomb hit a maternity hospital. Somewhere marauders raped a girl. Somewhere in the midst of panic, a child was lost.

Until the day the director of our documentary saw a post on a social network that near Kyiv, the staff of an animal shelter left more than 400 dogs and cats in closed cages. It should be noted that Ukrainians consider their pets to be family members. Most would rather save their cat or dog than a suitcase full of money. After seeing that post, she said “If I could shoot, I would go to war as a sniper! If I knew how to sew up wounds - would go and serve as a doctor! I don't know anything that could be useful in a war. I can just open the cells…” Perhaps the ability to open a cage during a war is also a heroic act.

That was the day I realized the strength of this nation. Everyone I knew, in a matter of days, found their place in this huge struggle for the country’s freedom and survival. Men capable of fighting stood up as one and went to the front line. Those who, for one reason or another, could not take up arms, volunteered to deliver medicine and food to the elderly, evacuate the disabled from hot spots, donate blood, or transfer their last coins to the army. Those who can do nothing else pray for peace and light candles in beautiful temples under golden domes.

Everyone laid on the altar of victory what they could. As for me, I speak and write the truth about this war wherever I can. I am not a Ukrainian and not a citizen of this country. But, I sincerely want Ukraine to win. So that the hands of Ukrainians open the cage confining the world. I am sure their victory will change the course of world history and bring about the end of the dictatorship of evil.

PS

As I write this, it is the 74th day of the war. I am still in a remote village in western Ukraine, waiting alone for this nightmare to end so I can return to Kyiv or Armenia All my friends are alive and well. All of them are doing the same as they were in the first days of the war. No one gave up and, most importantly, every single one believes in Ukraine’s victory!

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