Silence of the war

Author: Elene Glonti

Edition: War in Ukraine
Topic: Conflict

Hell is truth seen too late.

Thomas Hobbes

"An American NGO (ISD) analyzed what was posted about the Bucha Massacre in the first week of April in 20 different countries. Most countries are members of the European Union. Posts supporting the 'skeptical' Kremlin version were three times more popular."

After 31 days of Russian occupation, I entered the liberated Bucha.

I don't know how to talk about war. Real war, a war you've seen; a satanic ritual, which you seem to feel, not just with your eyes but with your whole soul, smell, sensations, and some kind of invisible energy.

I'm often asked if I've seen the handcuffed corpses. Yes, I have. But if you're there, a corpse is just a corpse, and you have to pass them like you pass the dead bodies of animals on the freeway. No corpse here is treated like a human whose body is about to be buried and returned to whence it came. Here the dead are not spoken of as in ordinary life.

I ride in a military car, and the armored vest that was put on me makes me bend my back more than usual... It feels like my spine is torn, and I'm left without a back, which is to say as if I am no one. You can't walk upright here.

From the window, I see the corpse of an old man, tipped over a bicycle. I ask my friend silently: "Did you see?" and point my finger.  She addresses the soldiers sitting in front of us, in Russian. "There is a body left here. They will come and take it," they say.

Then I see a tied-up dog. "Does this dog have an owner?" – my friend asks. "It probably does," they answer.

An old lady approaches the car. We stop, and the soldier rolls down the window. The woman's voice is muted. She says something, but she is not heard. Her voice has been extinguished.

"Sorry, we have no food. We have to go," the soldier replies.

Then I see a little humanitarian car. I don't know why the car is so tiny. The elderly sit around the car and eat their portions with their backs bent and eyes staring at the ground.

Between the buildings, you can see laundry hanging on a rope stretched between the trees. The laundry is blowing in the wind. Life must go on.

I want to capture it, but I can't get close—the soldiers should go first, and I should follow. There are mines everywhere.

The slaughter continues.  

Shrunken people who have emerged from the ground seem to be moving invisibly in the black, destroyed city. I think not a word can come out of these mutilated bodies; having witnessed so many deaths, they themselves have lost life.

There are a few signs that hint that this was once a city: letters, broken shop windows, pharmacies, banks, small product stands, shot up and burnt cars, dilapidated bus stops, destroyed gas stations, smoked residential buildings, and black nylon trash bags filled with corpses.

I'm trying to separate reality between before the day the Russians came here and after they left. These black bags appeared after them. Before the bodies were uncovered. 

A man is just a piece of meat for them. It still is, even after them.

Time does not turn back. It has already happened. They will not rise from the dead.

There is writing in large letters on the houses, "замiнировано" (mined area). Two old women with small cart bags in their hands,  standing in front of the warning, are headed to their existent or non-existent homes.

People are hungry.

The words "люди" ("people"), "старики" ("the elderly"), and an old sign, "Продается дом," ("House for sale") appear one after another on the houses.

These messages are ominously crossed out with black markers, and you are left there with these faded words without any history. You can only guess what happened in this house, where children's toy cars stand in the yard and some Ukrainian naive paintings still hang on the remaining walls. A man who lived here, who wrote "мирные люди" ("peaceful people") in big letters after the war began, but he is not here anymore. He was crossed out just like his message. There was a routine here, maybe even boring sometimes, but now it is gone. The message is still visible, however. When the main goal is to erase people's lives, it starts screaming louder.

"Anatoliy Fedoruk Khuilo" (“Fuck Anatoliy Fedoruk”) is written on the wall. Anatoliy Fedoruk is the mayor of Bucha. Russian soldiers do not suffer from brilliance. 

I've been coming to Kyiv from Lviv for so long that I seem to have gotten used to the scale of this country: block posts, traps, white sacks, barricaded roads for the tanks and tapes on windows… give me a sense of helplessness rather than defense. 

"We have to resist for three days. We have to last three days," I remember them saying during the August war in Georgia…

"Kyiv has to withstand today. The hardest night is tonight," – I remember so many nights like that in the last days of February.

The war was somewhere else then. Kyiv had to withstand for one week. The whole world was watching the events closely, wondering whether to wash their hands of it, as they had done in many other cases before.

Kyiv withstood.

In those days we all wrote: Київ вистоіт(Kyiv will withstand), Київ вистоіл(Kyiv withstood).

When I headed the road to Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel, I thought it would be a journey, but I couldn't even tell when I left Kyiv and entered urban combat. It was probably a 10-minute drive. I have no idea what kind of force restrained the Russian army there, or how Kyiv endured. Kyiv won this war. The first thing I saw was a statue of an officer on his knees in the city center. There was a hole shot through his heart. Then I saw a large Ukrainian flag painted at a gas station, with a Georgian flag the same size beside it.

We reached a long street where destroyed Russian equipment was lined up in a row. I couldn't even see the end. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians were climbing on Russian tanks to take pictures.

As I got out of the car, two local men came to me and breathlessly began telling their stories. All I saw around me were  locals standing  by the journalists and telling them  their stories. I realized that these people couldn't keep it to themselves, and it was vital to them that the world hear their voices. I could catch fragments: "Grandma could not survive," "The child was shot in the street," "We buried him here while we had time"… Russian soldiers didn't allow people to bury the dead, telling them it was cold enough, and the bodies could stay out for a while. Basements full of corpses are still being found in Bucha.

They wanted me to enter every house where the Russians lived, and they kept repeating – "вторая армия в мире" ("the second army in the world"). The locals have now taken over the protection of these houses so that people won't take what's left. The war knows no rules.


I felt the presence of Russian soldiers who raped children so strongly in the houses that I thought I could  feel the touch of their filthy hands. I was looking at the overturned houses; the flipped-over and empty cupboards; the jars filled with water all over the place; the dirty baths; the mattresses dragged to the first floor; the karaoke machines left turned on; the food thrown away in the yard; their military "payeks" (military rations) with "русская армия" (Russian Army) written on them; the abandoned feast… And the only thing I could think of were the faces of the Ukrainian refugees on the Polish border, standing in long lines with their animals and plants in their hands.

The Russian army fled. There was no order to leave. They just realized they would die here and ran away. This is why the corpses with bound hands and open mass graves were left in the streets. That's how we saw their true face.

As I was leaving the house, I saw a dog at the end of the black road, he ran past me and then came running back like a slingshot. I wonder, how did this dog know that 'they' had left and people had returned to his town.

I knew where I was going. I knew I would be a different person after I returned. I knew I would have no right to be weak while I was there. I knew I just had to look the devil in the eyes and say: "I'm here, and I'm looking at you. I know you exist, and this knowledge makes me stronger."

After coming back, I know one thing: “no matter what you see in life, keep the light in you burning.”

Since then, there has been silence in my brain and alienation from my own self. I was left with the knowledge that it was all done by a human—just like me. He has two arms, two legs, and one heart beating like mine… And he also has a mother, that motherfucker…

Photographer Elene Glonti traveled to Bucha as part of a humanitarian mission with American philanthropist Amed Khan. 

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