Western Balkans Futures
Simulating Five Scenarios for the Western Balkans
13 May 2022
I could live without you, but I do not want to.
On the morning of February 24, when the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began with the Russian rockets shelling cities including Kyiv and razing small towns to the ground, several phrases were wiped out from our daily conversations.
Polite small talk took the hardest hit: phrases like ‘hello,’ ‘have a nice one,’ or ‘got any plans?’ disappeared. The crucial question now was, ‘How are you?’ It is almost a code. Thousands of messages with this phrase fly across Ukraine every hour.
It means, ‘Did you survive the explosion?’ Or ‘Is your house still being shelled?’ Or ‘How was the time in the shelter where you hid from aerial bombardment?’ ‘How are you?’ inevitably means ‘Are you alive?’ ‘How are you?’ also inevitably means ‘I love you. I love you so much.’
In her texts to Ostap, Ella never asked ‘How are you?’ She wrote, ‘I am glad you have your dog with you. If anything happens, he will defend you.’ She meant his sister’s Maltese. She joked that Ostap would take any excuse to skip work. She suggested that he should destroy his whiskey stash lest the Russians smelled spirits and came knocking. She could not force herself to write ‘How are you?’ She could not admit, ‘I am afraid of losing you.’
Ostap lived in Hostomel, outside Kyiv, where heavy fighting for the airport began on 24 February. After the full-scale war began, he texted his workplace saying, ‘There are Russian tanks in my yard, I cannot leave the town,’ and went offline. Ella and Ostap have known each other for a couple of years, working on several projects together and having shouting matches over every little detail. ‘I am a Slytherin, and he is a Hufflepuff,’ Ella used to joke. Ostap had strong doubts if Ella was joking at that moment.
He did not answer her texts. Hostomel lost water and electricity. Obviously, there was still a chance that he could read the messages. There was hope.
One night I dreamt that my call to him got through. I asked him how he felt, but could not make out a single word when he answered. I woke up crying. And wrote him another letter. That is when I knew that I was in love. Obviously, I have been in love for a long while, but only the real fear of losing him made me admit it.
On the tenth day, Ostap left Hostomel and came to Kyiv. Taking staggering risks, his family left through a humanitarian corridor established by the Ukrainian army. He walked into his office, which he shared with Ella, and said that explosions in the air were not that scary, unlike submachine gun fire outside one’s windows. Ella remembers hugging him for dear life, remembers crying so hard she was afraid her colleagues would call the paramedics.
He has been reading her messages this whole time, every time he got a chance to charge his phone. He wept when reading her sarcastic, funny, pained texts; he wept, he said, and could not help laughing.
10,683 couples got married in Ukraine since the full-scale war began (according to data from the Justice Ministry of Ukraine on 16 March). An important detail though: soldiers, police officers and medics can get married in the absence of one of their partners.
If one of the partners is out fighting. If one of the partners is out saving lives. Newsfeeds occasionally bring messages such as these: ‘Medics get married in Kherson,’ ‘A medic and a soldier of the territorial defence tie the knot in Chernihiv,’ ‘Soldiers of the National Guard get married in Rivne Region,’ ‘A medic and a volunteer get married in Vinnytsia,’ ‘On the 7th day of the war, officers of the patrol police get married in Sarny,’ ‘Two soldiers took their wedding vows in Kalynivka,’ ‘A medic and a volunteer got married in Kyiv’…
The majority of cities mentioned in the news are active war zones that face bombing, shelling, sieges and terror. Nearly 11,000 couples swore their love before men, God and the law.
Anhelina and Ihor are now in different countries. He is in Kyiv, Ukraine, stuck in a dangerous district as a caretaker of his frail mother and grandmother. She is in Kraków, Poland, having evacuated from Kyiv with her mother on the second day of the war.
Ihor and Anhelina said their goodbyes at a bus stop in a far-flung district of Kyiv — he likes to imagine them meeting on the same spot after victory to pick up where they have left off. She is horrified at the thought of facing that bus stop, now associated with the anguish of saying goodbye and the ongoing uncertainty, ever again. She asked him to come with her, he said no. Now she says, ‘It was an important life lesson for me: you have to respect the decisions of others.’
Their stories follow the same trajectory, even if it might seem that their rhythms are now different, or at least that they exist in different time zones. They were an odd pair from the very start. She is a producer and a popular blogger, he is with the ultras.
While she studied for a journalism degree at the Catholic University, he watched every Dynamo Kyiv match from the ultras sector. He is a couple years older than her; he is thirty. They have been together for six months.
The first thing Anhelina bought in Kraków was a wedding dress. The dress with covered shoulders and neck is perfect: so white it hurts the eye, so innocent that it seems to beg for a daring touch. She sent a picture of the dress to Ihor.
‘I did not know things would develop so fast,’ Anhelina says, still shy about it, although she has been officially engaged since the seventh day of the war. She has been a fiancée for nearly two weeks now.
We were texting one evening when he started to talk about our relationship, our future life together, about wanting to get married. I said yes.
Anhelina says that, rationally, she knows it all: she should be happy, she should be excited. She shows me the dress, she likes the dress. She tells me that Ihor is the man she wants to grow old with, the man she sees as the father of her children. Then she sums up, ‘I do not feel a thing now, I just can not feel a thing. I will wait until I can feel joy.’
Oksana and Oleksandr did not part since the war began. They have spent every moment together. Together, they have spent fifteen days hiding in a basement in Bucha, a town that Russians have been methodically razing to the ground with their shelling and bombing. Fifteen days in a bomb shelter, a week without electricity, along with thirty other people.
She is a journalist, he is a photographer. They are both Kyiv residents, both twenty-five; they studied at the same university, worked in the same sector, had many friends in common. They knew of one another but did not meet until later.
Once they have finally met and got talking, they never parted. Since December, Oksana and Oleksandr had been living together in a quiet town outside Kyiv. Oksana wants to live in a private house in a town among lush parks, much like Bucha — or rather, much like Bucha was before the war.
On the third day of the war, Oksana posted an engagement photo on her Facebook page: a dingy basement, the couple holding hands. She said it could have been more romantic, but there is nothing more romantic than that.
That day, they had a chance, if very slim, to get out of the town to safety, but it was a staggering, horrifying risk, so the young couple decided to shelter in place. That night, Oleksandr proposed and asked Oksana to marry him.
Among the private treasures that Oksana carried out of the town under siege is her grandparents’ wedding photo. They got married in Vinnytsia. She tells me,
When none of us believed that the war would happen, my grandmother warned me that she would escape danger and flee to Oleksandr’s parents’ home in Vinnytsia. I just laughed. And now here we are in Vinnytsia. Planning our wedding. I know that we will get married in Kyiv on 24 August, on Independence Day.
This woman likes to keep everything under control: Oleksandr proposed after Oksana hinted that now was the right moment, and their engagement ring is her own ring, a present from her godmother; several days earlier, during the first bombing, Oksana announced that she wanted to have a child with Sasha, and not just one, but however many it takes since Ukraine was losing its best children; her wedding is all planned out, the date is scheduled…
This woman survived in the bomb shelter with her man and walked more than twenty kilometres across the fields fleeing the bombed-out town. If she makes up her mind, then it will be so, which means that there will be that summertime wedding in the peaceful Kyiv.
Her eyes shine so brightly that it hurts. ‘I am a very happy person.’
Between air-raid warnings, conversations both in person and on social media often spin towards the sexual appeal of those who are now defending Ukraine.
One not-quite-joke has been circulated on social media so widely that it has already become a meme: ‘Guys in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, please take care! After all, I will have to marry one of you.’ Meanwhile, middle-aged women whisper among themselves: ‘Never in my life have I wanted a child so badly. And never in my life have I been so happy that I do not have one.’
Aliona and Andrii got married several years ago. They are literally a young family, having celebrated the 4th anniversary of their wedding on the eve of the war. Being mature and rational, they took planning their shared life seriously and intended to try for a child in a year or two.
They are one of those families that live in perfect harmony: it happens when you marry your good friend. They are both in Kyiv now. They have seen rockets fly towards a military installation nearby right past their windows. They have spent the last 22 days in a subway station where the municipal authorities have organised a bomb shelter.
Aliona and Andrii have a shared hobby: they both do karate. They met in a karate class. ‘You could say I have this sixth sense: I have a gut feeling and strong analytical skills. A week before the war broke out, I began searching for a shelter. I always wake up about half an hour before shelling.
When I first met Andrii, my gut instantly told me that he was the one. For Andrii, the realisation took slightly longer: he needs to think things through and plan everything. He is one of those people who take a long time starting, but once they get going, there is no stopping them. We can make paper hats and clown around in the street, and we can also argue about Aristotle’s metaphysics till morning: we can do both. We are never bored when we are together.’
While explosions ring out outside, Aliona gives lectures over Zoom from her subway shelter. Aliona supports her sister, now stuck with her family in the temporarily occupied territories; Aliona supports her mom, whom she had finally managed to get out of the active war zone; Aliona supports her other sister, who is sheltering in the subway with them. Andrii supports Aliona. She tells me that she is no longer ashamed of kissing her husband on the subway, right in front of others.
Sometimes the couple takes a few minutes at home, before taking a shower and grabbing a snack, to just lie down and hug or, if they are lucky, to dance. They dance in the kitchen of their apartment in Kyiv before rushing back down to the bomb shelter.
They could have left Kyiv for safer areas or even gone abroad. Or rather Aliona could, but not Andrii. ‘I am not going anywhere without Andrii. I could live without him, but I do not want to.’
‘How are you?’
‘I could live without you, but I do not want to.’
It is day 24 of the large-scale war in Ukraine.
Translated by Iaroslava Strikha
Part of #DemocraCE project
Western Balkans Futures
Simulating Five Scenarios for the Western Balkans
13 May 2022
Banning the ‘Z’ Symbol in CEE Will Backfire
12 May 2022
Will the Debate on the Euro Save Central Europe’s EU Future?
11 May 2022
It Was Only After the Invasion That the Future of Europe Began to Be Discussed in Earnest
11 May 2022