Andrew E. Kramer is reporting from Ukraine for The New York Times. In a recent visit to the front in Eastern Ukraine, he chronicled the “Rhythm of War,” where soldiers fire dozens of howitzers, then take a break for coffee or a haircut. I wonder, as I read, about the human ability to normalize even the most monstrous of situations. For those in the maw of the monster, perhaps that’s a necessary survival instinct. For those of us watching from afar, I fear inattention can become indifference.
News out of Ukraine has shoved its way to the forefront again in the last few weeks. The nation marked the 31st anniversary of its Declaration of Independence on Aug. 24. I came across several photos from around Europe of refugeed Ukrainians wrapped in yellow-and-blue or wearing traditional embroidered blouses, known as vyshyvanka. In the capitol of Kyiv, captured Russian tanks were paraded along the main boulevard in a show of defiance to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who expected his own troops to be parading there by now. The ruins of war became a playground for Ukrainian children who scrambled over turrets and guns as young adults used them as a backdrop for smiling selfies. All this as tension grows about the status of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which has been in Russian hands since March and recently has been the target of intense shelling. Ukraine blames Russia and Russia blames Ukraine — another reminder of the manipulation of information in this war.
Drawn as I am to Ukraine, I find it impossible to follow all the news. I, too, have limited time and capacity. And short of high alerts, like the threat of a catastrophic event at the nuclear plant, the daily feed of headlines starts to drone. I fret about what gets overlooked — about Ukraine and all the other newsworthy situations around the world.
That’s why I’m always grateful for stories that have the ability to reach across that chasm. Increasingly I find them in personal accounts. The Washington Post published excerpts from the journal of a Russian paratrooper who dared declare: “I will not participate in this madness.” His straightforward accounting adds to its power.
But the piece that lingers in my mind is a personal dispatch, published Aug. 8 in The New York Times. It’s a beautifully written essay by Natalia Yermak, a Ukrainian journalist who works as a translator for the Times. In her first paragraph, Yermak presents readers with the unimaginable:
LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — There was a mass grave that held 300 people, and I was standing at its edge. The chalky body bags were piled up in the pit, exposed. One moment before, I was a different person, someone who never knew how wind smelled after it passed over the dead on a pleasant summer afternoon.
We talk, in narrative writing, about the impact of sensory details. Smell is perhaps the last we draw on. We describe things more often by sight and sound. But I’ve read studies that say smell is the physical sense with the deepest links to memory and emotion.
In Yermak’s piece, that smell — of wind passing over the dead — follows her back from the eastern Donbas region to her apartment in Kyiv, where she tries to wash the stink of war from her clothes. She marvels at the “almost peaceful” vibe of the capital, where people were “playing Frisbee and walking dogs in the parks, devoid of the bodily stiffness and sense of dread that accompanies the threat of sudden death.” Then she gets a text: Her best friend’s cousin has been killed while fighting in the east.
Now Yermak stands over another grave, this one in the west of the country. The soldier’s body is in a closed coffin that rests on two kitchen stools as it awaits burial. As Yermak walks in a funeral procession with her friend, the distance in miles to the front disappears, as does her emotional distance as a journalist. Instead, she joins in “an inescapable reality that feels like the very air in your lungs.”
It may seem wrong to describe an elegy of war as lovely. But Yermak’s piece, from the small details she notices to the haunting metaphors she draws, is just that. It is a testament to so much that we hope for when we ask readers to join us on a journey that, for a moment, reaches through distraction and makes the story of one the story of all.