Redak­tion „novinki“

Hum­boldt-Uni­ver­sität zu Berlin
Sprach- und lite­ra­tur­wis­sen­schaft­liche Fakultät
Institut für Slawistik
Unter den Linden 6
10099 Berlin

#War­Diary 4: Dark­ness and bomb shelters

In ihrem vierten Ein­trag des #War­Diary schreibt Lina Zalitok an Tag 17 des Kriegs Russ­lands gegen die Ukraine dar­über, die Bom­ben­keller plötz­lich zu einem (uner­war­teten) Alltag geworden sind.

17th day of war. Since the first day of war we have been always accom­pa­nied by dark­ness. The war started for me in Kyiv at appro­xi­m­ately 6 a.m. when it was still dark. I didn’t hear explo­sions. it was my mother’s call that woke me up. It was sweet to hear about the war begin­ning from my mother and not from the news which I avo­ided as much as I could in those days. It was even sweeter to hear that she was not pani­cking. As the day begun, the dark sky turned grey and was filled with silence and croa­king of crows till the very evening. Only several times this ceme­tery silence was torn with the sound of sirens. I could hardly hear the sirens in my apart­ment because of closed win­dows, but I heard them cle­arly out­side as I decided to take a walk and look for the clo­sest bomb shel­ters. It was after one friend from my dance class Katja (I changed her name, just in case) sent me a map with bomb shel­ters and asked me twice if I found one. Now Google maps are always showing you bomb shel­ters, but I don’t think it was the case on the first day of war. Any way, I had no idea how to find bomb shel­ters until Katja sent me a mes­sage. Actually first she asked me if I knew where bomb shel­ters were in my resi­den­tial area, as her friend also lived there. But I didn’t know, so a bit later she sent me the answer to her ques­tion which I also needed to answer for myself. It was already 2 p.m. or so and I was still working and pre­ten­ding that ever­y­thing was Ok. My friend’s per­se­ver­ance made me think and do some­thing about my survival. 
Before that day, I heard sirens only once in my life: in some German museum about the Second World War. I don’t remember which one, as I visited plenty of them, also a big one in France near Stras­bourg. Maybe it was Karls­horst museum in Berlin or some expo­si­tion in Ham­burg… Any way, in one of the expo­si­tions I visited in the past, there was an audio of sirens. German sirens in Ger­many. So the sound of sirens was fami­liar to me. However, I didn’t know what this sound meant (good illus­tra­tion of my zero pre­pa­ra­tion for the war). I still remem­bered, that in this German museum they said, that it was a signal to go to bomb shel­ters and there were pic­tures of people in bomb shel­ters. Now I also remember that I was won­de­ring at the museum back then: why had those women and children to go through this? Because their country started war? Why did Ame­ri­cans deem it neces­sary to bomb those beau­tiful his­toric buil­dings in German cities? Alt­hough I had somehow expected a big war started by Rus­sians sooner or later, I had thought, that bomb shel­ters belonged to the past. For wha­tever reason…
I exited my buil­ding and saw two women in the age of 60 or so near ano­ther ent­rance. I came up to them and asked about bomb shel­ters. One woman told me with enthu­siasm that they had just done a tour visi­ting all the bomb shel­ters nearby. All of them were dif­fe­rent, but the best one is across the street, she told me. There is also a good toilet there. I was sur­prised that you could choose a bomb shelter to your taste and that there was a toilet in one of them. I had never been to bomb shel­ters, but that sounded good. Then I remem­bered, that once I had applied for a job as a guide at one Berlin bunker in Kur­fürs­ten­damm (The Story of Berlin) and that there were even mul­tiple toi­lets there. I spent several hours there and even learnt a text by heart about all the faci­li­ties in order to do a test guided tour. However, I got too ner­vous spea­king German before a group of German school­children, so I didn’t get the job. It was a smas­hing expe­ri­ence, because I badly needed a job and because it was hard for me to deal with job refu­sals back then. So smas­hing that I had to google the name of this bunker and what was it about, as I managed to erase it from my memory. It is a bunker pre­pared during the Cold War for the pos­sible nuclear warfare.
So I started my solo tour of bomb shel­ters in Kyiv centre, only to find out that all bomb shel­ters near and in my house were closed and there were locks han­ging on their doors. Near one of the bomb shel­ters I saw a rich loo­king young couple exi­ting their buil­ding with bags and going to a car. They were dressed like people going to moun­tain cam­ping. When I asked them if they knew who could open the door to the bomb shelter, they ans­wered angrily “Bomb shel­ters don’t make any sense. They won’t save you if they use che­mical wea­pons”. I got angry and thought “Stupid rich people”. Later I found an open bomb shelter in the buil­ding next to mine. It was full of litter and old staff. But there were also nice people there (here you can see some videos of it). One man had a list of several bomb shel­ters with phone num­bers of people who had keys to those locks on the doors.
I called the number of the person alle­gedly respon­sible for the bomb shelter in my buil­ding. A man ans­wered to me that I should go to flat X ent­rance Y and ask for a key. I got quite irri­tated. Shouldn’t bomb shel­ters be always available? A rather chilled woman opened the door of flat X and accom­pa­nied me to the bomb shelter in ano­ther ent­rance of the house. She opened the lock and showed me the place. There was a non-func­tio­ning dirty toilet, one chair and a socket extender. I asked her not to close the lock any more. She agreed and went away. I was alone in that bomb shelter. I sat there for some 10 minutes until an old woman came down. She said to me that a KGB man told her that Kyiv was going to be bombed. She seemed to be despe­rate and chilled at the same time. I exited the bomb shelter tog­e­ther with her and we went to our respec­tive apart­ments after wis­hing each other all the best. I don’t remember this con­ver­sa­tion, but I remember that she had started to com­plain and I didn’t want to hear any­body com­plain at that moment, so I somehow managed to get out of the conversation.
On my way to my apart­ment I met ano­ther woman at the children’s play­ground. She looked 40 some­thing years old, nice, but some­what bizarre. She told me that there were almost no ori­ginal inha­bi­tants in these buil­dings. She was the only one in her part of the buil­ding who was an ori­ginal inha­bi­tant. People who bought these apart­ments were not from Kyiv, never spoke to each other and already left for their vil­lages and regions. Indeed our resi­den­tial area looked devas­tated. She told me, that she was afraid of loo­ters and was loo­king for bricks to make a kind of oven on the bal­cony out of them. While lis­tening to her, I remem­bered my mother’s words that we had some wood at our datcha. I thought about all the vast nature of my town which seemed even vaster com­pared to the image of an impro­vised brick oven on a bal­cony in Kyiv centre. And I felt how suf­fo­ca­ting and cold-hearted this city was. I was no excep­tion, because this first day of war was the first time that I talked to people who lived next to me.
With crows con­ti­nuously croa­king above almost empty silent streets in Kyiv centre, the grey sky seemed to be an omi­nous sign. I asso­ciated this croa­king with future people’s deaths which this war was sure to bring. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be among those dead people, so it made me change my decision to wait for several days till the panic abates and roads get less busy. I decided to leave imme­dia­tely. Moreover, my mother started to panick on the phone and to repeat that I was alone and far away from her, so I felt cle­arly that I pre­ferred to mini­mise her panic and expe­ri­ence it in person. But first of all, I felt lonely. I packed my bag so quickly as I could, very slowly actually, because I was con­stantly inter­rupted with work and pri­vate mes­sages and had to look inside every cabinet and on every shelf to ensure that I didn’t forget some­thing important (ano­ther example of my zero pre­pa­ra­tion for the war). I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t have to walk all the way on feet, so I took only the most neces­sary things. At the same time, I didn’t know if I would ever come back and see this apart­ment and my belon­gings again. So it wasn’t easy to decide what was not necessary.
I left my apart­ment at 6 p.m. I knew that I had to leave Kyiv before 9 p.m., with curfew starting at 10 p.m. and ending at 7:00 a.m., or just go back to my lonely apart­ment in Kyiv centre where only few people remained and where loo­ters could come. I walked to the metro. The atmo­sphere there was so much warmer than in my resi­den­tial area. Wit­hout any pro­blems I arrived to the ter­minal sta­tion. I used to travel to my home town by hitch­hi­king before, but this time it was a dif­fe­rent expe­ri­ence. Nor­mally it takes me two-three minutes to get into a car, but now I was stan­ding some half an hour and it wasn’t get­ting ear­lier. I was happy to see that cars were moving quickly, even much quicker than in pre-war times. On other roads there were still hor­rible traffic jams as I heard. Every car seemed to hurry up lea­ving the capital. They were flying past us, people, who like me wanted to get home, and stood on the road trying to stop them. People always stand like this at this place, but this evening there was a higher risk to be kno­cked down, espe­ci­ally for such dis­tracted people like myself, I sup­pose. The cars seemed not to care that we were stan­ding there. On the other side in the direc­tion to the city sud­denly a tank appeared and covered all the sounds with its roaring noise. For­t­u­na­tely, I have already seen tanks at the Inde­pen­dence Day parade, so I didn’t get scared. 
I tried to book a Bla­B­laCar, but both boo­kings were rejected. Then I decided to take a taxi which stood nearby. The driver wanted me to pay 1000 UAH for the trip (a bus costs nor­mally 100 UAH). But after he tried to put 4 people inclu­ding me in the back of the car and asked me to sit on a man’s lap to fit in (among pas­sen­gers there were also two rather dubio­usly loo­king men..), I flipped out and left the car. Just in time to see a minivan with a kind family going a little bit fur­ther than my home town. We went several hours through vil­lages avo­i­ding traffic jams on the highway. As we got closer to my town, they were kind enough to make a little detour from the highway to bring me closer to my home. 
I still had to walk 2,5 km, some 1 km in total dark­ness. I never expe­ri­enced such dark­ness before and I was alone. I arrived after che­cking points were already closed, so my cousin was not allowed to leave the town and pick me up with his car. This first 1 km in dark­ness past fields and che­cking points, where nobody stood, didn’t feel scary as one might expect. For wha­tever reason there were still cars going out and into the town on full speed. I tried to stop some cars, but nobody was going to stop. The way was not long, so I thought, it was for the better. I didn’t want to have to do with stran­gers any more. 
There was hardly a road. I con­stantly stumbled upon pieces of earth. So I had to stop for a moment, put my bag down on the earth and take out my torch. At some point I was so dis­tracted with loo­king to the ground and fin­ding my way that I was almost on the road. For a second when I saw the head­lamps of several cars hea­ding towards me, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to escape them in time. At that moment, I remem­bered that some hours ago in the mor­ning I wrote to one dear person to me “We will fight if neces­sary”. That was not how people fight, that looked rather like a stupid death. My head didn’t work pro­perly, but I put myself tog­e­ther and got out of the way. Some ten minutes later I found a pave­ment and then saw the first buil­dings of the town which I know so well. A little bit later I met my father wal­king towards me. All in all, these 3 km were a joke com­pared to 130 km which was the distance I covered by car.
After that first day, there were many gloomy days, but among them we also enjoyed several days of sun. There were also several days when ever­y­thing unex­pec­tedly got white with snow. The earth was inoc­cent white. Still, every single day ended with thick dark­ness, because of the so called light camou­flage, when even the light of a phone screen stands out against the dark sur­roun­ding of a mul­tis­torey building.
I thought that one might inter­pret this dark­ness like the symbol of our con­di­tion right now. Ins­tead, I enjoy it: this thick dark­ness feels like a balsam for my eyes after hours of sta­ring into the screen of my phone, also during pre-war times. Now it’s time to recover. I also regard this dark­ness from the per­spec­tive of the cur­rent super­power dis­course in Ukraine: It is an oppor­tu­nity to develop skills of ori­en­ting in the dark­ness. I am get­ting much better in it now. I can find my way to the kit­chen and bath­room wit­hout  ligh­tening my phone and wit­hout stumb­ling upon things. I can brush my teeth in the total dark­ness. It feels really good after in the first days I couldn’t find my clo­thes as I heard bomb alarm at 3 a.m. At the begin­ning, I also forgot where I put my things and felt almost hel­p­less trying to find them. Now I can also find my cat by the sound of his mewing. I know where cer­tain things are and if I don’t know, I ask my par­ents some­thing like “Can you describe where did you see bread last time so I can find it more quickly?”
I am still a night person though. As we didn’t find a good way to camou­flage our flat yet, I am wri­ting this text under blanket on my phone and spoi­ling my eyes (I hope not too much). Today I also ate my supper in total dark­ness. It is my second time and it felt quite bizarre. Some­times we also “watch” TV covered with a blanket. Once I heard that they showed Rus­sian cap­tives and couldn’t help pee­ping under the blanket to see their faces. It felt so funny. One evening, just a minute later after I put my glasses to watch some TV news and see them better (I am short-sighted), my father covered TV with a blanket. “Is it already time?” – I asked. “Yes” – my par­ents ans­wered in duo. Some­times I forget to take off my glasses and wear them in the dark­ness. Do glasses help to see better in the dark­ness? I still have to check that.
For several days there have been no sirens and we haven’t gone to the bomb shelter, but we con­tinue hiding our­selves under the shelter of darkness.

Bild­quelle: © Lina Zalitok, 2022. Blick aus dem in die schnee­be­deckte Hei­mat­stadt der Autorin.