Getting Used to War
From the other end of a staticky WhatsApp connection comes the chime of china as a coffee cup is set on a saucer in a kitchen in Kyiv. Then, the line goes dead. I picture Nikoli* drinking coffee in the dark, his pistoning Adam’s apple an elevator moving between two floors.
Rolling blackouts. Ear-splitting shelling. Hair-raising fear. Most of us in the US will never know the reality of war, but this is daily life for people in Ukraine. When the power was restored, I caught up with Nikoli, an IT consultant living in Kyiv, whom I first interviewed the day after Russia invaded Ukraine to see how life is lived under siege.
Daily Life in Wartime
When I spoke to Nikoli, Kyiv seemed peaceful. Gone were the months of eight to 14-hour blackouts that used to plague the city. There was reliable access to heat, more or less, and food, albeit at 10 – 20% higher prices. People could use their mobile phones or connect to WIFI somewhat consistently. Now, blackouts are rolling and scheduled to make sure everyone has some access to power almost every day.
“I am privileged, living in Kyiv,” Nikoli reflected.
I held my tongue, embarrassed that, due to the luck of geography, I have never known war as he has.
“It’s a question of perspective,” Nikoli continued. “Kyiv is more protected [than other cities]. The anti-aircraft counter missile protection system protects us better.” He paused, and I wondered what he saw as he looked into the distance, gathering his next thoughts. “If a person doesn’t get updates from the frontlines, he might assume that the war is not as fierce as it once was,” Nikoli spoke slowly. “The war is raging, but it is raging elsewhere.”
When there are warnings of an incoming attack, Nikoli and his family sometimes go into shelters beneath their apartment block. “With time, you get used to it [bomb attacks/shelling]. If it’s meant to hit you, it will.”
War is mercurial. A few days after we spoke, nearby shelling and missile attacks targeted Kyiv again.
Dealing with Fear
When I asked Nikoli how he managed his fear, especially during attacks, he told me he buries himself in work. As an IT consultant, Nikoli has worked from home since the COVID-19 pandemic started three years ago. Back then, there was fear too, but “the reasons for the fear factor have changed.”
Nikoli has gotten used to the fear induced by war but he has not become less afraid. “You’re managing it so you can handle it,” he said, adding “we are as angry as we are scared, but then people have different levels of their own emotions.”
Nikoli’s restrained fear spikes when he hears the explosions and the anti-aircraft counter- missile protection system suppressing incoming attacks. He philosophizes, “People can get used to anything. Wars have always existed. How I feel about it and understand it has changed. When it happens next to you, you feel the fear and anger inside it. The understanding is right in front of you. The terror. How painful it can be when you feel it by yourself.”
Nikoli sees Russia’s invasion of his country as an act of vanity or terrorism. “There is no proper reason for Putin to invade.” Nikoli thinks the rationales of fighting Nazism and protecting Russians in Ukraine are false excuses. Public denial of the war, especially by TV hosts, is “painful and anger-inducing.”
Despite Pain and Anger, We Belong to Each Other
Nikoli hasn’t let feelings of pain and anger turn him inward. Like other Ukrainians, a spirit of unity is still going strong “on a civilian and social level” one year on. People volunteer to help each other, despite having experienced hardship, “and their efforts are more visible than in peaceful times.” Nikoli jokes that he spends less money on” beer and chips and more on donating to the war effort” before his tone becomes somber. For him, going out doesn’t feel “appropriate for the moment….This is my home.”
During times of conflict or natural disaster, seeing people pull together to pursue a common good is inspiring. If you’d like to support Ukraine’s fight for agency and self-determination, please consider donating to one of the following organizations.
This is part one of a three-part series commemorating the first anniversary of the Ukraine War.
*Not his real name