Victoria Ivleva: The Swans and the Stove

7 May 2023

by Victoria Ivleva

Source: Facebook

“My sister’s husband was killed on 2 or 3 March. They told us, ‘There’s a body near the transformer. You should come and have a look – it might be yours’. We approached. The body was covered in straw. We lifted it up and, yes, it was ours…

“He was lying face down with his hands tied in a figure of eight. I turned him over and saw blood running out of his ear. Either he was bleeding from a heavy blow, or he was shot. The left side of his head was dented, his eyes were bulging, and his lips were all swollen… They say he was hit with a rifle butt, though we don’t really know what actually happened. 

“My sister and I hauled his dead weight all the way across this road, and he was a big, strong man, six feet tall. He was so heavy that we could only drag him as far as the garden.

… we could hardly drag him… It’s hard to think about…

“So he’s still there, buried in the garden.

“We went to collect him, just my sister and I by choice. My daughter stayed behind in the basement, as I didn’t want the soldiers – and there were a lot of them in all the trenches – to see that we had a young woman with us.

“There were seven of us in the house. We had some supplies, the gas was connected, and my sister cooked pasta. She cooked hot meals and made tea, too.

“We were scared – of course we were – because there was a tank and an armoured personnel carrier in every courtyard. We had them in ours, too, and then another tank arrived. There was a car there as well, with four big crates on it. They were huge – taller than trees, maybe – with portable radios of some sort.

“They broke into the house claiming that there were spies here, and Banderites [a pejorative term for Ukrainian nationalists, named after the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera – trans.]. They took my brother-in-law, thinking he was a spy. These lads were just youngsters. I was astonished at how teeny-tiny they were – just children, really…

“When they broke into the courtyard here, the youngsters, they had these machine guns, and one of them had a runny nose. He kept dabbing at it, wiping away the snot. He had a machine gun, and he was so messed up (upset) and frightened. They were scared of everyone, even though they were carrying guns. 

“‘Where are you lot from?’ my brother-in-law had asked. ‘From the Far East,’ they’d said, speaking fluently. The boys were thin, and their eyes were all so small – not narrow, but small. The one who took my son-in-law off, well, he had narrow eyes. He was a little older and more of a bully.

“They took my brother-in-law away then came back, and the man with the narrow eyes yelled, ‘The phone, I said!!’ Then came the sound of the sliding mechanism being released on the machine gun: ‘tak-a-tak’.

“Most of the time, we sat in the basement while they went constantly back and forth through our courtyard. The one with the runny nose would sometimes come up to us. At first, he would call me ‘Aunty’, then soon enough he began to call me ‘Grandma’. ‘How are you, Grandma? How are you getting on there?’ and I would say, ‘We’re fine here in the basement…’

“Then he would come along and complain of heartburn. ‘Let me give you some baking soda,’ I would offer. ‘I don’t have any pills, but I can give you baking soda,’ and he’d just wave it away with a ‘No, no, no!’

“On 3 March, I think it was, they brought us their own rations – two boxes and a large loaf of bread. We didn’t even touch it. We had our own food, thank you very much.

“I feel so miserable about it all. This is our homeland, after all. It’s our fatherland [Ukrainian word used here – trans.]. My sister and I divided this house in two, and that’s where we lived: she and her husband, and me without my husband (mine died). I’ve tried to repair the porch myself. The porch over there split apart, and I’ve just covered it all up. I tried to do it myself. The children don’t earn a great deal. I used to work and I’ve a pension of two hundred hryvnia that I could draw on. I bought some insulation… It all went up in flames… there’s nothing left. You can see what happened to the inside of the place. Some of the walls are all burnt. 

“My sister had suspended ceilings. It was a little easier for her and her husband, with the two of them together. It was hard for me, though. I did what I could.

“They say we’ll get some kind of compensation. There’ll be a commission visiting first – they have to make an inventory. That’s all very well, but what compensation can they offer? You can’t bring the man back… fifty-four years old, he was, and still able to work, live, and help out. 

“Fear and dread. 

“So, this is what our life is like now. We go about the place, drifting here and there, all at sea.

“See that cottage across the road? Well, no one was living in it, it was totally empty, and then it burned down. The only thing left was the stove. But that wasn’t to do with the war. Because of the war, all their boxes of this-and-that ammunition are scattered around all the courtyards over there. They look like coffins.

“On 9 March, a soldier came running up to us and said, ‘You have five minutes to pack. The house is going to be mined and blown up’. We got ourselves together and headed for our other sister in the neighbouring village – Novaya Greblya, it’s called. Afterwards, my sister whose husband was killed left for the Cherkasy region with her children. 

“On the wall of our ruined house, I wrote my phone number nice and big with the words ‘Call me’. The writing was still there much later on. 

“I wonder all the time what happened to my house. Did it explode or collapse? Did they throw something inside? Just look at it! It’s all gone up in smoke… The only thing left are the gates with swans on them, which my daughter painted. The swans are all wounded and covered in gunshots now. 

“I keep asking myself: ‘What did we do? What did we do to these people?!’

“This is my land and my garden. The flowers have blossomed. My granddaughter’s name is Margarita, and I planted daisies there [the Russian name for daisy is ‘Little Margarita’ – trans.], pink and white ones. They’ve begun to bloom, too – I went to see. That’s something, at least. 

“My granddaughter, my Little Daisy, my darling chatterbox, you should see what’s happened here! ‘Do we really have nothing left, Grandma?’ she asks me, and I say, ‘Nothing, the whole place has burned down.’ She tells me, ‘Do you know what, Grandma, I’ve already designed our cottage, the one we’ll live in next. It’s going to be so beautiful!’

“As I listen to her, I cry.”

This conversation was recorded by me in the village of Andriivka, Bucha district, Kyiv region, on 11 April 2022. It later emerged that the brother-in-law had been shot in the back of the head. He was reburied in the cemetery. The family of the woman interviewed temporarily settled on another street in the same village of Andriivka. The ruins of her house, with the phone number on one scorched wall, still stand by the side of the road.

Photo by Victoria Ivleva

Translated by Lindsay Munford

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