BEFORE THE WAR BY JULIA LASICA Issue 5
Before the war, my family’s main home held legendary status. It was just outside the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, in a town called Bucha. To get there, you would ride to the end of a metro line to a stop called Akademmistechko. There, you would catch my favourite mode of transport in the world – a marshrutka which is the Ukrainian name for a small van, fitted with seats so that at least 30 people can be transported all at once, whizzing down the busy motorways of Ukraine, the doors open in sweltering summers to create airflow. The road took you through forests of pine trees, across the Irpin bridge over the wide, flat, Irpin river.
Because it was relatively far out from the city, in the cooling shade of trees, the home became a refuge in the summer for not only our family but also friends of our family, among whom there were childhood friends, artists, musicians, singers, writers, journalists. Some became so close to us that they were eventually thought of as part of the family. Each day in the summer, we would all set off from the house, towards a lake that lay a few miles away. To get there, we would walk to the edge of Bucha, cross over a stretching yellow field of wildflowers and corn, wind our way through a small section of forest, cross over railway tracks, stop off at a small shop to buy ice creams, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, lunch and kvas (a fermented lemonade) and continue on past the painted wooden houses and courtyards of flats, until we reached the shores of the lake.
The lake is vast. A glass-making factory once stood on its banks in the time of the Soviet Union, so multi-coloured shards still shine from beneath the blue waters. In the middle there is an island, reached by wading through a section of shallow water, marked out by reeds and rushes that create a passage. Through this we would all go, my little cousins carried in the women’s arms, one of the older children holding my grandmother’s hand, the men carrying the bicycles and picnic food. Sometimes my mum wouldn’t be able to restrain herself and would suddenly strip down into her swimming costume, dive into the cooling waters, and swim over to the island to meet us there.
There, in the centre of the island, under the shelter of a circle of poplar trees, we would set up camp. The rest of the day was spent feasting, talking, swimming over to the other banks of the lake, exploring the various paths and corners of the island and snoozing in the shade. These were the happiest days of my life. As the day went on, my uncle Roma would begin to prepare plov (the Uzbekh version of paella) in a huge pot over an open fire, my uncle Taras would get out his kobza, (the Ukrainian version of a lute) my family would begin to gather and sing Ukrainian folk songs. Some of them were simple songs about lovers parted and reunited, about daily life in agricultural Ukraine, some were heart-breaking songs of forced immigration. Others were the rallying cries for Ukraine against the imperialism of the Russians (or as in Ukrainian we call them, the Moskali, the ‘Muscovites’). We sing and hum these songs so fervently every day now.
And so, the sun would set, the little white flowers dotted over the wild grass around us glowing brighter, light reflections drifting over the untroubled silk waters of the lake. We remained there until dark. When the mosquitoes began to prove too troublesome, we would take our last swim under the stars, gather up our things, cross back over the lake, and say goodbye to those getting on the last marshrutkas back to Kyiv. In the cool night air, we would cross back through the small town of Sklozavodska, up the grassy paths between residential blocks, over the railway tracks, across the blue-ing fields, and back into Bucha. In the night, the fruit trees along the streets in the gardens of our neighbours were heavy with plums, pears, apples, mulberries. We munched on them as we wandered back home.
As I fell asleep in those days, I would hear the sounds of trains trundling past along the tracks, the low tones of Ukrainian spoken from the kitchen by my family and their friends. I would still be able to smell the fresh, comforting scent of sun and lake water in my hair, on my skin. All of those places are destroyed. Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel and the area around the lake we would journey to, have come under some of the strongest attacks by the Russian invaders. Tanks roam the streets. Bombs have fallen, exploding all over the neighbourhoods, ripping through homes. Recently I saw a photograph of a rocket sticking out of the pavement. As I write, my family is under Russian occupation, and we have no direct contact with them anymore. There isn’t any electricity, water, or gas; we can only imagine that they are burning firewood for warmth and rationing food. There are confirmed reports of Russian soldiers breaking into the homes of our neighbours, shooting pets, looting their wardrobes and kitchen larders, confiscating phones and running over cars with tanks. People are drinking snow to survive. And every day, families are killed whilst trying to escape. Their bodies are left strewn on the streets. It is as if the Russians think that their uniforms and guns have given them the right to strip the Ukrainians of all their dignity.
I know that each day brings us closer to those lost, delicious days of peace. But the callous act of robbing children, parents, grandparents, young people of those days, and of one another, will never be forgiven or forgotten.
Julia is of Ukrainian-Polish descent and lived in Kyiv until she was four before relocating with her parents to the UK. A recent graduate, Julia is a writer, teacher, assistant editor at Friends On The Shelf and assistant at The Idler magazine. Vladimir Putin and Russian forces invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Just a week before this magazine went to print in March 2022, Julia’s family managed to escape from Bucha unharmed. They were incredibly lucky. So many others have been left stranded. They hear through friends, when they can get an internet connection, that mass graves are being dug in Bucha. When this was written, Julia’s family were preparing to head west from the comparative safety of the capital, Kyiv.