I wrote the following essay the morning after I lived through a bomb scare in my home city of Berlin the same day the war in the Ukraine began. As the daughter and granddaughter of war survivors, I reflect on war, its wake of post-traumatic rituals and indelible scars on the psyche, as a new war unfolds. Another war stubbornly heedless of the past.
I understand that is a difficult, trying time for many people, so I do not want you to proceed reading without knowing the subject matter. Although I have tried to capture the feelings of the moment—exhaustion, futility, insignificance—these are not the feelings I strive to propagate but their opposite. At the end of the essay are links to donate to help victims of war in the Ukraine and throughout the world.
The police came just as my children were falling asleep. I had just finished reading them a bedtime story. And after all the soothing, refereeing, working, cleaning and cooking demanded of me by a quarantining family of four, I was deeply exhausted, looking forward to nothing more than lying down in bed with the covers over me.
Maybe I would read a book or watch a Netflix show, eat some chocolate and exchange a few sleepy words with my husband as we meandered to give up on conversation and call it a night. I did not want to get stuck doom scrolling—yet again. Whatever thread I followed leaving me with a weird aftertaste: the tantalizing mixed with the disturbing, intriguing new voices finding a platform for the first time strewn among the established worried about all the new things, the tenuous swirled with the repeats, chosen by baffled, baffling algorithms, all crammed together decoratively as they vied to cram my head with TMI.
It was already too much. Too much that day, the first day of Russia invading the Ukraine. I did not want to be reminded—yet again—of my own smallness, of the futility of striving for more respect and compassion, of the anger and frustration beneath all that weariness. No. No more. In that rare and precious quiet, all I wanted, craved for, was in desperate need of was that sweet, sweet moment of escape.
Then my doorbell rang. Loud and urgent. I did not want to answer it. I did not want to hear that accompanying knock and that authoritative voice—louder, more urgent—making all my sleepy bones shudder to their core. I did not want to stand in that doorway and be commanded to evacuate my home and take shelter. And I definitely, definitely did not want to wake my sleeping children, get them dressed, hastily stuff whatever essentials I could carry in two backpacks—wracking my overstrained brain on what that could possibly be: What would I regret not saving? Passports or hand drawn portraits of my little girl? Birth certificates or old photo albums? Documents that say we exist? Or Art that says we exist?
So, I took toothbrushes and a water bottle. Then we walked out in the cold and dark, shivering, trying our best to seem brave even though each step on the pavement jarred us. Police lights flashed, ambulances circled, cones and yellow tape blocked the roads. We were herded to an emergency shelter—a hastily repurposed basketball court. All because of a bomb.
A bomb found nearby that might explode at any moment and destroy everything. But it wasn’t a bomb from the current invasion or some new terrorist plot, as our panicked minds immediately assumed. It was an old bomb from an old war, World War II, long buried, hidden in the soil—buried for so long that some people could even try to deny it. But a bomb doesn’t care if you believe in it or not. It doesn’t care how special you are or think you are. Just as a virus doesn’t care. Agile or slow, smart or stupid, strong or weak, rich or poor. All are one. Nothing separates the living and the dead but luck. Impartial luck.
That’s not the kind of objectivity we should strive for, I concluded as I sat in that emergency shelter, huddled with my family, not knowing what would happen to us next. We had to be separated from the denser crowds because of our quarantine status. Placed in that vacuous space, masked and distanced, I thought about the past and the present. The women tried to cheer up the kids with chocolates and offered us their mattresses to sleep on. An aid worker calmly asked a belligerent man to put on a mask. He called her a few choice names. She went on with her work as if she didn’t hear.
But what did any of our worries and troubles matter on a day like this? Just a drop in a bucket. Just a small inconvenience. How could any of this compare to being a Ukrainian at this moment as the Russian military surrounds and bombards your country? Despite your objections. Despite the protests of Russia’s own citizens. Despite the condemnations from the rest of the world. Besides, of course, the deafening silence of the complacent, those enablers relying on the goodwill of a tyrant just as Dyatlov relied on the safety system at Chernobyl.
These thoughts and worries spiraled as we waited. Slowly, painstakingly, they did manage to dismantle the bomb that night. And eventually, we walked back out in the cold and dark. This time as somnolent as sleepwalkers, floating with every step, grateful for every breath, relieved.
That morning, back in my home, safe and still in existence, I recounted my “unusual” night to a good friend who entreated me to write about it. “No, no,” I said. “I don’t want to make it about me. There are more important things going on right now. This is nothing compared to that.” Even as I glanced at my phone and saw news blurbs about billionaires disparaging democracy and super yachts going to safer harbors, I repeated, “I don’t want to make it about me.”
This is what we do. We who have been shouldering the strain of this pandemic. We who are so quickly put in our place. We let others speak on our behalf. We let the loud, overconfident people tell us what our stories should be. We let the shameless speak and speak and speak. “The squeakiest wheel gets the grease. History is written by the winners. War is a necessary evil,” they say. “I’m just acting in my best interest. Everybody does it, so it’s okay.”
We let them because we don’t want to hear what we already know. Because we don’t want to be treated like we don’t already know this. Because we don’t want to be like them, even though they are the reason why there are guns and nuclear weapons and bombs roving endlessly around the world, every moment of every day. We let them make the decisions because we know it is impossible to please everyone. We think we can’t stand the hatred, the disappointment, the shame.
Yet, we’ve suffered all these years. Silently. Our work undervalued. Our existence underrepresented, diminished. We’ve endured, we think we can’t take any more, and yet there is always more. “Don’t you understand power?” I want to scream as I shake them to their senses. “Don’t you know what soldiers do to women and children and defenseless people?! Spoiler alert: it’s not ‘peacekeeping’!”
At the certainty of being called a bitch, too negative and whiny, a nobody who makes everything about her, I can no longer remain silent. I must speak. I must tell you that my mother was born under a bomb. That the house where she was born was toppled by the overhead explosion and the only reason she survived was sheer luck. I must tell you that my grandmother could not stop reliving the invasion of her country. She told me of being forced to serve the soldiers, how they threatened her and her children’s lives, how the only way she could retaliate was to spit in their food when they weren’t looking. Then she told me what the bored soldiers did with some of the children and babies there. And I cannot bring myself to burden another person with that knowledge.
Does it matter which soldiers or which nation? Shouldn’t we all know by know what war means—no matter how angelic and well-intentioned the country? War is a deadly weapon in the hands of someone conditioned to see you as the “enemy”. War is a desperate attempt at control and satisfying anger. It is ruthless, insatiable, self-propagating destruction ad infinitum. War is not the same as ensuring peace. War does not solve anything. We should all know by now.
And yet the bombs persist, remain. Even those long buried in the soil. They shock the awe out of us. We evacuate. We walk out in the cold and dark. We huddle in shelters and await our fates. We follow this bizarre ritual over and over and over again. As our parents and grandparents before us. As our children and grandchildren after us. Waiting and waiting and waiting until every bomb, every last bomb is carefully, painstakingly dismantled.
Nonfiction story and images by Pauline Baecker.