On the Road The Whole Country Is Fighting: A Dispatch from Ukraine
“The whole country is fighting,” one of my relatives told me. It was a throwaway remark, but it was the most apt thing I heard that weekend in Ukraine.
One Saturday morning in October, I parted the lace curtains next to my bed and looked out the window. It was a perfect fall morning. A bit of crisp air wafted in through a gap in the glass planes; the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, laden with autumn gold, glistened in the distance. I shuffled into the kitchen to get a cup of black tea. My aunt Luba was hunched over a bucket, peeling potatoes for varenyky.
“Dobroho ranku, moya dorohenka,” she said to me. Good morning, my darling.
I was in Ukraine for the first time since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. My lengthy absence was unintentional; my mother is Ukrainian, and I have been visiting the country regularly for almost twenty years. My reasons have varied over that time: work, university, family, a desire to document stories about Ukraine, which seemed to me transformed in some extraordinary way every time I visited. In short, decades after my mother and grandmother left the Soviet Union, Ukraine has become a kind of home to me. And it calls to me with the same intensity as any home would—even amid war.
An uneasy peace seemed to have settled over much of the country this summer, so I initially planned for my visit to last almost two weeks. But a few days before I was scheduled to arrive in mid-October, the Russian military launched more than eighty missiles at targets throughout Ukraine, its biggest attack on the country since the start of the war. The missiles killed more than a dozen people, damaged countless pieces of utility infrastructure, and shattered the fantasy that the war had been largely contained to the 600-mile frontline in the east.
These sobering developments dismayed me, and I rerouted myself to western Europe for the bulk of my trip. The shock of the renewed attacks gradually faded, however, and by my last weekend on the Continent, I had worked up the nerve to visit my aunt Luba and other family members who lived in rural communities on Ukraine’s western edge.
Luba assured me and my mother, who is her half sister, that it was safe and peaceful in Khyriv, the sleepy town on the doorstep of the Eastern Beskids where Luba had lived for most of her life. The European Union, less than ten miles away, seemed to exert a force field of protection. What missiles would strike there, when little more than a strong wind could nudge them into Poland?
This is how we thought in October.
Earlier this year, in the spring, I spent a week in Wroclaw, Poland, interviewing refugees and visiting family members who had left Ukraine. At the time, the Russian assault was still fresh and millions of people were fleeing the country. I had spent a good chunk of the past few years researching and writing about Ukraine’s past; suddenly, it seemed imperative to devote the same energy to its present.
In Poland, the war’s presence was palpable but fleeting. I’d speak to refugees about their onerous, dramatic journeys across the border, how their housing miraculously materialized, how their children were handling all the Polish—and then we’d do something bourgeois, like get an artisanal gelato.
As I walked Wroclaw’s streets after these interviews, my mind flitted from one nonwar observation to the next: how well-kept the city centers looked since I had visited Poland a dozen years earlier, how sleek the trams now were. How the Poles loved donuts! The spirit of passersby, with their relaxed body language and spontaneous smiles, was infectious. They were not, it seemed to me, thinking about the war. Even in a country hosting more than a million refugees, it was clear the fighting was happening elsewhere. Often, it was possible to forget it was happening at all.
I thought being in a “safe” and “peaceful” part of Ukraine would be like that. It was not.
My journey to Luba’s this fall had started in Krakow. Ukrainian airspace has been closed since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, and several of Poland’s eastern cities—Warsaw, Krakow, Rzeszow—have become unofficial gateways to Ukraine, hosting aid workers and journalists deplaning to make their way to the country and Ukrainians seeking a way to fly out.
The bus ride from Krakow took almost six hours—it was dark by the time the bus dropped me off at a small town on Poland’s easternmost edge. My aunt was waiting for me on the side of the road, beaming.
As Luba drove us toward the Polish-Ukrainian border, she recounted the early weeks of the invasion. Khyriv and its environs were swamped by would-be refugees trying to cross the border and leave Ukraine. People waited in line for days.
“There were cars all the way to Sambir ,” Luba said, watching my face for a reaction. Sambir was a town almost twenty miles away from Khyriv.
Luba herself had welcomed family members, a young couple with two children, from Ukraine’s east to the house in Khyriv that she shared with her husband and maternal half sister. The couple took pride in their fledgling agriculture business, but their fields were shelled and burned during the fighting over the summer. Ukrainian soldiers operated for a time out of their house, a palatial structure evocative of the American exurbs that the family had just moved into a year ago. It had been caught in the crossfire and turned to rubble. A few soldiers still lived in the basement, among the house’s ruins.
After a few months, thanks to another set of family connections, the couple and their children relocated to a house of their own in another part of western Ukraine—“There was a queue for the bathroom” at Luba’s place, my aunt said, and I needed no further explanation—and Luba busied herself with supporting another set of family members, also from eastern Ukraine, who had settled in Khyriv. Their homes, too, had been destroyed. They, too, had been left with nothing.
We passed through the border smoothly. Now in Ukraine, I looked out the car window with anticipation. I couldn’t see much. The sun had set hours before, and due to electricity rationing, the streetlamps were off, just as they had been when I started visiting the country in the early 2000s. The only way I could tell I was in Ukraine was the occasional person along the side of the road, walking or riding their bike in the darkness. In Poland, everyone who needed to go anywhere had a car.
As we drew closer to Khryiv, Luba’s headlights beamed onto three men in military fatigues. They stood next to long concrete barriers that partially blocked the road. The cap on one of the men sat on his head awkwardly; he couldn’t have been more than nineteen. They waved her car past, smiling faintly. “Territorial defense,” she explained.
As Luba scraped at the potatoes that morning, she reported that an air-raid alert had been issued for all of Ukraine. If I went out onto the street and walked toward the town’s center, she said, I could hear the drone of the siren. With the news, the mood in the kitchen turned gloomy. Luba monitored reports of explosions on Telegram as I sipped my tea and studied the open-faced sandwiches topped with caviar, butter, and kielbasa that she had made me for breakfast.
In the dining room, Natalia, Luba’s older half sister, was absorbed in an emotional telephone conversation with her daughter. The daughter had recently returned to work in Ternopil, a city about 125 miles away, after three years of state-sponsored maternity leave (yes, three years). Her young granddaughter was struggling in the bomb shelter her daycare took her to when the air-raid alerts sounded. A cough the granddaughter had was lingering, and Natalia’s daughter worried that more hours in the dark, cold basement of the shelter would make her illness worse.
“Maybe you can bring the child here,” Luba told Natalia after she hung up.
“She’s here a day or two, and then she wants her mom,” Natalia responded wearily.
“Maybe they could go to Italy . . . ,” Luba suggested.
The women looked at each other. The seriousness of their faces conveyed how impossible that felt. Luba peered down at the knife and potato in her hand.
“Who would have thought this would happen to us?” she asked, shaking her head as she resumed peeling the potato with her knife.
“Who would have thought this would happen to us?”
After breakfast, Luba drove me to Khyriv’s cemetery so I could see my grandfather’s grave. He had died of congestive heart failure in Khyriv in 2021, a few months after his hundredth birthday. Luba had cared for him faithfully through his long decline, and her attention to him had not stopped with his death. His grave was an ornate granite affair, and a basket of fresh red mums obscured some of the text at the bottom of his gravestone.
Luba and I stood for a moment before his grave with our heads bowed, both of us in silence, her in prayer. I concentrated hard on the fact that my grandfather’s body, which I had last seen three years before—thin and worn with illness, but still dynamic, still living —was encased in granite in front of me. After a moment, I turned away in dissatisfaction. It didn’t feel real.
There were lots of things that didn’t feel real.
As we walked back toward the entrance of the cemetery, Luba spotted friends of hers clearing away weeds from a grave. We went over to say hello. They were about Luba’s age and going through a hard time. Their grandson, a soldier stationed in Mariupol before the war started, was in Russian captivity. He had survived the siege of the city, but the Russians sent him to the Olenivka prison that they bombed in July, killing dozens of Ukrainian POWs. He had survived that too. Occasionally, he was able to call or text. But for weeks, there had only been silence.
The woman took off one of her gardening gloves so she could find a photo of her grandson on her phone. “Don’t show him in the cemetery!” her husband admonished her.
She brought up a photo of him nevertheless, one where he stood next to a young woman, his expression cool and his head cocked to the side. It was the kind of photo that you would look at years later and see yourself pretending to be someone you were not. Who knew whether the woman’s grandson would get that chance.
Luba and I stopped in on extended family who lived in a village down the road. They were farmers, and it was Saturday, so they were busy with chores around their property. Maria ran her hands, black with dirt, under a water spigot before coming over to give me a hug. She was soon joined by her mother, silver-haired Olya, who had abandoned the pile of apples and bushel basket she had been dealing with under a tree.
As we caught up over tea, I did a double take when Maria’s thirtysomething son, Volodya, strode into the kitchen wearing an army uniform. I knew Volodya as a farmer who occasionally worked in Poland. I didn’t know he had once served a tour in the Ukrainian army. On the basis of this experience, he had been called up earlier in the year. He now served in Sambir, but it was only a matter of time, the family thought, before he would be sent to an area where there was active fighting.
Volodya had a young son, who sat listlessly at one end of the kitchen table, bored by all the adult talk. He was going to school in person, his mother Mariana reported, though the state required the children be taken to a bomb shelter whenever the air-raid alert sounded. He didn’t like it. Sometimes in-person classes were canceled and the kids studied online. He didn’t like that either.
Yes, it was true, the group agreed: The cost of electricity generators was skyrocketing.
It was while we were visiting these relatives that it registered with me how much less frequently people smiled.
Hanging in the air, I observed, was the prospect of “when the war ends.” Ukrainians who run into each other on the street talk about how travel for men to Poland could resume “when the war ends.” How refugees abroad could return “when the war ends.”
Overhearing these comments made me realize that polite conversation requires equanimity and a certain amount of belief in a common future. The bounds of such exchanges are not broad enough to accommodate the unpleasant, dizzying possibility that the war may continue for a long time; that the Ukrainian reality has fundamentally changed; and that, whenever it moves beyond this dark, terrifying phase, it remains unclear how different it will be and how broken.
“When the war ends,” I told one set of relatives who protested that I hadn’t come deeper into the country to visit them, “I’ll be able to fly into the Lviv airport and stay for longer.”
The Ukrainian government estimates that 40 percent of the country’s power infrastructure was damaged by Russia’s attacks in October. Khyriv was largely spared while I was there, except on Saturday night, after we returned from tea at Maria and Volodya’s. Then, the power went out for a few minutes, came on, then went out again. The night was moonless, and the room I was sitting in was plunged into darkness. I heard Natalia sigh from the kitchen. “Oh, ho!” Luba called out approvingly from her bedroom when the lights went back on a minute later.
The next morning, Luba’s eyes were red and bleary. She had had a hard time falling asleep. A friend had texted her late the previous evening—at eleven o’clock, she noted with some annoyance—that a neighbor had been killed. The man was a retired veteran of Ukraine’s armed forces. When the war started, his son had enlisted, and the man, still just middle-aged, had joined him. Now he was dead, and Luba and who knows how many other people the man knew had slept terribly.
“The whole country is fighting,” one of my relatives told me. It was a throwaway remark, just one comment among many that people hazarded to describe the current difficulties, but it was the most apt thing I heard that weekend in Ukraine. The three-year-old trooping to the bomb shelter; her mom, worrying about her while she tries to make a good impression at work; her grandmother, who boarded a train to come and stay with her until her cough faded; the friends, neighbors, mothers, fathers, grandparents turning sleeplessly in their beds—every single one of them is fighting in their own way.
On November 15, Russia again subjected Ukraine to a barrage of missiles, outdoing the attacks they conducted in October. A missile—likely from Ukrainian air defense—fell in eastern Poland, about a hundred miles north of Khyriv. Two Poles were killed; the notion of safety so many people in the region had been relying on seemed on the cusp of transforming from a certainty to a pretense.
“We don’t have electricity or heat,” Luba wrote me the next day. “But the rockets did not touch us.”