Dispatches from the Place of Imminence, part 6

March 12 –20, 2022

The air raid siren is a complex event. At night, when the streets under the curfew regime are empty of cars and random night wanderers, all subtle sounds compose a balanced but vibrant sonic texture like a rustle or whisper. Suddenly – and it is always suddenly, no matter whether you are waiting for it or not, the blare of an app alert on my phone cuts through the silence of my bedroom followed by a soft female voice, even a little childish, announcing with a persuasive firmness “Attention! Air raid alarm! Attention! Air raid alarm!” Then several notification sounds from the local Telegram channels come through – bimp, bimp – and even though I do not read the messages, I know what they are about. Within thirty seconds or so, the entire delicate texture of the night soundscape outside my window is erased by the invasion of the three different city sirens that come from afar but consume the entire space from my immediate surrounding and towards the horizon. This layered sonic architecture builds gradually. It begins as a line with a low sounding siren, then comes the other one with a higher frequency, still quite smooth, and then, the one that is most loud and penetrating – wailing. Finally, the whole sonic assemblage is joined by howling or barking dogs, which are legion in all private households of our neighborhood.

I am again more cautious about how I respond to sirens. When I woke up at 5am on March 14th, I heard the sound that I only knew from the movies. I am lacking precise words to describe it, but let me say, it was maybe a sound of a flying rocket above my building. It lasted only for probably five-seven seconds, and it was somewhere rather close. Now I regret I did not jump to the window to see if there was a trace in the dark morning sky, but in all honesty, I was terrified to move. At first, I was motionless waiting to hear what many people in Ukraine have been hearing, daily and hourly for more than twenty days now.

I imagined very quicky how the shockwave would throw all the fragments and debris of my windows and instinctively rolled to the other side of my bed closer to the room’s corner. But there was nothing. This night, we had the longest thus far, a five-hour siren – from 2:30am to 7:30am. Then I searched online where and what was hit. But unlike the previous night, when the Yavoriv International Center for Peacekeeping and Security was destroyed reportedly by eight ballistic rockets (20 altogether, but 12 were shot down), this night, according to all channels, was uneventful in the south-west Ukraine. In the phone call with the owner of my apartment, who lives on the opposite side of town, he asked me, “Sveta, did you hear anything strange this night?” Unlike me, Oleksandr, the officer in reserve, who served and was trained at that, already nonexistent, Yavoriv center, did not lack a precise word to describe the sound we both heard at about 5am in the morning: he said the sound was реактивний, which characterizes the sound of strategic missiles designed to strike targets far beyond the battle area. Next day, we were told by the city Telegram channels that it was not a rocket, but our air defence launched to take down a rocket – somewhere not that far away. And that is all we know and how we know these days.

Most of this diary is not about my good understanding of the situation, but a documentation of my attempts to understand it, even if unsuccessful. This is important, because it shows how even I, who has a pretty good knowledge of Ukrainian history including immediate and broad political contexts preceding the war, an “expert” and a scholar of critical media analysis who has written and published a good deal about cyberwarfare, still am a disoriented subject of the war. As I narrativize my experience consuming local and global news, I refuse to connect the dots, which is the easiest thing to do to cope with both the horror of war and the horror of confronting a lack of conventional and familiar frameworks, vocabularies, and theories. Therefore, as unbearable as it might be, I’ve learned to postpone my urge for sense-making so I could dwell in these moments of no sense and ill logic a little longer, because they are the real. They are what the war is. They are what I cannot say on TV.

And of course, no matter what you have to say, you are a guest in the media sphere; except for the commercials, they are at home. Those of you who receive media requests for comments and interviews of course know that usually you get a call at the designated time and then you must wait for about 3-4 minutes until “your moment.” This waiting time is awkward. As I am sorting out the list of the most tragic news to inform the audience, I must listen to a sequence of commercials beginning with that of Subaru, then one for “those who are tired of online dating there is a real specialist,” to be followed by the commercials of vacation cruises and cleaning supplies often performed by the carefully chosen voices – either twistedly cartoonish or very confident and persuasive – depending on the expected media effect. When, finally, I come with “more news from Ukraine” articulated in my quiet voice coming through the bad internet connection and with the accent, that has only become thicker after this year, it cannot compete with the preceding attention grabbers. At the point when I start speaking, when every listener is still stuck with that mental image of Subaru – and I cannot get rid of it either myself as I speak – my message is already dead.

A Reddit post shared by @DoubleEmMartin on Twitter

So, more news from Ukraine. Mariupol is blockaded with about 350,000 people trapped in the city space with no food, electricity, gas or running water. Some escaped to the city outskirts and are dying there too. A maternity hospital was bombed on March 9th. The tragedy was well documented, and it is horrifying to the extent where it becomes even easier to deny it.  The disinformation about “staged scenes” is run by the Russian propaganda internally via the state TV and externally via distributed social media channels, reaching out to selected uses, like two Canadian seniors who wrote to me asking how to complain about an unknown Twitter user telling them in personalized messages that what is shown by the Western media is a lie.

A drama theater in Mariupol, where the shelter was, and where the huge signs “CHILDREN” were drawn in Russian on the ground for pilots (clearly seen on satellite images) to prevent bombing, was bombed on March 14th. Because of the ongoing shelling it was impossible to begin the rescuing operation for quite some time while between five and eight hundred people were reportedly trapped under the ruins. Unsuccessfully terrorized by occasional explosions or sabotage over eight years to become a center of another so-called “republic,” Mariupol, a city in the Donetsk region is now chosen as a target for complete demolition – now it is 90% erased from the face of the Earth. Ten days after the terrifying reports of mass graves, they seem now a better option for burial, as there is not enough time between the rockets shot and bombs dropped to dig a grave and bury your killed relative and the people have to bury the bodies under a thin layer of ground anywhere they can in the city. On March 17th, the municipal office reported that between fifty and one hundred bombs are dropped on the city daily. On March 19th, another civilian shelter located at the Art School #12 was bombed. In all occupied or blockaded cities, while none of them has surrendered and keeps protesting against the Russian armed forces, the invaders apply a similar method of persuasion: they kidnap mayors or their deputies, as well as activists, journalists, and regular citizens to force them into collaborating to make citizens surrender. Many of them such as the mayor of Nova Kakhovka and deputy mayor of Energodar, where the Zhaporizhzhia NPP is located, are being currently kidnapped and reportedly tortured. Some of the kidnapped were released, others, like the mayor of Melitopol, were rescued by the Ukrainian special forces. The only account thus far with some minimal details of abduction by the Russians has been given by a journalist released on March 20th after eight days of torture by beating, threatening, and humiliation. The mayor of Gostomel was killed on March 7th while he was delivering food and meds to the parts of the occupied town. When a local priest came to take the body to bury him, he found the mayor’s body was mined with explosives, which a Russian soldier had to take off before releasing the body to the priest for burial. Mariupol’s municipal office reported that citizens are forcefully deported to the territory of the Russian Federation with their Ukrainian passports confiscated. Shelling of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Kherson, Nikolaiv, and many more cities and villages brings hundreds of new victims every day. In a small town Kremenna in the Lukhans’k region, today, on March 20th, a Russian tank fired close the residential home for the elderly killing 56 and deporting 11 people who survived to the occupied territory of the so-called LNR.

Nuclear terrorism continues. But instead of “obsessing over the details of a nuclear apocalypse,” the proximity of which is almost boring already as the stations’ electricity cables have been cut and repaired several times, the fate of 211 people from tech personnel of the Chernobyl NPP and those of Zaporizhzhia NPP, who have been working their long shifts in the extremely dangerous conditions, is tragic. The Head of the NAEK “Energoatom” Petro Kotin reported on March 18th that there are 50 heavy vehicles, including tanks, on the perimeter of the Zaporizhzhia NPP, which is extremely dangerous and violates all possible international conventions. He also mentioned that a projectile hit and got stuck without exploding in the main transformer of the Sixth Block of the Zaporizhzhia NPP that works for all reactors of the nuclear plant. The weapons Russians use are reportedly so old that between 30-50% of them do not detonate right away or ever. As a result, since the Russian troops took over the Zaporizhzhia NPP, they have been searching for those projectiles and detonate them right on the territory of the plant.

What makes the case of occupation of the Zaporizhzhia NPP even more symptomatic is that the representatives of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom joined the troops in the act of the plant’s takeover. Kotin noted that there are 11 people from Rosatom, whose names are already known, including the chief engineer Rostov NPP and deputy chief engineer Balakovo NPP, who are stationed at the Crisis Center, although it is unclear what they doing there and to what extent they have interfered with the workings of the plant’s technology. The Ukrainian personnel, Kotin said, still take orders from Ukrainian Energoatom, but before they do anything they must get approval by the Russian military man in charge, who has no understanding of the specifics of the NPP’s operations. One of the organizations that has been constantly called upon to act or interfere in this increasingly complicated and dangerous situation is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, Kotin noted, this organization, sponsored by Russia and with more than 100 specialists from Russia in top positions, remains reluctant. Their presence on the premises to witness the fact of occupation, nuclear terrorism, and violation of safety regulations would have been immensely important – their presence is, in fact, required for loading and sealing the worked fuel into a designated container – but the IAEA representatives are not there.

The territory of the Chernobyl Zone is mined. There were 93 self-settlers in the Zone, those elderly people of Ukrainian Polissia who were resettled after the nuclear catastrophe but returned to their villages within the Zone afterwards. One week before the war, Denis Vyshnevsky sent me the information about people per village: Kupovate – 9; Opachychi – 2; Teremci – 18; Chornobyl – 64. The contact with them is lost. The contact with the villagers living near the Zone’s border is also lost. To learn about my friend and participant of my research in the village Orane just near the former Zone’s border, I now speak to her son in Kyiv. He tells me on March 13th that she was in touch recently, but to make this call someone from the village had to take her to the fields where they could catch a mobile connection. He tells me the villagers are terrified but hide and do not walk anywhere alone, that they are without electricity, which posits numerous challenges including charging a phone or preserving food. He asks me then, why can’t they set up those humanitarian corridors?! but I do not know. As I remember meeting him at his mother’s house on my last trip to the Chernobyl Zone this past October, he is tall strong man, a surgical oncologist, who has been through the Donbas war – I hear he cries as we speak on phone and tells me, suddenly, that two people from small towns near Kyiv were brought to his hospital in the morning – a wounded man who lost his legs and a woman raped by the Russian soldiers.

On March 20th, I am on the phone with Olena Pareniuk, a radiobiologist whom I invited to be a co-author on the project “Chernobyl Science.” She lives in Kyiv but now in Chernivtsi with her small son while her husband is mobilized to the Armed Forces. We speak about those scientists who are still at the research offices in the Zone under occupation and those at the ChNPP. Among many things, this project was meant to be about the conditions and ethics of labour – inside and outside the Ukrainian scientific labs; and we univocally agree that now this project will begin with the documentation of the heroic work of those scientists from the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants and those at the ChNPP trapped amidst of terror in the Chernobyl Zone. Just as we speak, we learn about a partial rotation of the staff of the Chernobyl NPP and the evacuation of people who were in the territory of the occupied station. 50 people from ChNPP, 9 officers of the National Guard of Ukraine (8 women and 1 cancer patient); 1 official of the State Emergency Service; and 4 “stalkers” are evacuated. To replace the nuclear plant workers who have been in the workplace for about 600 hours, 46 ChNPP employees-volunteers went there to ensure the NPP’s functionality. Olena tells me, as she is an insider in those circles, that some of the employees trapped in the station refused to leave – they did not want others to be at risk instead of them.

Outside Ukraine, many seem to think that a dialogue is needed between Ukrainians and those Russian artists, scholars, journalists who have also suffered and have been impacted by this war. We have seen though how the attempts to organize such dialogues fail tragically. I wonder what could be said at such meetings… that they did not want it to happen? that they are against the war? that they will bring back from ashes our beautiful green cozy charming cities and towns and villages? At this point, it should become very clear that such therapeutic sessions are needed only by those who have also suffered. If we are entirely honest about it, this ill arrangement would require Ukrainians take this foreign trauma on their shoulders – and this is on the top of our own incurable tragedy and loss – only to make the northern neighbours feel better while our home is being bombed. Do you recognize the pattern? The fact that a possibility of such dialog is even envisioned in a public discourse right now is a denial of Ukraine’s colonial history with the Russian empire.

Since March 16th, the air quality has radically changed in Kamyanets-Podilsky. It is not unexpected. The radioactive dust from the Chernobyl Zone is in the air along with widely disseminated dangerous particles from explosions, fires, collapsing infrastructure or the leaks of the industrial chemicals. You cannot be at war and not to breath it in your lungs. I already suffer headaches, I feel scratching inside my throat like during the forest fires in the US and Canada, and I am often dizzy. Standing on my balcony on March 18th, I counted twenty-eight fires set by the locals to burn grass. The mayor’s office I called to complain told me there is no way to control the villagers. It is astonishing, of course, how well Ukrainians can fight external aggression, but we are equally effective at waging war on ourselves.