“I couldn’t sleep on the night of the 24th.
I started drawing up my backpack in case I had to go. I had a feeling it would be really bad.” Ivana fries eggs on the stove, in her tiny apartment kitchen in Lviv.
At 28, she is an officer of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but she looks younger right now, wearing baggy, blue striped pyjamas. She lets the eggs sizzle and moves over to the window, cupping a coffee mug in her hands. “I see through this window and I remember that day. It was 6AM and we knew the war was coming. I drank coffee and stood here, and I saw a plane fly very low. This image, for me, was the beginning of the war.” She isn’t looking at me anymore. She is remembering.
Since that day, an estimated 12 million Ukrainians have fled their homes in response to Russia’s invasion. The conflict disproportionately impacts women – wars always do. Women and children make up an estimated 90% of the millions displaced, and their stories are the ones my ears seem particularly tuned to hear.
Louder than bombs are the stories of women, fighting their own wars. Where did I hear these words? They itch in my brain. I think about the scrambled eggs that I left on the stove on February 24th in Washington DC, while I watched war unfold in the palm of my hand. Still pictures from my colleagues’ cameras and the sound of shelling from some strangers’ videos posted to social media. There is blood on a woman’s face. She is 53-years-old, a teacher. I’m sitting on a blue velvet couch with war in the palm of my hand and the smell of burnt scrambled eggs filling the room.
Ivana pulls on her fatigues and swipes on some mascara in Lviv. This is her war. War is always personal. It comes for you as an individual. It comes for your home, your family, your idea of what the future was going to look like – next week, next month, ten years from now. It’s a collective of intimate tragedies and individual worst nightmares. Its battlefields are places that smell like home. City streets with familiar corners and apartment buildings where sisters are setting the table for breakfast. It’s Ivana’s war. It’s Marina’s war.
I meet Marina while we are both warming our hands over a trash can full of burning scraps. “I haven’t slept in a week,” she says. “I’ve been too tired.” Marina is from Kyiv. Everyone from Kyiv is tired. At 25, she traveled alone to the Polish border where we stand, “My mom and dad are staying. They say, ‘This is our country and we will fight for it.’ My sister is a doctor and is staying to help the soldiers.”
Marina has a different plan. She will meet up with her boyfriend here at the border before seeking safety with friends in Bulgaria. But first she has some logistics to sort out. All of Marina’s clothes and her passport burnt in her apartment when the building was shelled. She was at a shelter at the time. Likely the reason she is still alive.
Marina is strong. No one should have to be that strong. Everyone is exhausted. Everyone is in the middle of their own war. Their strength is the thread that holds them all together in my mind – the women I meet, the stray moments I get to share with them, and the fragments of stories I hear.
I talk about this with Olena, as we sit drinking coffee at the dining room table. Not her dining room. She is staying with a Polish woman who offered to take her in, together with her two-year-old son Platon and her mother, after they crossed the border into Medyka, Poland.
I’m with my friend John as we wait for Olena to come back downstairs after putting her son down for a nap. Two photographers in a new bedroom were too distracting for Platon. He cries for a long time before finally falling asleep. Olena is as tired as him when she sits back down with us, staring into her coffee mug. A twenty-two-year-old single mother, everything she owns now fits in a single suitcase. Where does she find her strength? John asks. Olena looks up at us and straightens her shoulders. For a moment, the heaviness fades away. “I am Ukrainian,” she smiles. “I was born this way.”
I came here to document the war, but whose war? It’s not as if “War” were a single, unified thing, or a tangible being you can ask to stand for a portrait. It’s a kaleidoscope of experiences. I search for evidence of it, and the evidence is everywhere. Not just in combat, it sinks into the tiniest things: a tone, a tremble, a tear. I hear it in Alona’s voice. A mother of six children who are terrified by sounds of shelling. She is currently pregnant with a seventh child, uncertain when she will be able to see her husband again.
It’s the goodbyes that are the hardest to watch. The ones that feel like they might be the last.
At Lviv’s train station, Yaruna’s anguished face stands out of the crowd. She clings to her husband, fingers digging into his uniform. It’s grey and cold on the platform. Andrew is deploying to the frontlines. Other photographers elbow in to glimpse the moment and I lose sight of her face amidst the sea of clicking shutters. Later, Yaruna comes to find me. I haven’t moved on yet. I’m still standing here. Am I willing to send her a photo? She asks. They were married only yesterday, but they are planning a more formal wedding when he returns. We exchange Instagram handles. Later, I send her the photos. She messages me back and invites me to the wedding.
Same platform, a different day. Same cold, grey light. Angelina is in tears as she says goodbye to her husband, Kosta, over the phone through the train window. Breath fogs up the glass. She is leaving for Poland; he is staying behind. Even after she puts her phone down and moves away from the window, Angelina can’t stop crying. She is pregnant with their first child. As the train pulls away from the platform, it moves in slow motion.
I am leaving too now. But I am heading home, instead of fleeing from it. I leave the air sirens and sandbag barricades behind and carry with me a handful of stories that feel heavy and precious at the same time. I hold them carefully, try to carry them well, even though it’s impossible to do justice to the weight of war’s inhumanity with a few pictures and scraps of text.
Back home in my apartment, as I sort through the names, photographs and memories, Whatsapp messages keep lighting up my phone. “Are you ok? Did you make it out safely?” Messages from women still in the middle of their own wars. “Text me to let me know you made it home alright.”