For us, there are no safe spaces.
I look at my friends and acquaintances in Switzerland. Everyone is living a reasonably happy life. They have their personal joys, traumas and dramas. I look at them in envy: while living in the same space, we are living such different lives.
I may not live under constant threat of shelling, but as a Ukrainian I’m always in a risk zone. I’m still not being accepted as a full-fledged individual with her own language and culture, with her own historical, political and family background. Even for people who know me personally, I’m really not a proper representative of a particular culture. For them, this culture does not exist, and that means that I do not exist, either. And the russian imperialism that has been shredding and destroying Ukraine for three centuries at this point continues its work far beyond the borders of Ukraine.
It’s at the beginning of 2019 and we’ve got together with a friend of my husband’s. He asks me directly when Poroshenko’s «regime» will collapse and why nazis took over Ukraine.
At the beginning of russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when millions were fleeing to its western borders, my Swiss friend, an absolute pacifist and long-time practitioner of yoga, wrote to me, «Why did Ukraine go and attack russia?» and went on to explain that this was all the work of America and we should stop playing along.
Yet another friend with whom we lived for a year in the Alps, often got together and drank wine, sincerely tried to persuade me that Ukrainians should surrender and become part of russia. Why? «Well, you don’t want this war to spill over into the rest of Europe,» she wrote.
An older Serbian neighbor somehow tossed a word in russian during a conversation. When I pointed it out that I don’t speak russian and that these are two different languages, she nodded condescendingly, as if to say, «Sure, sure, it’s all the same. We know the truth.»
In the tenth month of this full-scale war, the young assistant to the chef in an Italian restaurant asks me where I’m from. «Ukraine,» I say. He himself is from Italy and knows only a few words of German, so he answers in English: «Oh, I once went out with a russian girl.» I say, «That's not the same thing. Different countries, different people, different cultures.» He shakes his head, annoyed: «It's still one and the same. There’s no war. It’s just politics.»
An older couple whom I meet at 2000 meters in the Swiss Alps asks me with some irritation asks me, «Why are Ukrainians engaged in such aggressive propaganda against russians?»
«Because they are bombing our cities and killing people,» I say.
«This isn’t true,» they disagree. «This is propaganda. All people should be treated the same,» the man and his wife retort.
«Even those who support and engage in genocide?» I ask them.
I went to a language school. Immediately two teachers registered me among the russian speakers. After I protested and explained, they corrected everything. But situations like this are endless.
Every time I leave home, I have to be prepared for someone to talk to me like that. Someone will be completely indifferent and rude, casting doubt on all the terror and pain that millions of Ukrainians have to live with, every single day, both at home and abroad. I don’t want to whine. I want fairness and respect for my boundaries, for my culture and for my people.
Sometimes I feel physically ill after such encounters. Every time, it feels like a slap to the face and not every time am I able to get past this experience, holding back my anger, despair and pain. Yet this is the reality that we will be facing for a long time yet. A sober awareness of this lends me strength and understanding that I don’t have to remain silent. This take enormous effort, it seems, explaining to people around you: here I am, this is my story and my culture. And the indifference and rudeness you encounter in some peaceful Europeans shocks. It’s really easier for them to accept and justify the violent destruction of Ukrainians than to reconsider their own political and moral views. The banality of evil, indeed.
Halyna, Lviv Oblast