by Natalia Torija NietoApr 26, 2022
My first associations with the word Ukraine...
The sound of leaves, faraway trolleybuses, autumn, the smell of rain, winter coats. I am seven years old and my mother leaves the house without a hat. She says that I can come out without it too. What! It's minus 10! My grandmother obviously shouts at us but we have already left. Sound of snow under our feet, I feel I am a real adult. Without a HAT! I look at my beautiful short-haired mother. We come to a small cafe where a man looks at me. I don’t recognise him. He turns out to be my father who I haven't seen for four to five years. It’s an awkward conversation. I have no idea why we met. But it’s also exciting. He gives my mother an envelope: 500 dollars. First alimony that he has given in five years. Nevertheless, that alimony would save us in our hardest time, when my 27-year-old mother would have to drive a taxi around to earn a living. Those days we had to count how many classmates I have, so that we could buy the exact number of tiny candies for my birthday. One for each. Twenty years later, Crimea would be annexed. Twenty years later, my father would support *russia. And I still don’t know why we met. I still don’t know who he is and why I should feel something towards this word, awkward word - “father”.
I have been living in India for the past 12 years. I write scripts, I make films, I have my production house and every time people ask me where my home is, I pause. I don’t know how to describe it. I just know how it feels. The word. It’s everywhere. My homes. But somewhere a long time ago, my first home, Ukraine, gave me an incredible talent, strength, inspiration, memories and enabled me to continue creating, finding homes everywhere I go.
Since the war started I have felt that my life is divided into two halves, into two separate lives. One is my usual: where I write, go for my location scouts, meet my actors, shoot films. And another - the war. The news, photos, messages, calls to my relatives, family, friends, search for answers, or any piece of information that can give me hope that everything will be good. I shout "Action!". At this moment I feel that this is what I was born for. Not in a dramatic way. But at this moment I feel I am actually myself. I shout "cut!" and I take my phone to check the "Last seen" on WhatsApp of people I care about. Where am I?
I never imagined that I could be just defined by where I’m from, where I grew up or where I’m paying my tax, what sexual preference I have or whether I like coffee or haldi pani. Am I Ukrainian? Or Indian? What does “Nationality” mean? For me Ukraine was never just a country of my accidental birth, but something that gave me the understanding that I can be everything. It’s Molfa. A magical object that gives you power only if you are magical yourself.
What is Ukraine for me?
It’s… cosy homes. Cinnamon smell. Curtains. Books. Blankets. A half-opened window while it's raining outside.
My uncle stayed back at home, after dropping his family to the border. He came back to Kyiv, back to his house, in one of the most dangerous areas of Kyiv. When I tried to persuade him to move somewhere, he said he wants to be where he grew up. I grew up there as well. He is always joking, even if I hear bomb blasts in the background. He has been organising the purchase of ambulance cars for the city. Overnight my mother's and uncle's business turned to dust. They paid their last salary to their employees for the month of February and were left with nothing. This is when you realise how fragile everything is. It was the only moment in my life when my mother seemed serious. Usually she always irritatingly jokes, dodges my direct questions. But this time... she said that the only fear she has is that she has to go back to those days where she had to drive cabs and those times when we were counting candies.
It’s the place that taught me how to love. Myself. Others. Long walks. Benches. Green rooms. Sounds of a tram at night.
Like everyone else, till the last moment I didn’t believe that the war could actually start. The morning of the 24th (February) I woke up, called my friend, my mother. I couldn’t discuss the war with anyone around me. I would just break down. The first week I ignored all messages, calls, conversations. I didn’t know how to deal with it. My grandmother refused to leave her village that was 30 km from Kyiv. My aunt was hiding with her 9-year-old daughter in bomb shelters. In the next 24 hours there were 25 people in the house of my grandmother: old people, women, children, men who were taking their families away from the war. For several weeks I was, as my friend called me, “a headquarter", coordinating, making a map through which cities they could reach the border, where to stay, where to sleep. My mother brought my aunt and her children to the border and returned back. My grandmother finally agreed to leave her house only after her village was surrounded by russian soldiers and the entire night she heard bomb blasts. She took her little dog and left behind her chickens that she mentions every time I speak to her.
It’s the country of strong women. Hundreds of bottles of my granny’s canned apple juice. My mom’s smell. Sister’s piano.
Throughout my childhood, I heard stories of my grandmother and her sister who remembered the Second World War. My grandmother was born under a tree in the middle of the forest, her mother gave birth, walked for 10 km with the hanging umbilical cord and washed herself in the river. I remember stories of German tanks going through the streets of our village. And I always feared that sound. When a heavy loaded truck would pass speeding up, my heart would sink.
Without any reason. Without any memory. Just the memory of the memory of my grandmother. I was always afraid of war. Till now I’m afraid of late night doorbells. The stories of the Soviet police coming to the house of my great grandmother and taking her first husband away, were told to me in whispers. My great grandmother woke up the next day, looked at the pillow and saw her hair on it. It fell overnight. I never thought our memory of the memory will be passed on again and will become the memory for our children and memory of the memory for our grandchildren.
I never thought our memory of the memory will be passed on again and will become the memory for our children and memory of the memory for our grandchildren.
It’s the country of artists. My first art exhibition. My first theatre Camp. Molfa Camp. Me learning to walk on stilts and five years later, coming to a small railway station in India with two pairs of them on me, to teach in a boys boarding school. Three years later, I would build my production house.
My stepfather, Mykhaylo Karlovsky, is one of the best sculptors of Ukraine. His father created many iconic Ukrainian monuments too. He stayed back in Kyiv in his studio. Every day and night during the sirens, he hides in the bomb-shelter of a neighbouring art school and rest of the time he continues to make his art. Couple of days ago he went as a reporter to Irpiny and Bucha. Every flat was robbed by the russians. He met an old man who told him about a little girl being raped by russian soldiers in a basement and then cut to pieces. Something that you wouldn’t believe if you read it in the papers, something you would hope is an exaggeration. But it’s not. Unfortunately.
It’s the country of incredible entrepreneurs. Tiny shops, designer clothes in the old Kyiv's streets, whisky sours and a night-long discussion about a new wild start up.
My batchmate is the co-founder of a world famous ‘Reface’ app. My senior started an education start-up. Despite air strikes, they continue to run their tiny coffee shops, factories, writing apps, music, books, earning money so that the country keeps running.
It’s the country of my forgotten relatives. 2014. I'm coming back to Kyiv for my philosophy exam. My grandmother's house is 30 min away from Maidan, where the revolution is happening and my friends are being shot. She watches russian television. We fight, I leave the house. I hadn't seen her for 5 years.
I called my relative to ask how my grandmother is doing. He replied - nothing is happening. He too watches only russian propaganda. He says there is no war. I call my uncle. He spent the entire night protecting the city with a rifle in his hand. They live in the same city. But one is bombed, and another is brainwashed.
My friend called me yesterday and told me that their village house, which she had been building for the past 10 years, is occupied by russians. They escaped at the last moment. But russians have not just occupied their house but brought their tank towards the house and started loading everything they could steal: fridge, microwave, doors, TV. And then when they left the house, the neighbours found their shit all over the place. Where they ate, they shat.
It’s the changed grammar. *Where some countries can’t be written with the capital letter anymore. Ever.
It’s the country of hope. Sounds of thunder. Inspiration. New ideas. People that become your best friends overnight. Theatre. Literature. Trains and misty windows.
It's our responsibility not to give up. Wherever we are. In Kyiv, in bomb shelters, abroad. Ukrainians, Indians, Americans. It’s our task to pay back for the safe place we have right now and to start thinking about how to build the future. Because if our love and freedom depends on the Ukrainian army, civilians who fight, the territory defence and volunteers who save thousands of people, the future of children, families who lost their houses, jobs - they depend on us. On our proactiveness, so that we can build more projects that will give them jobs, houses, future. It’s our responsibility to educate ourselves, to push, to grow, to act. Today. Now. It's everyone's war. War that can be stopped only if we take action. Every single day. In whatever we can do best- painting, writing music, shooting, building start-ups, educating, protesting, volunteering, loving.
It’s the country of freedom. My first mountain walk, waterfalls, smell of bread, strawberry, my grandfather’s wrist watch, his smell, sunflowers following the sun, barking dogs in the neighbouring village house, Molfa.