UIU doctorate student Ben Samples shares with us his personal journey of watching the war in Ukraine from afar.
My wife, Sveta, and I just welcomed our second child—our son—into the world during the latter part of 2021. This year, we celebrated New Year’s with just the four of us, and as a testament to having a newborn and a toddler in tow, worn out by the day’s events, we were probably in bed by 7:30 or 8:00 pm at the latest. My wife is a native of Dnipro, Ukraine, so we celebrate the Old New Year, around the middle of January, in line with our Orthodox traditions. Earlier in the day, we shared a video call with her parents and brother, as they celebrated in their quaint little dacha, east of the Dnipr River, enjoying a meal made mostly from vegetables they grew in a small garden shared with some neighbors. The call quality is always a mess—the signal isn’t so great outside the city. Still, it was nice to see them and hear them reminisce about overcoming the past year of pandemic and inflation and politics, and looking forward to all that was to come.
I think that was the last time I saw my mother-in-law smile. Several weeks later, Sveta got a call that her dad—a decorated pilot with the Ukrainian military—had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital. We scrambled to try to get over to see him, but in the middle of the world’s Covid-induced travel woes, Ukraine’s mounting concerns with their northern aggressors, and the stresses of our little growing family, we were at a loss as to how to make it happen. Nevertheless, we were aligning things, and Sveta was going to make the trip. Then, a few days later, her brother made a late-night call with the news we were dreading: their father was gone. As a new dad, I know most of your concerns ultimately center around a perspective of protecting your little ones. As much as I wanted to tell Sveta that her dad would not have wanted her to risk traveling across the world in these times to have seen him, I also thought about her mother and her loss—so I offered no advice and only my support. If she needed to go, then we were going to make it happen. Incidentally, it was about this time that things intensified with Russia as Putin’s campaign of destruction kicked off in earnest—the trip would be impossible, and now there were even more pressing concerns at hand.
The news started flying in from our Ukrainian family and friends. To the south, a friend lost her entire family when their building was shelled. We own a small apartment between Kyiv and Bucha, but we’ve lost contact with our tenant and have no idea if our unit is even intact. Our good friend in Kryvyi Rih, Anutka, was torn between trying to get out of the country or to go be with her parents. She decided to journey through the embattled countryside to find her family, just north of Mariupol. En route, her driver refused to continue. Over the last month, she has made her way westward, through razed towns, checkpoint after checkpoint, in tandem with tanks and military equipment, sheltering in subways, finally getting to the border and obtaining papers to join us here in the US; we’ve yet to hear from her family though.
Meanwhile, Sveta’s mom is able to call now and then. She sometimes pauses during calls, listening to a rocket whizzing over or a tank rumbling by. Her brother journeys out to get food for her and some of their neighbors. And yet they’ve determined to stay in Ukraine. Though she’d likely never complete the dangerous trek, she reminds us it is her home. Her own mother had sheltered there during the German occupation of Kyiv in WWII. It is where she raised her family, where her children were baptized, and where she made her memories; it is the place her husband was prepared to defend, and where he was ultimately laid to rest. Likewise, her son, Sveta’s brother, who had always been sort of docile, pacifist, and maybe even a little juvenile, is nonetheless growing in the middle of a war zone. He has found an absolute devotion and rose to the occasion, caring for his mother and a couple of her elderly neighbors in a way that would surely make his father proud.
It was during these last few months of 2022—times that I, and the world, are still obviously processing—that I am noticing how artifacts and relics coalesce and provide meaningful perspectives for our times past, present, and future. Against this backdrop, I’d like to share a few candid snapshots that have consumed my recent reflections. Some of these are my own pictures captured on a phone from past trips to Ukraine (definitely after 2012, but I honestly don’t know when), and some were shared with me by our friend, Anutka, during the last several months. They are either pictures she has taken (she requested they remain uncredited other than by her first name) or that her friends had shared with her during her journey. While I can include the basic context of the images, I do not wish to share what they (and the places and things they represent) mean to me; I’m just not ready for the reality of that story. As a veteran, I am familiar with the ugliness of war, especially when it’s up close; I’m finding it’s quite different to watch from afar as your family and friends are wistfully confronted with it. And I dare not presume to know what these pictures—and the reality and memories they represent—signify to my wife, her mother, our friend Anutka, or others in Ukraine.
Moreover, the purpose of sharing these snapshots is not to expose the ugliness of war (unfortunately, I have plenty of those pictures, too); but it is to illustrate how the mundane takes meaning—the embodiment of our lives, our histories, and our futures in objects and places. I realize this format may be slightly different from typical articles or analyses, yet these candid pictures are simply intended to serve as an unwritten, unfinished story—which is the reality of so many of those suffering and affected. As you reflect, I welcome the meaning they may take in your life; and maybe over time, I can share what they mean to me.