The forced migration of Ukrainians since Russia’s full-scale invasion has turned creative reflection upside down. Numerous artworks, musical compositions, short films, and works of fiction and non-fiction have been made in response to rapid displacement. Poetry, in particular, with its dynamic structure, has taken on the function of logging memories and expressing trauma. A poem doesn’t require much time to be written due to its short, plastic form and can accurately express the emotions and experiences of war victims. These texts outline the trauma of those who have survived military aggression, attempting to overcome the difficulties of adjusting to new realities.
Most Ukrainian poets now post their writing on Facebook, Instagram and Telegram. Work that goes up alongside video content can soon go viral. The quantitative dimension of poetic reflections today is almost immeasurable; new pieces appear every day across various social networks.
Ukrainian war poetry, often devoid of rich metaphors, is near colloquial, imitating short social media messages: fragmented sentences, idioms that are understandable only from the context, conventional abbreviations and anglicisms. It can simultaneously be aesthetically sublime, containing partially coded meanings loaded with analogies.
A feminine discourse
The poetry of Ukrainian forced migrants is mostly a feminine discourse. In this piece I concentrate on contextualizing the poetic works of Svitlana Didukh-Romanenko (from Boryspil, now living in Lithuania), Liudmila Horova (from Kyiv, now in the US), Anna Maligon (from Kyiv, now in France), Oksana Stomina (from Mariupol, who stayed in Germany and has returned to Ukraine) and Tetiana Yarovitsina (from Kyiv, now in Belgium). Among a magnitude of texts, the work of these authors – already known for their literary skill – reflects the feelings of millions of Ukrainian forced refugees escaping the war.
Despite their different life circumstances, social status, age and gender, Ukrainian refugees share suffering that manifests in various ways: loss of home; forced displacement; blurring of identity; ‘refugee syndrome’; painful adjustment to different living conditions; and integration into a foreign country. The puzzles of their new reality correlate with poems that gradually reveal a new memory for Ukrainians, which is also the new memory of many European countries – after all, European countries have become a new home for many Ukrainian refugees. This newly formed refugee memory is heterogeneous. As in a conditional archive, memories of different stages of forced displacement are stored, forming different meanings and thematic cycles.
Home under threat
The first stage of forced displacement is the awareness that your home is no longer a safe place. ‘Our home is a shot boat’, writes Anna Maligon, describing the sense of hopelessness and painful recognition when the home, once a shelter, now poses a threat to existence. Safety and security are debased and the home subject to ruin when its four walls and roof become the targets of rockets, bombs and mortar attacks.
War can get up close and personal: ‘Where are you right now? / It seems like I am in a nightmare. / The shelling was dire / we escaped by the skin of our teeth’. In her poem Where are you right now, Oksana Stomina reproduces a situation that was common for Ukrainians exchanging messages at the beginning of the full-scale war. The offensive of Russian troops began simultaneously from three directions – from the south, the east and the north – and nobody knew for sure how quickly and far they would be able to invade Ukrainian territory. The questions ‘Where are you?’ and ‘How are you?’ became ubiquitous. Many Ukrainians immediately decided to escape. Thousands of refugees formed queues at Ukraine’s western borders.
And the questions have not lost their relevance today. It’s important for people to reconnect with family and friends, even if they are thousands of kilometres away. Anna Maligon’s and Oksana Stomina’s poetry evidence the destruction of massive shelling and other military action near homes, and its emotional weight.
Rescue or threat?
‘We were told: Take only the most valuable things!’, writes Svitlana Didukh-Romanenko, ‘And we took our children away. / However, all the children are now ours. / Column ‘Temporary exit’ / In the customs declaration of war”. Ukrainians fleeing their homes had to respond and act quickly. Didukh-Romanenko’s use of harsh imperatives emulates the orders of soldiers who facilitated much of the Ukrainian evacuation process.
With the large amount of people and limited number of trains, instructions also applied to things; the media published numerous photos of luggage piled up on platforms after the departure of evacuation trains. In Bezrukh (No Motion), Tetiana Yarovitsina writes, ‘All that you have with you is / A cat, a suitcase and a daughter. / Good people and a roof. / And … age-old fears.’
Airstrikes targeting evacuees were common. Anna Maligon writes about travelling on ‘green corridor’ trains in her well-received poem Bird:
A bird flew through the green corridor / a few foreign words in its beak / a few twigs for a new nest // The seven-year-old calmed the cat: / Keep quiet, my kitty, eat what you can; / we’ll be back in a week // …Somebody bit through the bag with onions / the cat’s silence terrifying
The panic and fear that prevailed during the evacuation did not allow people to make adequate and considered decisions. Quite often they disappeared into obscurity, repeatedly changed trains, spent nights outdoors, at stations, in conditions that were unsuitable for rest. ‘It has been almost three weeks since we are on the way / Three black weeks of resistance and tension’, writes Tetyana Yarovitsina, recording the difficulties of displacement alongside her stoicism and resilience, which she may not have even suspected. ‘We did it! Overcame’.
Every forced migrant faces a situation where their identity and life experiences no longer seem to matter in a foreign country. An individual’s profession and social status are marked as ‘prior’ or ‘lost’, remaining locked in the recent past; it is very difficult for the average migrant to confirm their qualifications in a different country.
Not everyone can accept this sudden erasure of identity. Anger and the want for retribution for all the crimes caused by Russian occupiers come to the fore in poetry. Liudmila Horova’s mantra-poem gives voice to these feelings via a witch, whose words have the power of weapons:
I sow in your eyes, I sow against the night / It happens so to you, enemy, as the Witch says! / How many seeds of rye have fallen in the earth / So many times you, enemy, will be killed!
The author imitates the language of a spell from fables, setting a certain rhythm, repeating key code words like ‘inspires’. The text fulfils the magical function of a ritual that would induce a trance in its recipient, immobilizing, enslaving, causing physical pain or death. Horova speaks for all Ukrainian women, evoking the gender paradigm: after ‘witch’ she uses ‘mother’, ‘wife’ and ‘girl’. The writer says she wrote an ‘amulet mantra for women’ so that they could defend their country with the power of words.
Horova also wrote a poetic mantra after the liberation of Bucha, when the terrible truth about hundreds of tortured Ukrainians was revealed. The memory of the dead belongs to the living. How long heroes and victims of the war will be remembered depends partly on those who have survived, whether they will be honoured and whether war criminals will be condemned. The poet’s expressive judgement in Enemy condemns Russian war criminals to pangs of conscience, which are much heavier than death:
If I put the grief through the smallest sieve / You will beg to God for hell … / But your death, enemy, won’t be easy / And even in death, enemy, you won’t find peace.
Difficulty accepting the peaceful environment in which Ukrainian refugees find themselves is unconditional. It is determined by a forceful denial of the war and the inability to accept the lost life with its usual course. ‘I perceive the beauty of Brussels as photo wallpapers’, Tetiana Yarovitsina writes in her poem 100+, confirming her detachment from the world in which she was forced to stay. ‘You are not alone, I know how you feel’, she writes, addressing her imaginary interlocutor, another Ukrainian refugee, enduring the centennial day of a war that divided life into ‘before’ and ‘after’:
You don’t sleep at night, but in the day your heart is squeezed / you descend into yourself as if into a mine / to extract something useful / it’s the hundredth day that the war has been going on / and we have forgotten how to live and enjoy / your soul is a drop of light / fragile.
Homelessness and ubiquitous war
Forced displacement can lead to homelessness. Ukrainian refugees have experienced living in camps for displaced persons, changing houses and moving on. Such situations provoke a feeling of what in Ukrainian is equivalent to ‘homeless homelessness’: the war taints all the peaceful homes and shelters in which refugees stay. It never disappears from media spaces either: a refugee’s day begins with monitoring summaries from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and reading news on social media. In Nowhere, Oksana Stomina reflects on a lost home being equal to lost identity. She writes about the loss of values, about anger and rage that weigh down on the soul as if a heavy sediment, about the war that haunts everyone with phantoms of the past and the terrible present:
I have recently been everywhere and I am nowhere / Stubbornly and relentlessly / Wherever I find myself, the war goes on, it breathes behind my back / It scratches my heart, whispers dreams of inevitable. / Wherever I find myself, I am always in Kharkiv and Bucha… // There is too much sulfur and iron in me now. / My universe is in my sad thoughts. My home is a suitcase / My function is to hate the damn gang forever. / Where is my happiness and my husband, I don’t even know… / Vainly I hide sadness and tiredness from myself and from people. / Wherever I come, I’m nowhere, and I want to go home.
Oksana Stomina is waiting for her husband, a soldier of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, to return from Russian captivity. He was one of the defenders of Azovstal in Mariupol. She has no contact with him. His fate is unknown.
Beyond victim stereotypes
In writing ‘We are unremembered and unforgotten for them’, Anna Maligon succinctly outlines the war trauma experienced by displaced Ukrainian women, which can only be overcome with time. Every female refugee faces situations that reduce her to a victim. Host countries perceive refugees as secondary members of society. The typical, ascribed role of ‘victim’, ‘survivor’ of the war, ‘traumatized’ by military aggression firmly adheres to and strengthens the effect of a postponed life, when all important decisions and events are deliberately or unconsciously suspended for an indefinite time, to a future without clear life markers. In such a situation, a person does not even allow herself small, seemingly insignificant joys. Life is on ‘pause’ until the war ends, and she can return home.
In Girls to Girls, Liudmila Horova transcends the stereotypical image of a refugee, shifting emphasis from suffering to the typical needs experienced by female migrant. For those still in Ukraine, who maintain contact with forcibly displaced persons, refugees have not acquired the connotation of ‘victims’. For them, they are still ‘friends’, ‘sisters’, ‘colleagues’. Their counterparts send: ‘foreign packages. / They have tiny pieces of heart and jars of cream, / Ukrainian books, high-quality t-shirts / Because the print “ZSU ZBS” will be more than a meme’. The poem breaks the circle of victimhood that consciously or unconsciously surrounds every refugee. Life goes on, and that’s why: ‘Girls sew bright dresses for girls / Measurements are taken online so that everything matches exactly, / Sweet roshenki are put in a box underhand / And marigold seeds that were ready in winter’. Horova uses vocabulary that is atypical for refugee texts: chocolate candies, associated with joy, elation and holidays; Ukraine marigolds, which housewives planted near their homes in peace times. The poem outlines a different dimension of life where communication about cheerful, everyday things, improving well-being, carries on as before. The female refugee is no longer a victim – at least for the briefest of moments, when she turns into a carefree woman again. New, beautiful clothes and cosmetic products are equal to a magical driver in this verse that lifts the refugee’s life out of its paused state. The poem causes its reader to rethink the situation of forced migration, to look for positive moments in spite of trauma.
Every war refugee has the right to fully experience the emotions that fill their heart during and after forced displacement. Yet, at a certain point, many become aware of the need to look for a new purpose. Some reach it earlier, some later, and some inhabit the role of victim, seemingly freezing in this state. ‘Somehow… / You feel / No despair!’, writes Tetiana Yarovitsina in Somehow.
All that happens with us / is retreat, not escape. // Acceptance of foreignness. / Somehow… // Soon / a counteroffensive, / however
Taken out of context, the word ‘somehow’ has little independent meaning and can be symbolically aligned with the uncertainty experienced by forced migrants. However, the author expresses consciously overcoming the inertia born of rejection in a foreign space, and is ready for action.
Quite often, refugees find new purpose in volunteering. Girls to Girls lists everything that refugees send home in exchange for books and sweets: ‘shoulder bags, bulletproof vests, helmets’, as well as ‘thermal imagers’ and ‘medical kits’. While Ukrainian women who have stayed home take care of their friends, sisters and colleagues who went abroad, those women who escaped the war mobilize themselves, sending humanitarian aid and equipment to frontline fighters.
The way home
Amongst forced refugees, there is no one who does not dream of returning home. Even if their houses are no longer physically there, even if Ukraine will look like a devastated post-war Europe, all Ukrainian refugees dream of being in their native place for at least an hour. Love of one’s country may be irrational – a feeling that cannot be logically interpreted or clearly explained – but it is so powerful that it is impossible to ignore. Everyone feels nostalgia away from home: the melancholic flip side of the love of one’s birthplace. Such feelings and emotions can be traced in almost all the poems of Ukrainian refugees; each of the poets picture a future moment of returning home.
‘When the roads will lead home’, writes Svitlana Didukh-Romanenko, ‘And will merge with the familiar roads / And arms will be opened from both sides, / Finally / You will take off fatigue like an old backpack, / In which day and night you carried worldwide, / Dad’s smile, / Mom’s warm look, / An old pear that supported the roof, / First love and true love, / And something that no one can tell’. Here, the way home is similar to that in Homer’s Odyssey: to get home, the character must go through a series of initiations, endure numerous trials, not lose family values and memories, and believe in her own return. The desire to go back, to feel the fatigue of a foreign country finally fall from the shoulders ‘like an old backpack’ is a thematic layer inherent to refugee poetry.
Oksana Stomina, like Anna Maligon, imagines her character as a bird who travels thousands of kilometres away from home. However, the stork already flies in the opposite direction, not to exile but to the abandoned country. For the author, her route back to Mariupol is closed. Someone is governing there, who is a stranger, who was not invited. ‘Who steals junk and remains of the heart, / But tries on my everyday happiness?’, asks Oksana Stomina rhetorically. ‘Who will take all my photos to the trash?’ However, a bird experiences no boundaries, just as there are no boundaries for imagination, the soul or thought:
But the soul is a faithful, indomitable bird / Stubbornly circling above a leaky roof, As if above a completely ruined nest.
Even after the complete destruction of a house, the want to at least look at its ‘leaky roof’ remains. This written desire reads as a manifesto of Ukrainian forced migrants.
Liudmila Horova expresses a fine line between the tragic and the comic, seeking the positive in a future post-war Ukraine, just as she is still searching for points of stoicism during her forced migration: ‘All my plans may seem stupid, / but I plan stupid things in Ukraine’.