Cover Image for The Centre of the World

The Centre of the World

Taras Shumeyko, trans. by Julia Lasica
Issue Three

Taras Shumeyko, a Ukrainian historian, journalist, and war reporter, comes to his hometown of Bucha to cover a tragedy that filled global headlines in April 2022. As the translator Julia Lasica observes, the story brings to light the contrast between ‘the personal experiences of Ukrainians and the way their lives are documented in news flashes’.

 

My 13th birthday had come and gone when we moved from Kyiv to Bucha. A city teenager, I had my first experience of taking goats out to pasture. Our house stood surrounded by the pines that towered over the motorway that led to Warsaw. Every morning, we would set off into the depths of the forest, uncovering new glades for grazing as we roamed. I started gardening properly for the first time in my life, too. Together with my stepfather’s grandparents, we planted tulips and dahlias.

That was my life then, goats and flowers. Having found myself in this bucolic paradise, Imindlessly marked it down on my map of the world, a map that didn’t even have Irpin, thenearest big town, on it. Drawing a little sign, I circled it and wrote, ‘Bucha—Delphi: the centre of the world’.

This was an inside joke, a sort of little intimate geography. We laughed at it then, my parents, brothers and sisters. At that time, Bucha was just a small village in the greenbelt around Kyiv. Home to scouts’ camps and health resorts, it had been founded at the beginning of the twentieth century. Little by little, the population began to increase—then, in the 2000s, an active phase of building began. Bucha was embracing sleepy suburbia. But there came a day when my childhood joke turned out to be prophecy.

As Russian troops retreated from the gates of Kyiv, the whole world found out about us. The rapes and murders of Ukrainian civilians, the looting of their homes: the massacre of Bucha was the main talking point all over the news and on the front pages of every morning paper. It became a byword for the brutality of the Battle for Kyiv, a brutality that has characterised every phase of the Kremlin’s so-called ‘Special Operation’.

In the first days of the full-scale invasion, most of my family was there. I myself was away in the centre of Kyiv, filming with BBC Panorama and preparing for the invasion of the capital. Later, I was told that when the shelling began, my little nephew Davyd taught my two-year-old daughter Pava to fall to the ground as soon as she heard the sound of ‘fireworks’. Pava ended up quite liking the game.

Somehow, though, my family was lucky in this particular type of game. Our home wasn’t hit, and the cluster bomb that fell onto the neighbouring house didn’t explode. It was a massive piece of shit that weighed about a tonne. If it had detonated, not much would have been left standing.

On the 26 February, the third day of the full-scale invasion, my stepfather evacuated Pava and my wife Olesya in his creaky Lada, when everything around them was already burning and buckling. They managed to make it to the Zhytomyr motorway where they got into another car that took them to Ternopil. My stepfather made it back to everyone else who was waiting for him in the basement: my sisters, brothers, nephew and brother-in-law.

There they cowered as columns of Russian tanks drove down our road. Fortunately, the occupiers never invited themselves in. They were too busy hurrying on to the neighbouring roads where they had to kill hundreds of our fellow unarmed citizens, or to be burned up by the hits of our artillery.

Apparently, though, the Russian soldiers were very caring towards the locals when they first took the town. They would smash in shop windows as if setting an example, shouting, ‘Come get it, Ukrainians. It’s all yours now!’

Some needed no encouragement.

My family escaped through a green corridor, two to a seat in the tiny Lada, food and clothes squeezed into the space that remained. They left a key with a neighbour, Oleh Kamazik. He was given the honour of feeding the cat and watching over the house—all across Bucha, opportunists were looting empty homes.

And so it came to pass that on the 4 April I returned to Bucha. I was one of 200 journalists bussed in to report on the town that I called home.

We were there to visit a mass burial site. Despite the wind and rain, forensic experts were digging up bodies, taking corpse after corpse from the ground. The smell of decomposing flesh hung in the air, whilst camera shutters snapped through the sound of weeping. The citizens of Bucha were identifying their loved ones.

The bodies were laid out in a row. Some were black with rot, decaying before our eyes; others were still white, even slightly pink, with terrible wounds which looked as if they were fresh.

Who were these unlucky people? Who were these locals of our little town, who had found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time? How had they lived, how did they die? Perhaps among them were my neighbours, my friends, the friends of my friends. I prayed I wouldn’t see anyone I knew. At the same time, I was afraid I wouldn’t recognise them even if I saw them.

Not far from the long ditch in the churchyard, I saw an older woman singing a traditional lament quietly. She stood by a freshly dug grave with a makeshift cross above her, ‘But I loved both of you… I took you to school, to nursery. You used to tell me little poems and show me your teacher’s reports, your workbooks… And Hlib was a footballer, he used to go to training and play so much football… How he loved football… He used to tell me, “I’ll grow up and be a footballer, Granny…” And what’s happened now… I’ll never see you in this life again! I’ll never hold you close to me again, never kiss you all over—oh, how I would kiss you now! No one will say to me in this life again, “Good morning, Granny! I’m going to school now, Granny; Granny, I’m going to nursery!”’

On the cross in front of her there was a tablet with a signature written on it by hand: the Chykmariovs. Next to her stood her neighbour, a younger woman who was also crying and talking aloud,

‘They wanted to leave on 5 March. And just as they were driving out, a column of Russian tanks started coming towards them. The column moved to the side, as if they were offering them space to pass because they were civilians. And they shot at them, straight from their tanks!… There were two children and their mother. Their father was left alive but his leg was torn off. He’s in Kyiv now, in the hospital. And those fascists wouldn’t give their bodies away. They lay in the car for 22 days. My son went there at his own risk and saw that the dogs had started to maul what remained. He brought them back to rest on 28 March. Can you imagine, these little children lay in that car from 5 to 28 March’.

I stood to the side to catch my breath. Then I moved on—in the direction of our house.

***

Just as I was opening the lock on our front gate, I heard the sound of a familiar voice behind me,

‘Excuse me, what do you think you’re doing?’

I turned around and saw our neighbours, the Oliinykis. Before the war, we had quite formal relations with them. We almost never spoke beyond saying hello. Once they even threw pears at us when we were having an evening picnic in the garden with friends, singing together. Perhaps it hadn’t been them but other neighbours. All the same, we felt resentful.

The Oliinyki couple had stayed there during the whole of the occupation. It turned out that they had been keeping a close eye on our house even though we hadn’t asked them to.

Having recognised me, they could barely restrain themselves from throwing their arms around me. ‘How are you? How is your stepfather, Yura, and your sister, Zhenya? How are you all?’

They asked me about everyone, as if they were asking after close friends or relatives. They had tears of happiness in their eyes. There was something childish about it: there wasn’t a trace of the past, of our jealousies and neighbourly complaints. All that remained was relief that all of us from this little corner of Bucha had got through alive and well.

***

Not long after the Russians took Bucha, the light and gas in the town were switched off. The internet also stopped working and mobile connection became intermittent. Although it was very rare, I was still able to get through to my family every now and then to check everyone was alive and whether they could evacuate.

Sometimes, when I couldn’t get through to my brothers for several days in a row, I would end up calling our neighbour, Oleh Kamazik—he lived several houses down and would often be able to report back information.

We first met Oleh Kamazik when we moved from Kyiv to Bucha. He was a man of legendary stature with a thunderous look about him. When he would get on the train, the conductors would never dare ask him for his ticket. It was probably because of this serious expression and his unusual physical strength that Oleh was known by a nickname among the neighbours: Kamazik or Kamaz, a reference to a type of Soviet heavy-duty truck.

He had been friends with my stepfather for a long time. They had worked together at the fire station in Bucha, giving shelter to many other like-minded men who didn’t want to work for the system and climb the career ladder all the way to the glowing heights of Communism. They listened to Soviet and Western rock together, mainly covers by the BBC music critic, Sieva Novhorodtsev, and read the poetry of edgy singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky and the science fiction prose of the Strugatsky brothers. My stepfather had been hounded out of the Kyiv Music Conservatory for openly preaching his evangelical Christian faith. Kamazik hadn’t even bothered applying anywhere, I think. They were a lost generation.

The usually gloomy and reticent Oleh lit up when he told one of his wondrous tales, whether it was about the Bermuda Triangle or Tesla’s experiments, the mysterious country of Atlantis or the secrets of the pyramids, about the Babylonian Ishtar Gate, or all the technologies that scientists still hadn’t discovered. He knew about everything in the world!

‘Oleh, how do you know all of this?’ asked my younger brothers and sisters, pressing themselves up against him in excitement as he talked.

‘I have my own private sources’, Oleh would say secretively, inciting their curiosity further. One of the sources turned out to be the yellow newspaper, The Interesting Gazette. My brother Roman once happened to see how Oleh was buying several copies of an issue in a kiosk near the market.

From then on, the younger generation of my family mocked him a little behind his back. But they respected him all the same and would immediately flock to the kitchen whenever he came round for tea. And he loved coming round for tea.

He talked with authority, choosing his words carefully and had his own signature phrases. For example, when a situation didn’t look too good, he would say, ‘It’s over’. When it looked completely hopeless, he would add, ‘It’s all over’.

In the mid-1980s, he had a mysterious dream. The Kremlin was floating high up in the sky when suddenly it cracked apart in the middle and fell to the ground, crumbling into a fine powder. ‘Well, you’ll see: the union will fall apart soon’, Oleh tried to convince us while we laughed. How could such a thing enter a grown man’s head?

A few years later, the USSR dissolved into independent countries and Oleh warned us repeatedly that war with Russia was inevitable. ‘There will be blood on the streets and your children will be crucified, it’ll be over… all over’. And when my younger brother Ivan would grumble that my mum was making the same borsch every day, Oleh would try to make him understand, ‘Just wait. There will come a time when you will remember this borsch as a blessing. You’ll dream of a small bowl of this borsch but there won’t be anything like it anymore’.

Decades later, Oleh’s prophecies would come true again.

On the day I returned to Bucha, we met at the cemetery. He was working as a volunteer, burying the massacred locals. For free. And I had come there to film the burial of a mother and son. They had been shot dead while driving through a railway crossing.

As always, Oleh was dressed, let’s say, unpretentiously—fittingly for the work he was undertaking. Next to his eye, there was a massive bruise covering half his face.

I asked him questions and Oleh answered, telling me everything that had happened. How those who remained had survived and how they had hidden from the Russian soldiers in his house. How his friends had been mugged and tortured by the occupiers.

Once he himself had been walking along the street next to the market, side stepping corpses, when a soldier with a gun called to him, ‘You, come here now!’

‘Well, if he wants me to come quickly, I’ll go in the opposite direction’, Oleh thought to himself, and jumped into a space between the market stalls. The Russian began shooting at him, bullets ricocheting off the metal and sparks spraying along the rows of stalls.

‘Bad aim’, thought Oleh.

The mark on his face was from chopping wood—the axe had sprung back against him. Everyone left in Bucha was chopping wood.

***

On 24 February, I had left my home in Bucha, taking only a change of clothes withme—just in case. It was impossible to get back home that day, and even more so the next. Bucha had become a battleground. Today at last I was able to pick up the clothes and the hard drive that I needed.

I locked up the house and walked towards the buses. The journalists were returning from their assignments—some were loitering in the streets, others finishing off stories or editing videos. I stopped for a moment to observe them. Bits of French, English, German, and Japanese floated across the air towards me.

Soon we would leave, and the place would be quiet again. Would it be possible to write poetry again after Bucha? The question had been asked before, after the Holocaust.

I reached the bus and climbed in as the engine switched on. Sitting down in my seat, I stuffed my bag under my legs. It was bulky with all the things I had picked up from home.

We started to drive away. Outside the window, I could see familiar buildings rushing away from me, as if from a train platform. The rain had stopped, and the rays of a rainbow were streaming over the churchyard. They curved into the form of an arch.

My phone buzzed. It was a message from my colleagues. ‘We’re headed east tomorrow. We’ll pick you up at seven’.

I had to go onwards—to Mykolaiv, Sloviansk, Lyman, Bakhmut.

 

[Read in Ukrainian here].

 

Image: Eugene Chystiakov. Unsplash.


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