Ukraine and Life As a Virtual Bystander
On facing those heart-scorching images and the choices we make as individuals
This week, I heard a woman in Ukraine tell a reporter that those of us in safer lands should look up at the sky. She wanted us to remember the gift of an unthreatening horizon, something she hadn’t appreciated till her country was invaded. Anyone with parents or grandparents who lived through World War II in Europe can feel the foreboding in those words like an electric current that runs through generations.
Sometimes it seems absurd or just frivolous to be going about our lives, posting about parties and sunsets and parochial grievances, then swiping over to the news where horrors unfurl day after day. Is it possible to hold space in our brains and hearts for all that? it reminds me of Jack Gilbert’s poem, “A Brief For The Defense:”
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
One of my daily delights is to look out the window at around 3 pm. That’s when the seven (!) Brooklyn schools near me let out and a thousand children stream through the streets like confetti. They are kinetic and silly and when they swoop into view it’s better than caffeine.
But yesterday, it was hard to watch these kids in their bright coats and light-up sneakers. I couldn’t stop thinking about a now-famous photograph by New York Times photojournalist Lynsey Addario. It is a searing image of a Ukrainian family killed by a Russian mortar in Irpin, a town just outside Kyiv.
A mother, her teenage son, her daughter, who is perhaps eight years old, and a family friend lie still and pale on the asphalt. The teen is turned toward a navy blue suitcase lying next to him. It is one of those rolling carry-ons and the boy’s hand is under the extended handle like he’s just let it go. The little girl with her red pants and fur-lined hood still has her turquoise backpack over one shoulder. It looks like every kid’s backpack in the world.
What was she carrying? I imagine pajamas with Frozen’s Elsa on them, a pop-it fidget toy, a sandwich, a small toothbrush, a stuffed animal. And the boy? Did he have a book to read while waiting for an evacuation train to Poland, a Nintendo Switch, his house keys? The Times reports that along with the family’s luggage there was a green carrying case with a small dog that was barking. Had they run the other way or crossed the road seconds later, they might have made it safely. It is almost unbearable to think about. And they were just four of the millions fleeing this week.
Addario, a renowned war photographer was about thirty feet from the mortar that killed that small group. She told MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace how she was watching through her lens as little children made their way along a civilian evacuation route when she saw mortar rounds fly by: “I’m thinking it’s not possible. How can you target children? And then a shell hit. As the smoke cleared, Addario ran into the street to bear witness with her camera. “To see that family, the mother and her two children, lying there on the ground lifeless with their two suitcases was the most heartbreaking thing that I’ve seen,” she said.
We’ve been consumed by those stories, those incomprehensible numbers—two million Ukrainian refugees, half of them children. And all those weary faces in shelters pleading for help. But we can’t do much more than watch. And from here, it all feels so arbitrary. So many families are just on the wrong side of lines drawn years ago. There’s an urge to scream, just move the lines! It’s an excruciating dilemma for leaders of nations: How do you estimate the cost of not intervening versus the risks of doing too much?
Which choice opens a door to terribleness that we can’t contain?
I don’t know that anyone has these answers. But the Ukrainians have chosen to risk everything to draw their own lines around democracy and they are outlasting every expectation in its defense. There’s a startling clarity of purpose in them that cuts through murky ethics like a comet.
Sustained attention is so rare lately that our greatest challenge may be to avoid becoming numb to this endless scroll of loss. It’s easy to be desensitized, and frankly, to avert our gaze when the horrific becomes usual and feels unfixable. (How many other slow-moving tragedies have slipped below the surface of our collective consciousness?)
But this time, we can’t turn away, and we can’t stop asking what more the nations of the world can do to stop this violence. And not just because we are so inspired by the Ukrainians. Their president has warned us that this war won’t stop at Ukraine’s doorstep, and if he is right, millions more of the world’s citizens won’t have the privilege of being bystanders.
Postscript If you’d like to see that image by Lynsey Addario, you can find it on her Instagram with captions, and at the New York Times. Please be forewarned that it’s very difficult to look at. On the decision to publish the photo, Addario says she doesn’t believe we should censor the toll of war, and that to her, this image represents a “war crime, the intentional targeting of civilians, women, and children in particular.”
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And in the spirit of International Women’s Day, I wanted to share Lynsey Addario’s book. She’s one of a very few female war photographers and her Pulitzer-prize winning work captures conflict and humanitarian crisis in ways that are tender and surprising as well as heart-wrenching. Her much-praised memoir pairs stunning photography with her reflections on a life on the frontlines.
While we’re looking for everyday joys, check out this lovely passage by Vanessa Gregory in a Harper’s magazine piece on the mystery of firefly synchrony in which male fireflies congregate and flash together in an astounding mating ritual.
“The sky had grown dark, and a thundering chorus of crickets or frogs arose where there had previously been trilling wrens. At almost nine o’clock, the woods exploded in rhythm, just as Sarfati had predicted. Countless cold points of light flashed and extinguished with uncanny regularity. The synchronicity was so precise that the fireflies resembled a single luminous organism hovering above the forest floor.”
This is Commonwealth, the neighborhood bar (in Brooklyn) where I had a perfect glass of bourbon this week. The jukebox has its own chair so you can sit and examine individually curated and handwritten playlists. And note that the restrooms are labeled “SOME” and “OTHERS.”