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War in Ukraine: Life in a city taken over by the Russians is a pantomime of the life that was | International

An elderly woman walks with the help of a cane next to her building, damaged by Russian bombardment in Kharkov, on Tuesday.
An elderly woman walks with the help of a cane next to her building, damaged by Russian bombardment in Kharkov, on Tuesday.SERGEY BOBOK (AFP)

My grandmother tells me about the war. “You don’t know how scary it is to be in a cold basement all night while people are shooting outside,” she says. Almost all the grandparents in Europe tell their grandchildren stories of the war, but not all of them tell them live, minute by minute, by WhatsApp call. The war my grandmother tells me about did not happen 80 years ago. It is happening now, as I write this and you read it.

In the city my grandmother fled to after leaving Mariupol on the first day of the Russian invasion, four days passed without electricity, water, heating, coverage or internet connection. In those four days, the Russian troops took the city they were in and, despite the fact that the mayor has not abandoned it, it is the Russians who patrol the streets and travel freely in tanks and combat vehicles. They also lead a normal life: they are seen going to the hairdresser to get a haircut or greeting the neighbors who queue at the doors of the stores. They all say the same thing: “Don’t worry, this will be over soon. We have freed you.” My grandmother says that when they greet her, she turns her face to them.

Life in a city under the control of Russian soldiers is a pantomime of the life that was. The stores, which have not been supplied with food since February 24, reopened this week, but have hardly anything to sell. They get rid of the food that is still on the shelves, some food is already expired and others ended up spoiled after the power outages. Even so, my grandmother is positive: “We are not rummaging through the rubbish bins yet, we can’t complain either.”

The most tragic and dramatic situations usually move the indicator of the complaint towards limits that in a normal moment seemed intolerable to you. For a store to sell expired food was intolerable. For a store to let you take home just a packet of oatmeal and a brick of powdered pea cream was intolerable. That you have to queue for three hours under the snow to get a loaf of bread, only one per person, was intolerable. Now it’s just day to day.

You accept that gas stations do not have gasoline, that pharmacies do not have medicines and you accept to reserve the water that you get in bottles: it is for drinking or cooking, but not for washing clothes because that becomes a secondary need. My grandmother is embarrassed to say it, but in the end she confesses it to me: “I left with a bag of panties and I forgot to throw on some clothes. So here I am, two weeks later, with the same clothes day after day. I don’t even take it off to sleep, lest they start bombing and I have to run back to the basement.” She is also embarrassed to tell me that the four days they were without electricity or water they had to relieve themselves in a plastic bag like the ones we use in the first world to collect dog shit. Sometimes we forget that war is not just about bombs and gunshots. It is also the removal of all traces of humanity, turning into an animal because of the delusions of a beast sitting in her Moscow office.

In a city where the curfew starts at six in the evening and ends at six in the morning, my grandmother spends most of the day waiting in line. In the morning she leaves the house to walk around the streets and if she sees a queue of hers she joins it. As during the times of perestroika, the people waiting at the doors of the store do not know what they are waiting for, nor how many products they will be able to take away, nor if, when their turn comes, there will be something left to take away.

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“I’ll start waiting, I’ll take something with me,” he tells me. Then she writes to me, proud that this Tuesday she has managed to buy a pack of tea, another of biscuits and a few boxes of matches. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to go home,” she says on the other end of the phone and, for the first time, her voice trembles from her. Then it becomes a raging cry: “I don’t care who is going to govern me. I just want to see my children and grandchildren again, for them to visit me at home and make you all pancakes”. And I just want my grandmother to stop telling me war stories.

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