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Published February 2023Become a subscriber
Of all the things I took to the front for Ukrainian soldiers, the most important was a kilogram of freshly roasted coffee from a hipster coffee house in the centre of Uzhhorod. The package was rectangular and shiny, emblazoned with a stylish ‘Roasted Uganda’ sticker. It’s something more suited for a post on Instagram than the front.
However, its primary function was defensive in nature. That coffee helped to protect not only the body but something even more important – it protected what made our soldiers human. Earlier, when I still wrote poems, I would call this strange substance the soul, but now, let it be the psyche. That coffee helped to protect soldiers’ psyches because it made them feel that they were not just a piece of meat, a target for snipers and bombs, but people. They were still people with their own refined tastes, preferences and habits.
I recall that morning well. It was the start of May, when the nights were still chilly, but by dawn, the air was filled with warmth and fragrances. We were in a village somewhere outside of Slovyansk in Donbas, a village where there were three times more military than the remaining residents. The latter had mostly left as the outskirts of the village were being shelled almost daily, making it impossible to sleep at night due to the sounds of explosions. At night, you could hear them even more clearly; they gained volume and sounded ominously in the dark silence, like someone else’s heartbeat.
That time, our volunteer team arrived at the location of the military unit too late. The checkpoint inspections took longer than expected, and the road was difficult. We got lost for a while on unfamiliar roads due to lack of a mobile connection, so we arrived at the location around evening, although it was not yet fully dark outside. This meant that we would be forced to spend the night with the military, as it was impossible to leave those places at night due to the light-masking regime. Online maps didn’t work, the terrain was unfamiliar to us, and it was forbidden to turn on headlights. We could have accidentally driven into Russian positions in such a case. So we stayed overnight.
As we woke to the sounds of nearby and distant explosions, interrupting our short and restless sleep, we knew it was time to quickly set off for our next destination. But my friend, who after 24 February had donned a military uniform and now served in this unit, stopped us with a simple request: ‘Wait,’ he said, ‘I’ll make coffee.’ Without electricity, he started the diesel generator, connected a small coffee maker to it, and filled it with water. He then took out a packet of coffee from the box I had brought him the day before. The label read ‘Roasted Uganda’. He poured it into the coffee maker and within a minute, the May morning air was filled with the aroma of pure arabica.
I think that’s how the Bible came to be written: people must have been just as surprised when Jesus began handing out fish and bread among them. It was a small miracle, to receive a metal mug of perfectly brewed espresso in the worst part of the world at that time, somewhere near Slovyansk in Donbas, in the midst of war. It may have been the most delicious coffee of my life. It sounds clichéd, but it’s the truth.
With a knowing grin, my friend made a theatrical pause before responding to the unspoken question on our minds: ‘What? I might die today. Why does it have to be the day where I haven’t had my morning coffee? Fuck ’em, I have no intention of giving up my usual routine. No Putin will take that away from me. I start my day with a delicious espresso, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get to enjoy it just because of the war.’
After that, I visited various military units on fourteen occasions, from the north to the south, and from the east to the border of Russia in the Kharkiv region. I also went to the de-occupied territories near Kherson in the Ukrainian Black Sea region and to Donbas, which I now know almost as well as my native Zakarpattia. I saw, heard, and experienced a lot during these months, but that thought has remained etched in my memory. It resonates with something that is more significant than geopolitics, war zones and news reports.
Imagine a person who, until the beginning of the war, lived a peaceful, civilian life. They may have even been a latent pacifist. But after the full-scale invasion began, their life changed dramatically. They are now separated from their family, home, work, and plans for the future. They are dressed in a camouflage uniform, blending in not only with other soldiers, but also with the surrounding nature. Though they may be protected by armour, they feel exposed and vulnerable. They no longer have anything that defines them as an individual, as everything is now dedicated to a common, shared goal.
Another war soon emerges, the battle for the freedom to express oneself, to have personal preferences, and to hold onto daily routines, even if it means incurring significant cost. Having your morning cup of coffee is akin to returning home and spending time with loved ones – it’s about being true to oneself. For a mere three minutes each day, one can set aside global agendas and state obligations, and simply focus on being unique and individual. This is what my friend believes to be a basic human right – the right to maintain one’s individuality, to stand out and not be just another one of the millions fighting for their homeland.
This is another war, an unseen war for our personal time. I have heard from numerous soldiers that they actively read during their combat duties in trenches and dugouts. Specifically, they read books they had overlooked in university, as well as contemporary bestsellers on marketing and the history of business empires. They read because it gives them the feeling of not wasting their days, but rather using them for personal growth. The war takes everything from us, but one of the first things it takes is our time, our productive years, the period that we refer to as ‘the prime of life’. It takes it irrevocably, so what can one do as a civilian, when finding oneself in the trenches, to not waste this time? That is why they learn German through Duolingo on their smartphones, read about the history of the IKEA corporation, or take driving lessons next to the battlefield. They read and study so that time does not feel wasted. I know it’s a form of self-delusion, but it keeps a person going.
Maybe that’s why I started visiting our soldiers at the front. In April, a friend of mine, who had recently joined the military, called me and mentioned that his unit needed a four-wheel drive vehicle. After the war commenced, the Ukrainian army grew sevenfold; soldiers were recruited, and they were given uniforms and assault rifles, but the equipment was lacking. They only had large trucks or old buses, instead of reliable, mobile transport.
Let me give you an example. A newly formed unit from my hometown Uzhhorod was sent to Donbas in early March. Since the division was newly formed, it lacked vehicles, save for an old yellow school bus. The distance from Uzhhorod to Donbas is farther than from Uzhhorod to Venice, so it’s not surprising that the yellow bus broke down on the way. The soldiers waited for help in the cold for almost a day, but in the first days of March, the country was still in chaos, so no help was sent to pick them up. As a result, the soldiers – who, I remind you, were civilians just two weeks before these events – chipped in and drove the last two hundred kilometres by taxi at their own expense. A Ukrainian soldier going to the front in a taxicab is also one of the symbols of this war.
When I heard from a friend in the spring that their unit was in dire need of a jeep, I knew I had to help. I initially thought of reaching out to acquaintances or charitable foundations, but soon realised that no one would take immediate action. So, instead of looking for outside assistance, I decided to take matters into my own hands. That evening, I posted on Facebook that I was collecting money to purchase a jeep for a military unit in Donbas and provided my bank card number. To my surprise, by the morning, I had enough money for two jeeps in my account.
As if automatically, my current area of responsibility in this war was determined. I am no longer a writer, because I do not write anything at all. I collect money and buy cars for the Ukrainian army. Together with a team of like-minded people we repair them, paint them in camouflage colours and take them directly to the front. As of today, I have bought over a hundred cars for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and made fifteen trips to military units.
All of this was made possible thanks to the support of my readers, who have not only read my texts and come to book readings, but also financially supported my volunteer efforts. As a writer, it is a special honour and validation to see that the community I’ve built through my writing also trusts and supports me in real life. Though it may seem ironic, a writer who is no longer writing can also be considered a symbol of war. I sometimes jokingly say that readers are so eager to donate because they want me to focus on cars and not on writing.
Despite my current focus on purchasing and delivering vehicles to the front, I have a lot of material to write about. The convoy trips to the east usually take a day and a half to complete, so I have plenty of time to think and dream about my future writing. Specifically, I envision my first postwar book. It will be about everything in the world, but not cars. Once the war ends, I plan to buy a bicycle and have no further interest in cars because I’m fed up with them. I will make up for the writing pause forced upon me by the war by writing extensively about people, human experiences, situations, and voices. I will write about the war as a personal experience, not just as a geopolitical catastrophe. I will share about my initial fear and uncertainty of going from peaceful Uzhhorod to the frontline in Donbas for the first time, and how once I got there, I realised that fear is an internal concept, not a geographical one.
I will write about one of the drivers in our team, who was preparing sandwiches for us during a stop in Slovyansk when he cut his hand opening a can of food. Fifty years later, when his grandchildren ask him: ‘Grandpa, what did you do during the war?’ he will be able to tell them the truth: ‘I can’t tell you much. I will only say that I shed my blood in Slovyansk.’
The only thing I won’t write about is a conversation with a soldier who came home on leave, who had drunk too much wine and confided in me, ‘You know, there is only one thing I desire. This is an artillery war, which means that most of the time we sit in trenches and pray we don’t get bombed. I’ve been at war for nine months and have yet to see a single Russian. So, I fear that a bomb will fall on me and I will die. I am not afraid of death, but I fear death by bomb, in my sleep, during lunch, at the table, or – God forbid – in the toilet. Bombs do not discriminate when it comes to how you die. I went to war accepting the possibility of death, but I ask for only one thing: if I must die then let me be killed by a man, let me see the enemy with my own eyes. May God grant me this last human grace: to perish at the hands of a man. Is that too much to ask?’
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan. In 2017, Tsurkan cofounded Apofenie magazine, which primarily publishes literature in translation.
Andriy Lyubka is a prize-winning Ukrainian writer who has published ten books of poetry, essays, travel writing and fiction. His debut novel, Carbide, was first published in Ukranian in 2015 and appeared in English in 2022. He lives in Uzhhorod.Read more