As I fumble in my pocket for my phone, I see a notification. It’s from my friend Anastasia* in Ukraine. She, her husband Maxim*, and their three rescue dogs are holed up in a basement.
She writes: “Today we woke up again from the explosions. We sat in the dark for a very long time. When it was over, I fell asleep.”
I send her a big heart, one of those GIFs that attempts to convey love, and add, “It’s all so wrong, so unjust.”
Then, I put away my phone.
I’m overwhelmed by sadness.
Knowing what to say is hard.
The fact is, I am safe, and she is not, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change that.
At the start of the Russian invasion, as videos of airstrikes and distraught civilians pushed through the media’s usual coverage of the banal, I felt nauseous at what I saw.
Another war? More unnecessary deaths? Weren’t we still reeling from the horrors of Afghanistan, the bloodbath in Syria, in Yemen, the events in Sarajevo, Iraq?
An endless stream of refugees forced from their homes, desperately seeking safety?
Had we learned nothing?
Every morning my tears would fall as I read about the airstrikes, the shelling, the injured, the dead. I was triggered by the murders and despair and felt utterly helpless.
Then, on the sixth day, I awoke with a sense of agency. My feeling of debilitating impotence had abated, and in its place was a need to effect change. As a loss mother, I recognized this change within me. It was an indication that I’d accepted the new reality, however devastating it might be. This time it was not that my boy was dead – but that Europe was once again at war.
After my son, Alex, was killed, I went to hell, a place so desolate, so grim, so frighteningly black that nothing could reach me. This hell is where you go when your child dies.
It’s a place where the seeds of profound, eternal grief are sown that will change you forever.
“For that is what compassion asks of us, that we bear witness to the hell of mothers as they flee carrying children in blood-soaked covers…“
Yet now, it was another hell I saw. This one was in colour, it came with subtitles and unintelligible screams. It stared out at me from my phone and my laptop, in real-time, in brash, unfiltered horror.
I chose to not look away.
I will bear witness, I told Anastasia.
For that is what compassion asks of us, that we bear witness to the hell of mothers as they flee carrying children in blood-soaked covers, to the desperate waste of life as young men lie face-down, dead, on a wet grey ground, to the desperation of thousands of families crammed into trains, crossing tracks –
walking away from homes, loved ones, towns, villages, trying to cross rivers, clothed in tears, sodden with the grief of war.
In their eyes I see the trauma, I see the fear.
But there’s more – I also see the love. They clutch each other’s hands, they help carry the elderly and infirm, they hug tightly as they say goodbye, perhaps forever.
There is love in hell, in the darkness, in that desolate place where we who have lost so much find each other and learn to look ahead even when there is no light to guide us.
Inhumanity, cruelty, there’s nothing new here, nothing that hasn’t been played out before. Good versus evil, the innocent slain. This story is as old as history itself.
A Europe tore apart by war, armies marching north, then south, across our borders, again and again. The stories of my childhood – my own grandparents displaced as bombs rained down, my father, then a young doctor with the Red Cross, witnessing Nazi atrocities in Poland during World War II, friends and family who escaped under fire from Hungary in ’56, from Czechoslovakia in ’68.
Their trauma and grief have never left them; it lives inside their hearts still. It is carried by us, their children, deep within.
War shifts our perception of death. The relationship between civilians and their government is forcefully changed.
Often, it’s women who are the worst affected by conflict. Not only are they expected to sacrifice their sons and husbands in the name of their country’s defence or glory, but they’re also injured and become targets of sexual violence.
The wars of today increasingly blur the distinction between civilians and combatants, which can lead to a ‘total war’.
When this happens, any civilian risks being a victim of armed conflict.
Since 24th February, for each week that’s passed, there’s been a million refugees who’ve staggered, terrified, hungry, and exhausted, across the Ukrainian border. The majority of these are women and children.
Their ashen faces stare out at us from our screens as journalists report from border checkpoints. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that 15 million Ukrainians may be displaced.
In the chaos, children and vulnerable women are falling victim to human traffickers and sexual exploitation. Within Ukraine itself, civilians not only face traumatic injuries but also food shortages, lack of water and electricity, something especially dangerous when temperatures plunge at night.
Health care services are collapsing. News and videos posted online reveal the fastest-growing humanitarian refugee catastrophe since World War II.
Anastasia has told me she intends to stay in her cellar, even though she’s very scared.
Over the last days, she’s said that it’s too dangerous to travel, the border is too far, that she cannot leave her husband whom she loves with all her heart, or her pregnant sister, or niece, or her dogs, or her home.
“I promised myself, my family, friends and animals, I will live, I will be happy, and I will fight for my ideals. It’s deep inside, and I can’t betray it, I won’t be able to respect myself later.”
She then adds, with the softness of a woman who has suffered infertility for years, that she will not leave behind her tiny Augustine. She explains that her cryopreserved embryo was to be implanted in her uterus on the 26th of February but that the invasion had made it impossible.
“I have been waiting for my baby all my life,” Anastasia messages me. “I waited for a miracle for so many years. A few months ago, I had a dream. My grandmother came to me and told me that I would have a daughter…”
The words reach me from the other side of Europe, from a place of war, from a mama whose world is crumbling, who is forced to hide in freezing temperatures as mortar fire destroys every dream that she once had of a future with her Maxim, of a home filled with children in a country that should have been safe and free of suffering and death.
As I sit at my desk, she shares her thoughts: “I promised myself, my family, friends and animals, I will live, I will be happy, and I will fight for my ideals. It’s deep inside, and I can’t betray it, I won’t be able to respect myself later.”
So, this is for Anastasia, and for all the women in war-torn countries, in refugee camps, where ever they may be in the world.
For all those who are not safe, for the vulnerable, for those who fear for their lives and that of their children. We bear witness and will help however we can.
Every act of compassion has the power to change the world.
*names have been changed to ensure the safety of Anastasia and her family
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Katja Faber is the mother of three amazing children. Following her 23-year-old son’s murder, she used her legal training to work closely with private lawyers and the State Prosecutor in her fight for justice for her dead son. She hopes to inspire others in seeking justice for their loved ones and through her writing break the taboo of homicide loss and child loss grief. She runs her own farm, a magical place where she hosts private retreats for those in need of support and healing. Katja is a certified Compassionate Bereavement Care® counselor through the Center for Loss and Trauma in partnership with the MISS Foundation and the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Family Trust.
To read her story, blog and further articles by Katja do please follow the link to her dedicated webpage in honor of her son KatjaFaber.com or alternatively read her articles on Still Standing Magazine’s author page. You can also connect with Katja on her FB writer’s page. Her farming IG account where she reflects on daily life in the country and the healing process of grief, as well as her ongoing fight for justice for her son, is on https://www.instagram.com/katja.faber.author/