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Memoirs from Ukraine

Beyond the border

 Beyond the border  ING-034
25 August 2023

We enter Ukraine through the border with Romania, right in the middle of the once-united Bukovina, now split between Suceava and Chernivtsi. In fact, the region I cross was part of the Austrian Empire from 1775 to 1919. In 1849 it was recognized as a separate Kronland, directly dependent on the Crown. And it is, I must admit, a great passage, because it represents the Nato border: behind us a Europe clad in stars and stripes pulses; on the other side, the Russian bear growls. In the middle is the country of Cossacks whose identity Putin paradoxically has only strengthened with what he continues to call a special operation. It seems that after the attack against Kyiv on 24 February 2022, hundreds of young people began preparing Molotov cocktails.

Before reaching customs I pass through a part of Romania that I will find difficult to forget: Botosani, Leorda, Dorohoi are small agglomerations in the middle of the endless plain stretching as far as the eye can see. One can sense that out there, beyond the sky and the valleys, Asia begins. Horse-drawn carriages, children on bicycles on the sides of the streets, stray animals, men with unbuttoned shirts wandering along the edges of sidewalks, stunted vegetable gardens next to ruined houses, then many single-family homes under construction, likely the fruit of migrant remittances. Customs suddenly appears after a sharp curve. The guards are very young women who ask us not to take pictures of anything: an icy strength filters through their light-coloured eyes.

In the van next to me sits a couple with a child. He’s Italian, she’s returning home. An older woman speaks with our driver. Odds are the silent passenger is another fellow citizen married to a woman from here. Relationships between human beings have their own way of overcoming dividing fences. While the officers check our passports, two dogs approach, wagging their tails. The child pets them, he would like to take them with him, time passes slowly, everything seems frozen, and I wonder: is this where Europe ends? Or will it soon stretch even farther out, where the great rivers flow, always fought over by armies at war? It’s impossible to answer this question. But even asking it reveals the enormity of the stakes.

When we set out again, barely 200 metres later, I see a large wooden crucifix, with Cyrillic writings, various domes of the freshly repainted Orthodox churches. We are heading to the heart of Vladimir’s ancient country in the incipient evening, with the sun haughtily reddening behind the hills, as if it didn’t want to disappear. Soon the shadows spread. The woman gets out at the crossroads where her relatives are waiting for her. Surely in Italy she takes care of some of our elderly people, but who will look after this woman in 10 years? The embrace with her relatives is heart-rending.

The station where we are headed is in the middle of a disorganized parking lot where we are expected by collaborators of Cuamm, the network of missionary doctors founded in 1959 by Francesco Canova and dedicated since 2014 to providing humanitarian aid to internally displaced people from war zones, often Russian-speaking. Thousands of them are welcomed into the homes in Chernivtsi, yet untouched by the ongoing conflict, although the missiles fly not far from here, launched in a steady stream from the ships in the Black Sea. This is what Rocco, from Lecce, tells me. He and his wife, Nadia, own “Vesuvio”, a pizzeria with about 20 employees, capable of cooking orecchiette and boršč, using the same painstaking care in the purposeful choosing of ingredients.

While I listen to the young collaborators, Nicole, Martina and Lorenzo, three young people with extraordinary determination and coherence in their decision-making, I can barely hold back the emotion. It is my first time in Ukraine. I would have liked to visit in times of peace, but my fate brought me here now. But perhaps in this moment, the words of the poet Paul Celan, a German-speaking Romanian Jew born here in 1920, resound with additional evocative force. We’re talking about one of the greatest lyricists of his century, who committed suicide at age 51 in Paris. His verses are like cutting blades, often incomprehensible, and yet, charged with light, beyond their own meaning.

As we head to the hotel, before the midnight curfew, observing the broken lampposts, some of his verses come to mind: “The eye, dark / as a tabernacle window”. I cast a look behind the stripped buildings and return to examining his thoughts: “Train-tracks, Roadsides, Vacant Lots, Rubble”. I listen to the fears of the alarms that the collaborators communicate to me and catch myself saying: “We too here, in emptiness, / stand by the banners”. How could one not feel Celan’s distressed soul in the place where he was formed, where he attended the renowned university, an example of Habsburg architecture? “We are near, Lord, / near and at hand”. The image of the Crucifix I saw just after crossing the border comes back to me: “It was blood, it was / what you shed, Lord”.

Suddenly, against this backdrop of war, an incredible throwback to the 1900s, certain images from the poet seem to gain complete meaning: “you lie there, playing with axes / and at last you are shiny like them”. Even the grandiose epitaph for François, composed in October of 1953, as a tribute to Paul and Gisèle’s firstborn, who died 30 hours after his birth, takes on a universal dimension: “Both doors of the world / stand open: / opened by you / in the twilight. / We hear them banging and banging / and bear it uncertainly, / and bear this Green into your Ever”. (eraldo affinati)

Eraldo Affinati