Several hundred people gathered in the territory of the square behind the Odesa RSA to honour the memory of military forces and volunteer battalion fighters who five years ago when leaving the Russian and DNR troops encirclement were trapped in the so-called “Ilovaisk boiler”.
On this day, August 29, on the president’s decree, Ukraine commemorates Defenders’ Day for the first time. The celebration was attended by representatives of the RSA, clergy, the military – direct participants in the events, relatives of the victims, a group of young people from the National Corps.
A presenter begins his speech. Now and then, he confuses Ukrainian with Russian, and in this situation, it especially grates on the ear. People hold flowers, go aside to talk on the phone, come back, listen. Someone stands aside and silently talks with others. Behind their backs, at the benches, in the sandbox, there are several children’s toys – sand cakes, spades, cars. Unwanted, abandoned and rather pointless in this situation – green, pink and yellow, they immediately call my attention when I pass them by. At the background, I hear the numbers – the number of dead, wounded, missing. In total – 273.
I hear representatives of local authorities approach the microphone in turn, they talk about one thing – about an example of how to defend Ukraine, about courage, about what it means to give the most treasured – the life. They talk, having this life in the pockets. “Glory to Ukraine” sounds, silent and low “Glory to Heroes” rolls in response. All speeches coalesce in one single echo. Conscript soldiers shuffle their feet. The speech holder says about the stone before her, with the inscription that a memorial to the soldiers-defenders will be erected in this place. She tells that it was founded three years ago and that the belief in the word “will be” wanes. It speaks of the memory of alive, that it is more important than land plots, quotas and privileges in the buses. Memory and gratefulness. When she goes away, she is applauded. First time during the course of the ceremony.
The floor is taken by the representatives of the clergy, the prayer begins. Then they lay wreaths and flowers, play a hymn, volleys of shots blare, sabres of the Honor Guard rise up. The National Corps lively and loudly screams about “glory to heroes”, “death to enemies” and “above all”. The ceremony is over, the smell of the gunpowder in the air flies above the heads. Attendants hug, greet, conscripts and the Honour Guard go away. The journalists of the local TV channels run around the square, fishing out the same speakers for their storylines. I know how the journalists of TV channels work – you have to quickly make an announcement, edit a video and broadcast the material before the next news release. As time is limited, many interview heroes are handed over from one channel to another.
I’m also here on a mission, I need to do a series of blitz interviews with participants of celebrations, to ask them short identical questions – I invented such a format. But I’m totally numb. I simply don’t know where to start – all questions, prepared on the eve, now seem banal. The pathos of the ceremony is still heavily hanging in the air, I myself seem inappropriate.
The soldiers stand in the shadows of the trees, laugh. Someone smokes sweet chocolate cigarettes and treats others. In turn, they come up to take photos at the “memorial-to-be”. Meantime, the people get scattered – and my chances for material run down.
The group of veterans, noticed my camera, ask to take photos on the phone. They thank and I think that this is a good chance to start a conversation.
It seems, blitz interview with such people is a completely inappropriate format, it’s not that easy to make them talk, to get a detailed response. But if it happened so, it is impossible to let the thought of interrupting, stopping. I begin the conversation with Pavlo, we enter the shadow, sit on the bench. During the conversation, his fellow brothers come up to us, share their thoughts and feelings. All of a sudden, I find myself in the circle of people whom I recently met and all of them talk to me. Ten minutes before, I felt completely out of place in the middle of this event. Now I am in the middle. It’s not me who leads the conversations rather visa versa – it’s me who is talked to. About the sore. And I listen.
Several minutes later I go back to the square. Children play in the sandbox, their parents stand next to them. At the memorial-to-be, a mountain of flowers is lying, people are passing by. Do they know why there are flowers? Do they remember? Do I remember?
Text and photo by Sasha Naselenko