"3 Letters: (Not) My War Story"
Updated: Sep 14
Introduction by Sajiv Mehta
"3 Letters: (Not) My War Story" by Oksana Bondarchuk
"About War" by Oksana Bondarchuk
As an editor, I’ve encountered many extraordinary pieces – some have been sad, some happy, and others somewhere in between. But one theme for which I find myself constantly searching is language that makes me feel. This is what the author, Oksana, does remarkably well in “3 letters: (not) my war story” – she creates an intensely evocative experience for readers to experience the story behind her work.
Oksana was far from home when the war began – it caught her in her university
dormitory. As the conflict raged on, Oksana and her peers became accustomed to the sound of air-raid sirens; often, the sirens woke them up in the middle of the night and rushed them down to a bomb shelter. To ensure they would never miss the sound, Oksana and her fellow students didn’t play loud music, and they slept in day clothes so they would always be prepared. When classes resumed, Oksana did her homework in a storage room.
The war didn’t just affect Oksana’s days – it ripped away some of her closest
relationships. The name of the cadet was Pavlo. He and Oksana sat at the same desk in class. Pavlo volunteered to fight for Ukraine on the very first day of the war. Furthermore, Oksana’s father also volunteered, leaving her grandmother alone in her home.
Pavlo was barely an adult when he signed up to defend his country, which makes it all the more unfair that his life was taken a mere 12 days later on the front lines. His bravery did not go unrecognized – posthumously, Pavlo received the Order of Courage III degree from the President of Ukraine.
Ultimately, Oksana wrote “3 letters: (not) my war story” to tell the world about Pavlo, her dear friend and the hero of all Ukraine.
The official statistics on the Russia-Ukraine War state that there have been 125,000 Ukrainian casualties and 14 million Ukrainians displaced (Faulconbridge). What these statistics fail to capture, however, are the countless Ukrainians who have not only been displaced physically but also emotionally – the loved ones of those who have and will continue to take up arms.
Oksana alludes to this fact in the title of the piece; by placing the word “not” in
parentheses, she indicates that although she didn’t follow Pavlo to the battlefield, her spirit stood alongside him on the front lines.
No one should be forced to familiarize themself with the sounds of air-raid sirens or complete their schoolwork in a storage room. No one should be forced to sacrifice their future as an adult to go to war.
Despite these injustices, Oksana closes the piece on a hopeful note by emphasizing the importance of cherished relationships. Although the war robbed her of meaningful bonds, it also has the capability to strengthen others. Oksana’s writing emotionally displays the value of love and serves as a reminder to us all that even in times of suffering, we will rise again.
"3 Letters: (Not) My War Story"
When you live in a dorm hundreds of miles from home, war comes as a shrill sound in the middle of the night, warning you to find cover. Here you can't tell if it's a thunderstorm or a series of explosions. Here I write poems in bomb shelters and run a literary magazine. Here people play games, joke while air strike alerts rage on, share food so that there's enough for everyone. Here you can see the writing on the wall: "Keep fighting — you are sure to win!"*
Here a little girl from Kramatorsk asks me:
"Why are you here?"
"I study at the uni here."
"And I am here because of the war,” she responds without prompting.
She runs off to her mom to ask her once again "Why? —"
She gives me her drawings that she didn't have the chance to give me on the holiday and a teddy bear that she got from the volunteers.
“Be careful so I can see you again,” she remarks as she hands the gifts over.
"This is yours, keep it, play with it."
"No, I want you to have it. It's my present to you."
She also made us friendship bracelets, and every time she hugs me tight as if it was the last time we would ever see each other; she brings me cookies, tells me about her favorite colors, shows me her cats they've left at home and is positively thrilled when she finds out we have birthdays on the same day. She calls us BFFs. Yet, anxiety is building up, reminding me every day that I'm hundreds of miles away from home and my loved ones.
This Easter I wasn’t at home for the festivities. This year didn't feel festive at all. My heart was breaking.
My grams baked a few dozen paskas*, as always, but this time she baked all alone. And this year there's no one there to eat them. No children, no grandkids. She laid a big Easter table, but there are only two chairs at it instead of the usual fifteen. This time it's only for her and her son. No one asks for a paska fresh from the oven, and I'm not there to decorate the eggs with fancy patterns. The only sound is that of the TV.
"Wait for me, don't plant potatoes by yourself, I will come to help," I`m trying to persuade her.
*..there are 6 injured as a result of a projectile hitting a high-rise building…. * . . . *..the rocket hit a residential building..*
"Oh, Oksanochka*, it'll be time to gather them when you come," she laughs.
Pain is burning me to the core; my heart is pounding, it knocks my breath out and I can no longer utter a single word. I'm scared. Fear muffles all other feelings. I no longer laugh as often and sincerely or listen to the loud music, so that I don't miss the siren. I no longer plan far. I no longer sleep soundly — war has crept into my dreams as well.
It is unspeakably difficult to realize that nothing will ever be the same as before.
When I reflect on the girl from Kramatorsk, I can't help but think about how the war robbed so many people of their childhoods and forced them to leave their homes. The fact that I, too, am far from my own home makes this realization all the more poignant. It breaks my heart to imagine my grandmother celebrating Easter alone, somewhere out there.
Memories take me back to my hometown, and I find myself constantly thinking about someone who was truly significant in my life. It's strange how memories can be both the best and worst aspects of our experiences.
…We came into the class and sat at our desks. For me, it was a new class and new people. I noticed him right away. Then we were sat at the same desk. The teachers said that he was not to distract a straight-A student from studying, but at the same time cast furtive glances at us and smiled quietly. He kept writing “luv” notes to me, and I kept rejecting him. He asked me to slow dance and held me so tight that I couldn't get out. He kept writing that he's in love with me. I laughed him off but I did develop a fondness for him. He was a dear friend to me.
I was so proud of him. He was 18 and a cadet. He looked so good in the uniform. We wouldn’t talk for a long while, and then he'd call me at 2 a.m. and we'd reminisce about school times. He said he'd come back to our hometown and that we'd go out together and celebrate his birthday. And then we'd go to the school reunion. We would laugh and he'd walk me home once again. We would talk about all sorts of things, would share memories, would laugh and fall silent. This is what should've been. But it never happened.
On the first day of the full-scale war he volunteered for the front.
"I can't say where we are, but everything's fine. It will be ok, just don't worry." Who could've known that these were his last words to me?
After the call from my sister, my fingers immediately went to text him: "This can't be true, right? You're alive, you're alright, this has to be some kind of mistake? Please, text me back; say it's not true. Hello, are you there?"
I saw footage of the city he was defending. I saw it, and it was frightening. It was frightening to imagine what he went through. He was still a kid. He should play soccer, babysit his sisters, go out on dates and confess his love.
"You're so brave, you know that? You were awarded the Order for Courage. Posthumously. Do you know that?"
He was always a rescuer. This time he gave his life for his commander. I'm so proud of him. We did meet back in our hometown. But we couldn't say goodbye to each other for the last time. . .
War — three letters that took Him away from me, took lives of thousands of people, destroyed cities, took our youth, smiles, our happiness.
I want to rewind time. To a place where there was no need to wake up to the wail of a siren and run for cover. Where everyone was together. And everyone was alive.
Sometimes it seems to me that He will call me. We would go with him to watch the sunset and talk about everything in the world. As it was once upon a time. But my mind tells me that it will never be the same again.
As I experienced the horrors of war, everything that once seemed significant faded into the background. Now, the most valuable thing to me is hearing that my loved ones are safe and sound. Their well-being is more important than anything in the world. I cherish every moment spent with them and strive to make the most of our time together, knowing that it can be fleeting in this unpredictable world.
I think it's time to go to Grandma and give her a big hug.
*"Keep fighting — you are sure to win!": a quote from Taras Schevchenko's "The Caucasus" (in translation by John Weir)
*paskas: traditional Ukrainian pastry, which according to Orthodox tradition is baked for Easter
*Oksanochka: a variant of the name "Oksana" in the affectionate form
Content Editor: Kayla Phillips
Blog Writer/Editor: Sajiv Mehta
"About War": An Addendum to Oksana's Experience
The war caught me when I was living in a dormitory in Lviv 300 km from home. For a long time I was not able to go home. (I am from the Zhytomyr region, from the town of Romaniv (200 km from Kyiv).
I woke up to the sound of a siren that sounded in the dormitory so that everyone could hear and immediately go down to the bomb shelter. Sometimes we sat for 5 hours without communication. We sat on mattresses in a dark basement. Later, to amuse ourselves, we tried to cheer ourselves up, although it wasn't funny at all. To relieve sadness, we played games. We drank tea and ate in the bomb shelter. Someone shared food with those who had absolutely nothing.
Back then, we couldn't even listen to music loudly. We did not allow ourselves to laugh. We were always on the lookout to hear the sound of the air-raid siren. It was very scary to go to sleep. We slept in our clothes so that if the alarm started, we could quickly run to the bomb shelter.
After a few weeks, I resumed my studies at the university and while sitting in the storage room I did university assignments and even wrote a literary magazine.
And it happened that we could not distinguish the sounds of explosions from the sounds of thunder.
IDPs also lived in our dormitory. That's how I met the girl I'm writing about in my text.
The boy I am writing about is Pavlo. He is my former classmate, we sat at the same desk.
After school, he entered the Zhytomyr Military Institute named after S.P. Korolyova. On February 24, the first day of the full-scale war, he signed up as a volunteer. At that time he was 18 years old. I remember on the 2nd day of the full scale invasion I wrote to him and asked where he was. He sent me a voice message saying that he couldn't say where he was, but assured me that everything would be fine, the main thing was not to worry.
He died on March 8, 2022. He was fatally wounded in the Kyiv region during a combat mission. He and his comrades defended the village of Gorenka, Buchan district, located between Kyiv and Gostomel. On March 7, during the shelling by Kadyrov mercenaries, he and his comrades rushed to save the commander. During the evacuation, a mine took the life of the commander and seriously injured Pavlo. Doctors fought for his life, but it was not possible to save him.
The President awarded Pavlo with the Order of Courage III degree posthumously.
I couldn't believe it when I first heard about it. It seemed to me that this was not true. At first, I couldn't accept this information, my brain refused to accept it as true. I could not come to his funeral. At that time, I was in another region and it was impossible to get home. It was very scary to move, because there was a lack of understanding of what to do next.
Every time my thoughts return to him, I feel indescribable pain and tears well up in my eyes.
On the first day of the full-scale war, my father volunteered for the ranks of the Armed Forces. And my grandmother was left alone. I was not able to come to her on the holiday. I remember how on the eve of Easter I cried a lot, because more than anything else in the world I wanted to be home.
Morally it was very hard for me. I was very worried about my grandmother and I was very sad and hurt that she was left alone. I was not at home then for 5 months.
Sometimes it seems like a terrible dream. That everything is not true.
I want everyone to know what is happening in Ukraine. And to let you all know about my classmate Pavlo. He is my hero and the hero of Ukraine.
About the Author, Oksana Bondarchuk
I hail from Romaniv, a small town in the Zhytormyr Region of Ukraine. Currently, I am in my third year pursuing a degree in Journalism at Lviv University, Ukraine. Reading books is one of my favourite pastimes, and it fuels my imagination and broadens my perspective. However, my true passion lies in writing, which has been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember. Expressing myself through the written word has helped me discover more about myself and navigate through a range of emotions with ease.
Interview with Oksana
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Djurica, Marko. 9 February 2023. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/policymakers-keep-ukrainian-soldiers-front-of-mind-as-this-war-of-attrition-continues/. Accessed 1 June 2023.