Updated: Jun 2
Introduction by Rida Zulfikar
"June" by Olha Boniak
My Ukraine is covered in smoke and dust, burned by the sun, exhausted and withered—open wounds all over.
Two years into the full-scale invasion the Russo-Ukrainian war has changed the globe. For the rest of the world, like Boniaks’ newsfeed at the beginning of her memoir, we are devastated by the images of destruction and ruin in Ukraine that we see in the media. However, much more rarely do we get to see the nation’s cloudy underbelly, the thrum of unity and patriotism, the quiet acts of self-sacrifice, the noble and determined heartbeat to stay alive and even the small, stinging acts of internal betrayal that come with war beyond the broad, outer slashes of violence.
In apothegmatic and sweeping prose, "June" takes us through this unique portrait of the war from the strong-willed voice of a teenage girl volunteering at her local Youth Center in Dubno. While making camouflage suits and fashioning military equipment, Boniak meets and finds solidarity in people of all backgrounds who have come to help the war effort. Although thousands have been uprooted and displaced from their homes, the Ukrainian people remain unified as a nation, recognizing their mirrored experiences, identities, and history reflected in one another, just as 19 year old Boniak sees herself in 19 year old Volodymyr Tomko who has just died in the war. Whether it be battling at the frontlines or cutting up umbrellas into yellow ribbons in refugee shelters, the Ukrainian people continue to fight.
At the same time there are small betrayals: a friend listening to Russian music, a neighbour marrying a Russian occupier. While hurtful, these too are reminders of the inevitable touches of empathy and human connection that arise no matter what side of a war we are on.
Ultimately, "June" is an urge to remember. It is a reminder that beyond military strength and numbers, the true strength of the Ukrainian spirit lies in testimony and preservation of the country’s heritage, memories, and people who have sacrificed—no matter how messy or ambiguous. That such testimonies are undestroyable.
Volodymyr Tomko died on June 5.
My city has been in the rear of the war since the very beginning – with the war coming to us through news feeds and articles. For the past few days I have seen how the Russians reduced Severodonetsk to ruins, how they occupied the South and how they keep trying to occupy the Kharkiv region.
Now, the full-scale war speaks to us through air alarms. If the missiles are launched from Belarus, there will probably be an attack to the North. During alarms I scroll through my news feed again, thinking about the dozens of Ukrainian cities which were levelled faster than I could step onto their streets.
By evening, the President will probably announce the number of victims in an airstrike, and we will all hold a moment of silence as the President ends his evening speech with the words «Glory to Ukraine».
My Ukraine is covered in smoke and dust, burned by the sun, exhausted and withered – open wounds all over.
I saw a tweet once that said: keep doing something useful to stay sane. So, I've been making camouflage netting nearly every day since the beginning of June at our local Youth Center.
I was walking to the Center on June 15 when I found out they'd be burying Volodymyr the next day. I bumped into Hanna Buht on the way; we’d first met each other a week earlier at the net making.
"I've been living here for eight days now."
"Where are you from?"
"Oh. I've heard there's a lot of partisans."
"I was one of them."
I have a picture with her. She has a daughter. It was her who made them leave the occupied area.
"We put up yellow ribbons everywhere we could. Last week we were there, I only had one yellow thing left, my umbrella. So I cut it into ribbons."
She had to leave behind 30 years of her life in Melitopol.
“It was dangerous to stay in the city. Slowly, the number of people at the protests became fewer and fewer. Some women are already marrying the occupiers."
"I had to leave my mare at the riding school. She is 25 years old, my lovely mare. I’m worried she won’t make it until we come back, after the deoccupation."
On June 15, I didn't find Hanna Buht at the workshop anymore. In fact, there was no one at all. The longer the war, the harder it is to find volunteers. In February and March, the netting was being made in the local school: at least four stations right in the middle of the hall, ten people working at each. Nowadays, there aren't enough volunteers anywhere. They're making ghillie suits in the next room. The suits look more impressive; maybe that's why more come to participate. Most of the time, the volunteers I see at the Center are the same group of people. When someone visits for the first time, they rarely return for the second.
I try not to judge. Just keep working on my own thing. Nobody was prepared for a long-lasting war. Nobody was prepared to spend the hot days of June here with nets and fabrics instead of the beach. But someone's got to do it.
"Glory to Ukraine!"
"Glory to Heroes!"
It's a chubby lady, maybe around 50 years old. I've been working alone for half an hour; she's the first to come in since I started.
She asks whether it'd be okay if she opened the window, then joins me by the net. We work in silence for around ten minutes.
"Is it alright if I put Nevzorov on? We could listen to the video together."
I look at her and I think of Volodymyr Tomko. She seems to take the confused silence for a "yes," as she stands up to get the purse with her phone.
"Are you serious?"
"Well, he's not "Russian", he's getting Ukrainian citizenship soon. He's against Putin. He's an actual oppositionist in Russia."
"He's Russian. I don't watch that kind of thing. Just use your headphones. There's a ton of better journalists in Ukraine worth listening to."
Volodymyr Tomko died on June 5.
I never knew what kind of person he was. But we're so damn similar. Born in 2002. Same city. He has a twin brother, just like I have a twin sister.
He was buried on Thursday, June 16.
There were very few people at the funeral. So I posted a tweet about him when I came home. "Volodymyr Tomko from Dubno, June 12 2002 – June 05 2022." A photo of a young man: tanned skin, dark round eyes. Over sixty thousand people viewed that tweet in two days. There were comments and likes and retweets. People from all over the world expressed their condolences:
"Спочивай з миром"
"Que en paz descanse"
"Reposez en paix"
"Rest in peace”
Perhaps this is where our strength lies now: in remembering and honoring those who got us through the past 8 years and 113 days. You can't distance yourself from the war going on in your own country, and we have to accept that.
Wherever our cities are, no matter how far from the frontlines, this safe and peaceful bubble will always burst. Every time we see a picture of a dead soldier posted on social media. Every time our bus stops to give way to a procession following a nineteen years old Hero's coffin.
Translator: Alice Haida
Content Editor: Claire Nam
Blog Writer/Editor: Rida Zulfikar
Author of "June", Olha Boniak
Interview with Olha
Clodagh Kilcoyne. 17 January 2023. https://therecordnewspaper.org/catholic-groups-say-increasing-russian-missile-attacks-make-providing-supplies-to-ukrainians-extremely-dangerous/. Accessed 24 April 2023.
2 March 2022. https://rac.org/blog/showing-we-care. Accessed 24 April 2023.