“I Live with a Terrorist”
Introduction by Taylen Huang
"I Live with a Terrorist", "I Slept Through the War”, and "Snails" by Anhelina Hrytsei
"Inspirations: Explanatory Notes" by Anhelina Hrytsei
What is war? To many of us, it may just mean that somewhere far away, in a foreign country with city names you can’t pronounce and a language you don’t speak and a leader whose face you’re vaguely familiar with, there is fighting. Fighting— a vague, euphemistic term that encompasses just about everything and means nothing at the same time. We send supplies and well wishes; post and re-post messages of support; experience acute twinges of sympathy and grief when we read about families torn apart and soldiers who died valiantly trying to save a besieged town. And from the bottom of our hearts, we mean all of it.
But there is a privilege that most of us, as citizens living outside of Ukraine who have few stakes in and little connection to the country, rarely acknowledge or even realize. To us, the war is cordoned off, kept neatly within the confines of borders drawn in permanent marker; a quarantine zone that the virus cannot escape. We see and feel, often very intensely—but how much does it really affect us? In the Internet age, it has become overwhelmingly easy to opt out of reality. One click, and we’re back in a world without unjust invasions, bombings, or deaths. We can still fall asleep at night without fearing bomb raids or worrying about the safety of our relatives back home.
Yet the reality for people at the heart of the war or simply near it—both geographically and emotionally—is that war and its perpetrators permeate everything. This is the crux of Anhelina’s pieces, which, though differing subtly in theme and content, all explore the essential question of what it means for to be Ukrainian during the Russo-Ukrainian War: your daily life inextricably tethered to every turn of events at home, every move the invader makes, even when you have already left the country.
In “I Live with a Terrorist,” Russian forces shows up as a terrorist unannounced in your bedroom, even though you are thousands of miles away in Toronto. The terrorist follows you to class, to lunch, to the laundry room, his presence looming over you as you go through what is superficially a normal day, a constant reminder of his ability to torment and inflict harm. Occasionally the terrorist is worn out and briefly defeated, but he soon returns (replaced by a new batch of soldiers), “angrier and more vicious than before.” As Anhelina emphasizes in her explanatory notes: “Being in a safe environment did not remove the omnipresence of war and the aggressor from my everyday experiences.”
The world itself has become unrecognizable—wracked by missile explosions and senseless violence, one’s perspective of it tainted with desperation and suffering. Ever since the outbreak of war, Anhelina writes, she has been “[living] through the looking glass.” Despite its deceptively serene title, “I Slept Through the War” is packed with ceaseless, frantic activity; the poem thrums with urgency, with Ukrainians’ palpable need to just do something. Families grit their teeth as they make the excruciating decision to “push” their own flesh and blood away to distant countries for protection; individuals are forced to quit jobs, drop out of school, and work doubly hard to ensure they have a future at all. And, amid the cries of despondent parents and the fatigued figures hunched over desks, Russian politicians “doubt if they should cease fire / on pregnant Ukrainian women,” further highlighting the utter disregard they have for human lives.
However, there is so much more to Anhelina’s stories than harrowing descriptions of tragedy and loss. Equally important to her narrative are the latter parts of her stories, which make an argument for resilience, dignity, and most crucially—hope. “Snail,” the final act of her three pieces, perfectly embodies such sentiment. “People carry shells just like snails do,” she writes, indicating that “home” is a concept that can be inherent within oneself, meaning that her home is “always with [her]...even when [her] home could be destroyed by Russian rockets anytime.” Despite being thousands of miles away from home in a foreign country, she declares that so long as she keeps memorabilia from her family with her and continues to walk “with [her] head held high,” she “will always have a place to return to feel safe again.”
The same is true of her other two pieces. In “I Live With a Terrorist,” Anhelina indicates that mere physical threats are not enough to intimidate her or diminish her strength, or that of the Ukrainian public. Similarly, in “I Slept Through the War,” exhausted by events that they have no control over and recognizing that “strength lies in / making peace with being powerless,” Anhelina and thousands of other Ukrainians decide to help weave camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military, a seemingly small action that carries great significance.
Furthermore, Anhelina shrewdly addresses the terrorist, “I can be you[,] but I choose not to,” implying that Ukrainian forces “could be as brutal and violent as Russians...but every day they choose not to.” Even in times of great turmoil, where one’s instinct would naturally to retaliate violently against their assailant, Ukrainians choose not to respond with the same cold-blooded cruelty. Rather than retributively “[inflicting] suffering on millions of people,” Ukrainians choose to “watch” and “haunt [the aggressors] for their sins,” calling out the morally abysmal behavior of Russian leadership and forces while adhering to their own principles of humanitarianism and diplomacy. Because, as Anhelina puts it: “The world, thoroughly not soaked with love...isn’t worth burning with” the Molotov cocktails in the hands of Ukrainian resistors. As somber as the present reality is, when it comes down to it, it isn’t worth setting the whole world aflame just to rid it of its evils.
Ultimately, Anhelina’s never-ending wisdom and unwavering fortitude culminate in this scintillating triptych—filled with poignant metaphors, characterized by astute observations of both her personal circumstances and the broader societal landscape, and written in sharp, unrelenting prose. Anhelina’s work imparts a message that will be impossible to forget: as much as Ukrainians have been subject to hardships beyond imagination (whether it be being forced to flee their homes or to “kill, / blow trees up, / cut trees, / stop tanks with [their bodies]” to protect the land and people they love), they will continue walking with their heads held high, secure in their identities, the firm support of their community, and the justice of their cause. And they shall prevail.
Note: Certain quotes are from author responses to editorial commentary.
"I Live with a Terrorist"
I live with a terrorist.
He is there in my room when I sleep. He is there in my university classes. He is there when I talk with friends, when I eat my lunch, when I water my plants and when I do my laundry. He is there wherever I am, wishing to do harm to me and my family, craving more fear and violence — his only source of energy, his lifeblood, his purpose.
I acknowledge him. I despise him. I want him to die — and he dies. But then he comes again.
Only this time he is angrier and more vicious than before. Only this time he wants
vengeance. Only this time he is eager to turn my bones to dust to prove that I have never existed.
But there is more to me than my bones; there is power and legacy to my dust. I am here and there. I am everywhere. I am your terror, Herr Brother. I am your curse, Herr Enemy.
Wherever you go, I am there to watch you; I am there to haunt you for your sins. So that you can see that I can be you. But I choose not to. So that you can learn that the most destructive power is subtle, almost unnoticeable, and that I have this power over you.
“I Slept Through the War”
I slept through the war for two hours.
I woke up to a frosty February morning,
And first missiles had hit Kyiv and Kharkiv.
I’ve lived through the looking glass since,
Where if you love your kin,
You must push them far away —
To Poland, Germany, best to Australia,
There missiles are unlikely to reach.
Where to invest in your future,
You must quit your job in two weeks,
To work twice as hard for free
And drop out
To study twice as fast,
But now not for a degree.
Where strength lies in
Making peace with being powerless,
And weaving masking nets,
While Russian politicians in negotiations
Doubt if they should cease fire
On pregnant Ukrainian women.
Where for your love you need
Blow bridges up,
Stop tanks with your body,
Because otherwise you won’t have anything or anyone to love,
And the world, thoroughly not soaked with love,
Like the rag in the bottleneck in my hands
Is soaked with gas, oil and rubbing alcohol,
Isn’t worth burning with it.
Snails can't live without their shells. For them, their "homes" are the outer skeleton that keeps their organs inside and keeps them from drying up. Taking a snail's "home" is like skinning a human being. In some time, the mollusk will die, and its shell will become a tombstone. An expressive "I was here" on the body of nature.
If a snail's "home" is damaged it might still survive. It will struggle but it will keep chewing on salad leaves and celery stalks to become stronger and heal the cracks: return to the old normal. But the older the snail, the harder and frailer its shell is. As its insides merge more and more with its skeleton even the smallest wounds become unhealable. With each injury, the chances of the snail dying if something happens to its “home” become higher.
Snails that don't have shells are called slugs. They lost their "homes" in the process of evolution. Well, not exactly. They didn’t lose them but started to carry them under their skin like people carry their hearts, lungs, or kidneys. Slugs' ancestors did it to get rid of the burden that a home sometimes becomes. Because of this, they managed to adapt better to the harsh environments that they were thrown into by fate. Since slugs don't have an outer shell, they are sensitive to low humidity and high temperatures. When the summer is particularly hot and dry, they bury themselves in the same earth that digested their ancestors with shells, as if hiding in homes (because "you are dust and to dust you shall return"). This is how they wait out the danger and return to life.
People carry shells just like snails do. Standing in my room in downtown Toronto, I can see how my home has grown into me. Look at the index finger of my left hand. There is a ring that belonged to my late aunt Lesya.
Look at my torso. There is the striped shirt my mother wore when she was pregnant with me. Look at my hair. It was combed with a wooden comb my grandmother gave me when I got my first A+ grade in school.
These things protect me from pain. I come back to them when I want to hide from something that traumatizes me. I am not a slug; I am a snail. My home is always with me. Even when I don't have a home. Even when my home could be destroyed by Russian rockets anytime. Even when I sometimes want to bury myself in the earth out of exhaustion. My home has grown into my skeleton, into my ribs, into the ventricles of my heart. So I know that as long as I exist, as long as I keep chewing on salad leaves and celery stalks, as long as I keep walking the streets of Toronto, Pristina, or Tokyo with my head held high, I will always have a place to return to feel safe again.
Translators: Julia Murashova
Content Editor: Sophie Lin
Blog Writer/Editor: Taylen Huang
INSPIRATIONS: Explanatory Notes Regarding Anhelina's Experiences
1. I crafted the poem "Living with a Terrorist" during my exchange program at the University of Toronto. At that time, I was more than 7,000 kilometers away from home and had developed a habit of reading the news from Ukraine every morning after waking up. More often than not, the news was horrifying: the headlines screamed about civilian deaths, blackouts, drone attacks, failed humanitarian corridors, and other disheartening events happening all around Ukraine on a daily basis.
Although I was far away from home, watching the war "at a distance" affected every aspect of my life, from how I interacted with foreigners to the comments I made during my university classes. Being in a safe environment did not remove the omnipresence of war and the aggressor from my everyday experiences. Instead, it made me even more aware of the surreal reality in which my family and I found ourselves and heightened the existential need to live in continuous opposition to the enemy while remaining trying to remain a good person.
2. I wrote the poem "I Slept Through the War" at my family home on March 6th, less than two weeks after Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. At the time, I did not study or work, as the whole country was paralyzed due to the shock and confusion about what to do next. There was only one thing that everybody had the strength and willingness to do: volunteer and resist the aggressor in any way possible. Like thousands of other Ukrainians, I decided to weave camouflage nets and help out online. This helped me clear my head and develop a sense of belonging to a bigger community united by a single goal. Therefore, the poem "I Slept Through the War" was a response to the abrupt and chaotic change that happened in my country in a matter of days as well as to the newly found feelings of hope and unity that were born at the moment of crisis.
3. I wrote "Snails" during my stay in Toronto when I struggled to find the definition of "home" that would be applicable to all or at least the majority of Ukrainians.
Interview with Anhelina Coming Soon...
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Zohra Bensemra. 6 April 2022. https://www.ft.com/content/c41c7ef0-e03a-4963-8793-e8931ba29e39. Accessed 12 November 2023.
Jürgen Schoner. 21 October 2017. https://towardsdatascience.com/a-brief-introduction-to-slow-feature-analysis-18c901bc2a58. Accessed 12 November 2023.
TheKit_13. 14 March 2022. https://www.sapiens.org/language/ukraine-versus-the-ukraine/. Accessed 12 November 2023.