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Interview

A Voice from Kharkiv : A Refugee in her Own Country

Lesya Bakun, a poet and writer, tells her story of escape from war-torn Ukraine. Her narrative maps the past and the present.

“I woke up around 4 am with the sound of a loud explosion. And I heard all around me people running. They were leaving as they knew it (war) had started,” said Lesya Bakun, an applied linguist who worked as a youth worker and Non-Formal Education trainer in Kharkiv, Ukraine. This was on 24th February 2022. The offensive that is devastating a huge country with a population of 43,273,062 had started.

Lesya faced bombs as she tried to get food to her mother from her home as supermarkets were not functioning. She went live on Facebook while the shelling continued, using the footage as a defence mechanism. She elucidates: “I have documented my trip to bring my mother some food. It was scary because I heard explosions all the time. I was partly doing that as a security measure so that if anything happened to me it would be caught live on video. I had told my friends, if anything happened to me, they had my permission to disclose it. I had been sharing the overall story of the war. Many followed me on FB live from different countries because I was involved in European Commission’s Erasmus Programme for nine years and I knew people from pretty much all around Europe. I had connections also because I was a moderator for Virtual Poetry Readings. I had friends from every continent. People were following my story. It is one thing to watch the events in news but another to watch someone live through it. Eventually, people started recommending me to journalists in other countries. I gave five interviews to Canada, USA, Lithuania, Georgia and Italy. I became a bit famous. Weird though, not on the basis of who I am but on the basis of where I was and what I experienced. Like I am doing right now.”

Born five years before the USSR was dissolved, Lesya lived the first part of her life in the city that has been ground to pulp with the bombing, Mariupol. She moved to Kharkiv when she was twelve. She has memories of her past growing up in a Ukranian-speaking home, she was exposed to Russian and English together at kindergarten.  

She unfolds the story of the current aggression bit by bit. The war this time was anticipated, she tells us. “This (attack) was anticipated because pretty much the whole world warned us that this would happen. And I had been warned by my friends from Lithuania and Latvia. My friend from Lithuania warned me three days before the attack and my friend from Latvia, three weeks before the attack. Russia and Belarus had prepared troops nearby, but a lot of people did not believe it would happen as they believed the Russian propaganda for dozens of years. I could have left earlier but my mum was really ill. She had COVID and pneumonia in January. She was in hospital. Then we brought her home with the oxygen machine.”

She had been going through family crises when the war started. She tells us: “Even though I was warned, I had not packed at all. In December, my grandmother died of a long illness. Then in January, my mum got ill with COVID. I had formalities of the funeral and all that. I was definitely not mentally prepared for war. How can you ever be prepared? I think even Putin was not prepared though he knew Russia’s plan. But he definitely did not understand how the Ukranians would meet him and his troops. Because for some reason, he was sure Ukranians would be happy to meet them. But Ukranians were not happy at all. He anticipated welcome like in Crimea (2014) where people did not fight. Unfortunately, eight years ago, lot of Ukranian troops and Crimea just gave up and changed the flag just like that. So, they have broken their promise to the Ukranian nation.”

She spells out clearly that Ukranians want their identity respected and not annihilated. “It is not a clash of ideologies. It is a fight for our country and nation to exist.”

The sense of resentment runs strong. The feeling of being let down is evident. She talks of the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994, which led to the denuclearisation of Ukraine, here as she did in her poem. “Budapest Memorandum is an agreement between Russia, USA and UK. It says these three countries will protect us if we are attacked. When Russia took away Crimea eight years ago, no one came to protect us. There was a war with people dying in the East of Ukraine. Now as Russia attacks us, will Russia protect us? The United States and United Kingdom did not protect us from Russia. Thank you for all the help, help to refugees, for weapons. But the world would not need to face millions of refugees if they had respected the Budapest Memorandum eight years ago.”

Lesya gives a backgrounder to elucidate the need to withstand the Russian forces: “Ukraine is a multi-ethnic country, we have ethnic Greeks, Germans, Hungarians, Belarusians, Poles, Jews, Tartars, many others — not only Ukrainians and Russians, so it was never about ‘evil Ukrainians want to forbid Russian language and oppress Russian-speakers’ as they said in propaganda for years. Ukrainian Constitution protects the right for every nation and language to exist — but for Russia, just the existence of the Ukrainian language is an insult and a ‘threat to their existence’ (that they apparently need to protect by bombing Russian-speaking cities among others).

“For centuries, massive anti-Ukraine politics have been lead, targeted to wipe out Ukrainian language, culture, and identity, in the Tsarist Russia, in the USSR, and even after the Ukrainian independence. People have been brainwashed, and even our own TV shows often made fun of Ukrainians. A lot of common people (in some regions, up to 50%) believed the Russian propaganda. Films and media were still in Russian despite our breaking away, for years, which made me — a Ukrainian speaker — feel like an unwanted element in my own country. Only Yushchenko — our third President – introduced the law that all movies had to be dubbed in Ukrainian. Poroshenko — our fifth President — introduced Ukrainian-speaking quotas on the Radio — and a lot of business owners opposed that, and from that point, rumours of ‘Ukrainians suppressing Russians’ intensified. Russia wanted Russian to be the sole ‘inhabiter’ of our narrative and media, and the mere existence of Ukrainian media in Ukraine was perceived aggressively as ‘Ukrainian Nazism’ and ‘Ukrainians hating Russians’, ‘oppression of Russian-speakers’ and ‘Russian language needing protection in Ukraine’ (by destroying kindergartens and maternity hospitals, apparently).”

She gives an example of a woman who believed the ‘Russian narrative’ just before the war started. Lesya had gone for a lung check up to the hospital as she was coughing. This is what she says she encountered. “Two days before (the war started), I went to the hospital. I went for a fluoroscopy of my lungs. Then I could not take my results because the war began. But I still went to see the doctor before the war. A patient waiting with me asked, ‘If you do not have the results of the flouroscopy, why are you waiting to see the doctor?’ And I told her, ‘What if tomorrow the war starts?’ And this woman was too scared to believe.”

Lesya comes from a family of academics and intellectuals. She tells us about her mother, who despite the shelling continues to live in Kharkiv. A university lecturer, a Slavist and a dialectologist, her mother researched on language policies. Lesya explains:  “My mother researched the Habsburg dynasty language policy in Wien and saw the originals of documents and laws. The laws of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were issued in local languages — among them, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech. There were magazines and books published in Ukrainian — while in the part of Ukraine under Tsarist Russia it was impossible. The existence of Ukrainian press, theatre, education, independent thought was forbidden. While in the Tsarist Russia, there had been a sets of laws that gradually forbade the use of Ukrainian in all wakes of life. Under the Soviet occupation, the situation did not improve. While on paper you could use Ukrainian, but in reality, all ‘other-thinkers’ were executed, sent to Siberia or suppressed and mentally broken until they started writing only ‘Social realism’ and praise of the Soviet regime and Stalin.”

Lesya draws from the past to explain how long Ukranians have faced oppression and why they felt the need to stand up to Russia. “You could not tell the story of Ukranian oppression in USSR because then you would be killed. Both my grandparents’ families have lived through the genocide of Holdomor genocide of 1932-33. Food was taken from the children and sold to the West, creating an artificial famine. Millions of Ukranians died of hunger. My grandfather’s family survived that, but his aunts died of hunger. And my grandmother’s family went through that. Their whole life, they were together, but they only started speaking to each other about the Holodomor genocide and their families’ experiences after Ukraine got its independence in 1991. Speaking about all this was forbidden so that even within the family people were scared to discuss it.”

To explain the current crises, Lesya drew upon the past. “We wanted to exist. Ukranian history, culture and language had been destroyed for centuries. We wanted to exist as a nation. The weak and faulty Soviet economy was another reason why not just Ukraine, but most of the Soviet republics, wanted independence. That was very noticeable even to common citizens despite all the anti-West propaganda and the Iron Curtain. I only have faint memories of it as I was five when the USSR collapsed, but I heard and read a lot of stories, and saw photos of empty shells of Soviet shops — there was this huge deficit of even the most needed things. The ‘planned economy’ was a ‘disaster’. Like if you wanted to buy milk, you needed to wake up at 4 am and stand in queue for two hours. There was the Iron Curtain — citizens of Soviet Union were forbidden to go abroad, or Western products brought in. Only if you were thoroughly screened by the KGB, you would be allowed to go abroad, and that would mainly be to the ‘Socialist block’ countries, on a preliminary very thoroughly planned visit. The KGB would continue to follow each of your steps while you were on a visit abroad. Only several dozen people were allowed to leave USSR for a short period of time, on a route agreed by the KGB — mostly diplomats or huge cultural actors (like ballet dancers). No such thing as ‘travel’ outside of Soviet Union could even happen.

“Of course, we had notion of international friendships, India, African countries, Cuba. We were curious. One of my closest friends is Ukranian-speaking half-Cuban — one parent is Cuban and the other Ukranian. They fell in love when as a student, one of them came from Cuba to study in Ukraine. We have had international friendships but only with socialist countries.”

Lesya tells us more about the suffering within her family in the Soviet Union. “Individual businesses were forbidden in USSR. My grandmother’s uncle was executed for owning a windmill. Being an entrepreneur was impossible. In my family, we have lots of such stories. My grandfather from my father’s side (who I did not know because he died before my parents married) believed in the Soviet propaganda, and he crossed over from Poland across the border with Belarus on foot. My grandfather eventually got married and had a daughter. But he was convicted on false allegations that he was a Polish spy and sent for ten years to Siberia. When he returned, his family had forsaken him in order not to live under the black mark of a ‘family of an enemy of the state’.

“With time, my grandfather managed to create another family and have my father — I am carrying this grandfather’s surname. My father, despite being born in Belarus from a Polish person, was documented as a ‘Russian’ in order to save him from a similar fate. Now imagine how many people in the Soviet Union were written as ‘Russian’ despite not being such? When he met my mother and he told her the truth, but my mum was okay because she said her father was also ‘an enemy of the state’.”

Lesya’s pride in her heritage is strong. She talks of her city and grandfather, mingling it with the present. “My city of Mariupol is being ruined by the Orcs (as we call the Russians) so much so that now the city almost does not exist. The city is an important cultural, naval (port), technological and industrial centre. It is a city in which my grandfather, Nil Andriyovych Karnaushenko, was a professor of metallurgy. And he has 32 patents that have been used in the local metallurgical works.

You have heard about the tragedy of civilians and the military — sheltered and simultaneously trapped in the metallurgical factory Azovstal. One of them is my cousin, who has been captured by the Russians*. The metallurgical works of Illicha and Azovstal were working non-stop even during the WW2 and the four years it’s been fought on Ukrainian territory – my grandfather said if the blast furnace gets stopped, it takes a lot of efforts and days to start it again, with a risk you could not start it at all. So the furnaces were working even during the four years of war.

“And now – two months of war with Russia – the metallurgical works that used my grandfather’s 32 inventions, all of his life’s work – are being destroyed. The university in which he lectured until his last breath – has lost half if its personnel. The city almost ceased to exist. And this is a primarily Russian-speaking city (despite being created by Greeks and being surrounded by ethnic Greek villages).

“It is not just Mariupol, but multiple cities, towns, villages near the Azov and Black seas, were built by Greeks. We have many ethnic Greeks living in and around Mariupol, we have lot of villages that are mostly populated by ethnic Greeks — that are now either wiped out or seized (after being wiped out) by Russians. We used to have a Greek consulate in Mariupol. It was as important cultural city, and hopefully will be again — after we win and rebuild it. And each of the 24 regions and the temporarily occupied Republic of Crimea in Ukraine have their own centuries of history and their own distinct story to tell — which is not Russian at all.

“They came to ‘liberate the people of Donbas’. Apparently, by creating multiple mass graves, burning thousands of civilians in moving crematoriums and deporting tens of thousands to Siberia without documents and means of communication.”

She draws from the past and tells us, “I am not a historian but a linguist. But the stories that my family have lived through and passed to me are a work in history. The story of Ukraine has not started by breaking away from Russia in 1991. It has started much earlier than Keivan Rus’ (882-1240). Ukranian history began more than one million years ago when the first Ukranian settlers began to inhabit the terrain of Ukraine. Long ago, the first horse was domesticated in Ukraine along with wheels. The first metal was developed in Ukraine.”

Lesya explains from a linguist’s perspective. “We have many ethnoses living in Ukraine for centuries. Our Constitution has been protecting all of them since Independence. We have local minorities of Romanians, Hungarians, Greeks, Poles, Germans, Karaims. We have a local minority of Crimean tartars (an ethnos native to Crimea). They had been deported by Stalin to Siberia — thousands of people dying in trains travelling to this cold place. Some survived and continued to live in Siberia. Imagine, for example, all people from Spain being sent to Greenland, with barely any clothes or food. Stalin banned the return of Crimean Tartars to their native, warm Crimea from Siberia — and only when Ukraine got its independence, we allowed them to come back. People returned home, after generations to see their homes taken by the Russian military or people exported from all over Soviet Union into their empty homes. This tragedy has been depicted in Jamala’s Eurovision-winning song “1944”. Ukraine had given Crimean Tartars the status of ‘nation local to Crimea’. While the Soviet Union and Russia as its heir had expelled them from their homes and deported them, without the right to return home, for three generations. This is why Crimean Tartars are so loyal to Ukraine as a country, and vocal in support of Ukraine after Crimea was forcefully taken. And this is one of the reasons why the tale ‘Crimea has always been Russian’ is a blatant lie.

Jamala’s song — the 2016 Eurovision winner

“We have many Jews. Belorussians. So, there are many more languages spoken in Ukraine other than Ukranian, Russian and English. Some people in Transcarpathia speak a mix of languages, you can see traces of Hungarian and sometimes Romanian — not pure Ukrainian. Ukraine is a huge country, geographically the biggest in Europe. Historically, unfortunately, our territory has been often split between different countries, each with their own policy about ethnic minority nations and languages. Russia had been very efficient trying to exterminate the Ukranian language, history and culture for centuries. And downgrading our sense of self-worth and installing in us a feeling we are not anything. Also installing a myth that Ukranian language and nation does not exist. In my part of Ukraine, Russian has been spoken widely just because they have a policy of destroying other languages. Also, sometimes people who speak Ukranian switch to Russian because they want to ‘fit in’ and be perceived as ‘higher rank’ or better educated — all because of centuries of conditioning that if a person speaks Ukrainian, they are an uneducated villager, and Russian is ‘high profile’ and overall better.

“When the Soviets came to the western part of Ukraine, they were very repressive. People were executed just for speaking Ukranian, or simply having the blue-and yellow (Ukrainian) flag. The place in which thousands of people were tortured and executed by the Soviets, is now Lonsky Prison National Memorial Museum (the National Museum-Memorial of Victims of Occupation Regimes) in Lviv. And that is why people in the West of Ukraine fought against the Soviets during the  World War II and till 1956 when the Ukranian Rebel Army was totally destroyed — the rebels called ‘Nazists’ by the Soviet propaganda in Ukraine for the fact they were fighting against Soviet oppressors — a lie that had lived on for dozens of years and manifested in war now.”

Some of this may sound unreal or perhaps surreal to the world that continues entrenched in their everyday existence where the pandemic protocols continue a major concern along with having enough money to sustain oneself. Perhaps, the majority of people are most hit by the rise in oil and food prices, a threat of widespread hunger and stocks going awry. But for Lesya, it is her very existence as she recounts how she got out of Ukraine to the safety of Lithuania. Her choice was made because a friend from Lithuania warned her about the upcoming war and offered her a place to stay three days before the bombing. She adds: “Also, Lithuania has had a lot in common with Ukraine historically — the countries being together in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1236-1795), old Ukrainian being one of the official languages there. Lithuania had also suffered under the Soviet occupation. When I finally reached Lithuania, I found that the country was very supportive of Ukrainians. Many Lithuanians were volunteering, gathering humanitarian help. There were lots of Ukrainian flags and messages of support everywhere.”

Her escape to Lithuania was an adventure that lasted for eight days. When asked if she could relate her experience, this is what she had to say: “I can disclose part of the escape — not all because it will put others at risk for no reason… Actually, for the first five days I was trying to convince my mum to leave, to pack. But it was almost impossible. One of the reasons is she is still connected to the Oxygen machine. She can stay only for some time without the machine, but a long time would not be a good idea. And then she could not find her documents. And she was definitely not in a psychological condition to pack and go somewhere. Neither was I — but she was in a worse condition than me. I had been trying to convince her for five days, but she did not budge.

“My mother was the first one who saw smoke really close to her home and she called her friends and acquaintances to find out if they knew anything about the source. That did not convince her to leave. But it convinced me. It was the day after the Kharkiv administrative building had been bombed. The next day the neighbourhood in which we lived, in the centre of the city, was bombed. That is when I started to blog and do Face Book live — something that I almost had never done before – to document my trip to carry some food to my mother from my home.”

She continued her narrative explaining how she got help to leave the country from a voluntary group formed by citizens to take people to safety out of Ukraine: “There are several organisations. In Kharkiv, I know of two. Probably there are more. They are helping people get out of Kharkiv. One organisation was taking people to Poland or wherever the person wants to go but it would have to be outside the city. There is also a group of volunteers who help people reach the train station to leave by the evacuation train because it is hard to reach the train station without public transportation. Public transport is no longer functioning. And the taxi drivers were asking for absurd prices — like a month’s salary where earlier it was a hundred now, they wanted 5000 or 7000 hryvnias. I did not know what to do, for it would take me about three hours to walk to the train station under normal circumstances. Now with my backpack and belongings under constant shelling, it seemed pretty much impossible.

“At that juncture, I got to know there is an organisation which I will not name till the war stops, that helps people out and I registered with them in a google form writing where I wanted to go. In the form, they asked us to fill the number of people who needed evacuation, the number of children, pets. Their priority was to get whole families out. I was just one person — that was one of the reasons why it took me so long to get to the border as families were a priority.

“One of the people affiliated to this organisation is a friend of mine. She is also a writer who used to document war crimes in the Donetsk region for eight years. So, that day she called me at 7 am and asked me if I could be ready in fifteen minutes, I said I could not be ready in fifteen minutes as I was at my mum’s. Then I rushed home and packed whatever I could. There was a chance that the cars with the fleeing residents would be bombed. The most important things needed to be in the backpack — money and documents and in my case, the laptop. Because even though I do not use it much, you can work anywhere if you have your laptop. I had thirty minutes to pack to leave.”

“One or two days before that, the electricity got cut for the evening. I was afraid the meat would be ruined. I did not know when the electricity would be back. So, I boiled all the meat from the fridge. Before leaving, I gave the two bowls of boiled meat to my neighbour who at that point had not planned to leave. I also gave her my massage cover that I had bought in December. In our tradition, leaving something behind is a sign you will return.

“At that point my neighbour did not want to leave as she had family near Kharkiv. But now, she is in Germany. When the war started, she was wondering when it would all end. I was looking at her and thinking how our grandparents faced war for four years during the Second World War. I bet they did not ask when will it all end! I knew that it will not be quick, that is not how wars are fought. At that point, it was the third day of full-scale war, and it was weird that she constantly asked, ‘When it will all end?’ and was eagerly waiting for the result of peace talks between our diplomats. I knew no peace talks were really possible: they would demand half of Ukrainian territory, we would not agree, end of discussion, the war continues. What peace talks? On the basis of what? Us surrendering? ‘Demilitarisation’? Why would we do that? There was no common ground for discussion. We want to be left alone, to continue being an independent country with a path towards NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the EU (European Union), and we want Crimea and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions back. They want Ukraine to cease existing (what they call ‘demilitarisation’), Ukrainians as a nation assimilated (what they call ‘de-Nazification’). These are their demands. There is no ground for discussion here.

“I took the dry food which would not go bad during the trip. I did not know how long the trip would take and what I would face. I took only the food that did not need to be cooked.

“I packed what I could and then I found my friend calling me. I had not heard the phone ring. I am really thankful she did not leave without me because people really need to leave the city very early as the bombing would start early, maybe at 9am, and then it repeats with pauses — every two hours, about five times a day. You hide in a self-created bomb shelter while the shelling continues. When it stops, you sit there for some time, trembling and unsure; and by the time you get your guts together to go buy some food or supplies (in my case, medicine or pulse oximeter batteries for mom), the shelling begins again, and you cannot leave. You just sit at home, frozen, in the constant state of crippling fear.

“My trip to Lithuania was nothing special. But I have never been not able to travel as I want. Also, I never had to travel with bombs and outside of curfews. I live fifteen minutes by bus from the airport. But the biggest airports of Ukraine were closed the night before the war started. That is why it took so long. Each city, each neighbourhood have their own curfews. You cannot be outside the curfew. 

“I started my journey as, first, an internally displaced person, and then, a refugee, on the sixth day of war. My friend picked me up. I got in the bus and put my luggage aside. All you needed was your money, documents and your smart phone.

“I thanked my friend for taking me, but she said, ‘My dear how would I leave you?’ And I whispered under my breath, ‘I love you.’ I felt relieved. We started driving. Within five minutes, I saw several bombed buildings. I saw with my own eyes how real it all was.

“After that we went to the house of my friend’s parents, outside Kharkiv. That had been converted to a refugee shelter. It was a point where you waited for the next part of the transport. More people were waiting there.

“We made plans for our trip. My friend also arrived. She apologised that she could not take me as the next two buses were loaded with families and they do not part families. So, I stopped there with her family. I waited two days for the next transfer. It was nerve racking as it was close to Kharkiv and we heard warplanes flying. The bombs were exploding in our part of the town.

“You made connections with the people in the house because you do not know how long you would have to wait. You do not know if the bus would be bombed, if the bus driver will be alive. You do not know. You are in the complete dark. I managed to make friends with the people there. I slept on the sofa in the same room. My friend’s mother cooked for us free of charge. The people in the village had to stand in a queue for one and a half hours to buy food. The good thing was that at least there was food in the shops.

“There were no sirens because we were not in the city. The city defence system did not actually cover us. And the city air raid warning system also did not cover us. If you hear the planes and the explosions, you know it is time to go inside as the bombs can hit your house. Sometimes, you take shelter in the cellars which is used to store vegetables. One of the children in the shelter was a special needs kid and therefore restless and would scream. My coat was ripped but I did not have the inner strength to sew it. I had two foreign passports. I used the part that was ripped to hide documents and money, in case I’d need to run with no luggage. It is legal in Ukraine to have two foreign passports. I had some money there which, unfortunately, I could not exchange after the war started.

“Finally, we left early in two buses. In Ukraine you travel between curfews. On the road, we had two stops in local kindergartens or schools on the borders of the region at night for the curfew. The bus driver had to monitor to navigate us safely — watching all the while where the road was destroyed, where the bridge was destroyed.

“We would start around six seven in the morning every day and then stop for shelter at 2 pm or 3 pm or 4 pm so as not to move outside the curfew. We were welcomed in kindergartens or schools. Sometimes we slept on the floor. We were not the first and we will not be the last. Lots of families with children waited. And we were brought to a refugee centre in the centre of Ukraine which is the office of the organisation that was helping us. In the city, I will not name till the end of the war and probably later, we stayed in a very old Soviet hotel with running water but no hot water. We had to hide in the bomb shelters three times a day just in case. It was a hotel full of people from Kharkiv. I have been in Lithuania now for almost a month. And this organisation is still helping people.

“We stayed in the centre of Ukraine. It was not modern, but it was a shelter, and they gave us food on a voluntary basis. So, some people decided this would be their final destination. Some refugees are now volunteering for arranging transportation, giving information, fund raising. They are trying to arrange buses but sometimes, there are buses but no driver, sometimes drivers but no buses, sometimes no petrol — it is war. So, we waited there two or three days. I cannot recall the number of days exactly. We waited for buses to take us to Warsaw as this organisation has an agreement with Poland. There is a hotel in which we could stay in Warsaw.

“They gave us food three times a day and we did not have to pay anything. I spoke to two young women, mother and a teenage daughter. Their home was destroyed near the Constitution Square and they were living in the hotel. They had bombed the Constitution Square and the Independence Square… Those two women have been left without a home and stay in the hotel. I had given interviews to Canada, Romania by then and I went around asking people if they would like to give interviews, but people did not want to. So, in that sense, I am unique.

“Every person deals with stress in different ways. They were not ready to talk of their trauma.  But for me it is natural to talk. So, this woman refused to talk about it. Their experience is their home did not exist anymore. The mother had to be dug out of the rubble when there was an explosion. The daughter was like the Terminator. The cupboard fell on her and she got up and put everything back to order and dug her mother out of the rubble in the bathroom. Her mother stayed in the hospital emergency care for one day as her face was covered with broken glass. Then the next day, their relatives came, helped dig out two suitcases and, mind you, it was February, and they had only two suitcases left. If you live in the centre of Kharkiv, it means your life is good. They lost everything.

“My friend from Lithuania was wondering if I were ready to go. When I told him I would probably have to go to Warsaw, he started searching for ways for me to get to Lithuania from Warsaw. Apparently, there are volunteers who are taking people from the border of Poland to Lithuania but not from Warsaw. So, he told me to go to the border of Poland and find this person and say that I need help.

“We arrived by bus to the border town of Lviv. My friend from Lithuania had a relative there whose wife worked in the school, which was used to house us. This relative’s wife helped me buy some cough medicine, as I was coughing, and a power bank…  We spend the night in the village and started our trip. It was a green corridor bus so I thought it would go faster. They would not check the documents so thoroughly. But there was a huge crowd of buses and people. We had to wait at the border for eight hours.  It was 1 am when we crossed the border. To get from the border to Lithuania was not easy. No one knew how long one has to wait at the border. Some people had been waiting two days at the border. Eight hours later, I got out and I felt my adventure had ended. But actually, it was just starting.”

Lesya Bakun at the Polish border

A special message from Lesya Bakun:

“If you want to help Ukraine in its hour of need, I urge you to donate to Ukrainian military — because if Ukraine loses, there will no longer be need for humanitarian help. You can support local humanitarian actions — things that are really needed in these specific locations in this specific time. You can donate to the fund “Come back alive/Povernys’ Zhyvym“. Please click here to donate. And you can help Ukrainian families, children, and pets get to safety by donating to the volunteers who bring people like me and all the people I met en route.

“I also urge you to support Ukraine by buying Ukrainian books, inviting Ukrainian artists to poetry, musical, and visual arts events – or offering residencies and shelter to Ukrainians fleeing from war, and learning more about the reach Ukrainian culture and the history of its fight for freedom.

“Together, we will win!” — Lesya Bakun

*Updated on 9th May, 2022, from an email message by sent by Lesya Bakun: “My cousin, the defender of Mariupol, has been captured by Russians.”

(This article is based on an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty from voice messages and written texts on the social media platform of Telegram.)

Lesya Bakun has given a list of some places where donations can be made.

BENEFICIARY

RJABKO VASILIJ 64703, Ukraine,region Kharkivska,city Kharkiv,street Akhsarova,building 15a,flat 27

IBAN:
UA273052990262046400929572634

ACCOUNT

5169 3600 1722 8341

BANK OF BENEFICIARY
Банк отримувача
JSC CB PRIVATBANK, 1D HRUSHEVSKOHO STR., KYIV, 01001, UKRAINE
SWIFT CODE/BIC: PBANUA2X

CORRESPONDENT ACCOUNT

0011000080

INTERMEDIARY BANK

JP MORGAN CHASE BANK
SWIFT CODE/BIC: CHASUS33

Card currency:
USD

BENEFICIARY
Отримувач (П. І. Б. отримувача рахунку латиницею)
RJABKO VASILIJ 64703, Ukraine,region Kharkivska,city Kharkiv,street Akhsarova,building 15a,flat 27

IBAN:
UA513052990262016400929572635

ACCOUNT
Рахунок в банку одержувача (номер пластикової карти або поточний рахунок в Приватбанку)
5169 3600 1722 8358

BANK OF BENEFICIARY
Банк отримувача
JSC CB PRIVATBANK, 1D HRUSHEVSKOHO STR., KYIV, 01001, UKRAINE
SWIFT CODE/BIC: PBANUA2X

CORRESPONDENT ACCOUNT
Рахунок банку одержувача в банку-кореспонденті
623-160-5145

INTERMEDIARY BANK
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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely that of the interviewee and not of Borderless Journal.

Categories
Interview

Bridge over Troubled Waters

In Conversation with Sanjay Kumar, the founder of Pandies, a socially responsible theatre group

Some members of Pandies, with Sanjay Kumar sitting in the right hand corner.

Festivals often involve pageantry where people connect, reach out and have fun through performances. These can range from high class shows in halls to entertaining performances in street corners, individual buskers or theatricals at home. Brecht (1898-1956), often taught in universities,  popularised socially responsible epic theatre.  Epic theatre connects the players, imbued with welfarism and a sense of social responsibility, to educate the audience, subsequently encouraged to question and move towards altering their present reality to a more egalitarian one. Add to this students who look for more than just academic growth in universities and a young dynamic professor in the 1980s, and the end result is a volunteered ‘institution’ that has blossomed over three decades into a strangely named group – Pandies.

Sanjay Kumar

Founded in 1987 by Sanjay Kumar, an academic from Delhi University with residencies in Italy and the United States for the welfare of exploited children, the group evolved into a major voice trying to reach out to all strata of society. Kumar evolved a form of theatre to channelise the energy of students towards creating an awareness for the need to grow by helping the less fortunate. He tells us by the way of introduction: “We have been working with twenty slums or bastis in Delhi, have had interactions with a hundred schools and about twenty-five colleges. A minimum of hundred presentations are held each year. The major issue till 2000 was gender-sensitisation. Each year, pandies’ latches on to a different theme. After performing in the proscenium theatre, it takes adaptations of the same to diverse places. The group also works on issues related to environment. The adaptable, flexible, bilingual (at times multi-lingual) scripts are totally ours. The group is constantly exploring, searching for better modes to get its meaning across. Songs, dances, choreographed sequences are all a part of its repertoire. One of the most successful modes is an extremely interactive discussion at the end where the activist even narrates relevant anecdotes to get its audience to talk. The group has evolved a mega network in and around Delhi consisting of women, HIV activists, environmentalists, school and college teachers and students, progressive women from various communities including slums, victims of rape, attempted murder.” His work has reached across to multiple countries, universities (including Harvard) and has found credence among number of hearts across the East and the West.

The most impressive performance I saw was online with young refugees from Afghanistan and migrant workers in slums. They have worked with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)  that work with children, sex workers and women, thus educating and learning from them and exposing them to our, more secure world where the maximum need a young student has, is to score well to get into the right university and for their family and friends to travel, to have freedom of speech and better lives. Perhaps, the best way to comprehend this kind of drama is to let Sanjay Kumar take over and introduce the work they are doing, bridging gaps at multiple levels.

Tell us about the inception of pandies’. How old is the group?

The incipience of the group goes back to college really to the year 1987 when we did the first play from Hansraj (a college under Delhi University), though we registered later in 1993, as we broke away. As I got free from MPhil, I decided to start theatre in the college in a way that steers it clear of the festival circuit of doing 25-30 minutes plays and winning small cash awards at various college fests. The College Drama Society was revived in 1987 and under that banner we did six plays, one each a year on the trot: Lorca’s Blood Wedding (1933), Ngugi’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1974), Strindberg’s The Dream Play (1901), Vicente Lenero’s The Bricklayers (1976), Genet’s The Balcony (1957)and Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944).  Each was a full-length play of at least 100 minutes.

We were doing plays at a semiprofessional level, all having a run of five to seven days in Delhi’s leading theatre halls. The bookings were being done in the name of the college but from the beginning no money was put forth by the college. The funding was collected by the students from small donations. The group was getting too big for the college. There was a constant targeting from many in the administration and the faculty, accusations of the openly sexual content of the plays, of the insubordinate behaviour of the students, of classes being bunked. And then as the group evolved, there were many students who had graduated but still wanted to be there and as the reputation grew with the choice of plays and quality of production (contemporary reviews read us at par with professional groups), many students from other colleges wanted to join us. Things came to a head with the college administration in 1993. We had already booked at the auditorium in the name of the college and were rehearsing for Macbeth. We decided to launch our own group (the work normally took about six months) and in two months we registered and collected money enough to go under the new banner — Pandies’ theatre.   The relationship with structures of the university remains tricky, there are those among the younger teachers and of course students who love us but the old and orthodox are still a bit wary.

Was this theatre started for the needs of the students/ teachers or to create an interest in academic curriculum?

Yes, at that time the syllabus had a totally first world bias (the bias is still there but less), to get in plays that speak to us. They may be first world, but they critique our oppressor — Brecht,  Rame, Genet.

 What was the gel that bound the group together ? Was it used to satisfy the needs of  the students, teachers or society. Can you elaborate? 

The first thing was the love of theatre. It’s like a bug, and the heady thing about a collectivism trying its own thing, charting paths not done in college before. And then the activism took over and went way beyond the love. We started pandies’ with a view that our world is not the way we want it. We wanted to make it better for more people. Even the plays from 1987 to 1993 were exploring non-canonical theatre. 

The first point of attack was the huge gender bias. We felt we were living in a misogynist, rape friendly society. Series of proscenium plays attacked that. We tied up with the feminist NGO, Shakti Shalini. Our ties go back to 1996, with LGBT movements and women’s movements. Veils had more than hundred shows, theatres, colleges, schools and markets and slums and villages. We were asking for  change in rape laws in the country. She’s MAD took stories from women’s organisations about laws of mental illness being consistently used against women to label them mad to take away their property rights, custody of children and provide a veneer over patriarchal violence. Again a play that sought legislative reform was Danger Zones. It explores what happens when you are lesbian and do not have a big wallet or parents to save you — forced marriages, sale into prostitution. 

Equally important, in fact more so in later years has been the attack on religious bigotry. Gujarat was a breaking point. We had years of series workshops with impoverished youth in slums exposing the rhetoric of  bigotry. We start with the Sikh pogrom of ’85 and go on to dissent against what our society has evolved to under a right wing dispensation, the religious supremacism of our world.

When you work with young boys, drug peddlers and sex workers, aged eight to fourteen, you return home a wreck and in need of therapy. But if you keep that fire alive inside you, you know how to take on the oppressors.

It is about a naked politics. We seek to rouse people from slumber, awaken a critical understanding of the world we live, of the forces that govern us — patriarchy, capitalism and, the tying factor of all oppression — religion.

The need was and remains the need of our times and our ethos.

How did the name evolve? And your group evolve?

It goes back to 1993 and is fully in keeping the with ‘play’ aspect of the group which likes to play with politics with its audience. It emerged from collective decisioning that has been the hallmark of pandies’ functioning. The name is a take ‘off’, ‘away’ from Mangal Pandey and the revolt of 1857. Actually, from the inability of the British to get Indian pronunciations correct. Pandey became Pandy, a hated expletive for the British commanders and continued in their letters even 50 years after the suppression of the revolt. ‘Pandy’ was one who was a part of the British structure, in their employ (Jhansi’s soldiers were not Pandies for instance), earned from them and rose against them. The hatred conveyed by the word was many times higher than in the simple expletives of  traitor or the Hindustani ‘gaddaar.’ While it has a historical solidity, it also has a playful aspect just beneath, for many of the young in the group it was also deliciously close to panties and pondies (slang for pornographic literature), the sexual aspects for which the group was falsely castigated while in college, and what we loved to grin and laugh at.

We broke away in 1993, four teachers and about thirty students. Starting as a proscenium English group with an activist leaning in 1993, by 1996 we had turned totally activist. Starting with about thirty-five members (still the core for each project), the group soon acquired more than hundred members (today it has more than that, people go away and many return, even after a decade or fifteen years, to do that “better thing”).  A strong presence of young, motivated women gave the group a feminist essence. And seeking overtly to make our ethos better, the group stressed a Left Feminist Atheist core as the law of its work from the very beginning. Activism, simply the overt statement that we are not okay with our world the way it is and seek a systemic change and are willing to do our bit as theatre enthusiasts for it.

Our three primary areas of work are : a. Proscenium: The plays are always activist and many of our own scripts and many adapted, some activist plays (Brecht, Rame and other activist scripts including agit prop) in the original; b. Theatre outside proscenium: What is usually called street theatre, nukkad natak, guerrilla theatre, the group has done actually thousands of performances and c. Workshop theatre: Where activist facilitators create plays with communities, staying with them or visiting them regularly — razor’s edge work has been done with young boy sex workers picked from platforms and housed in shelters, in the cannibalised village of Nithari, in women’s shelters, with refugees and in Kashmir.  The process consists of getting ‘stories’ from the margins and creating theatre from them, performed usually by the community members, and at times along with Pandies.

Were you influenced by any theatre/art forms/writers or any external events to evolve your own form?

From the international activist tradition Brecht has been the most solid influence, his mode of showing what is obvious but we refuse to see it. Boal, Franca Rame, Dario Fo. The entire traditions of left swinging realism and alienation. In our own traditions the influence is more subtle, Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) itself and Janam (a  more contemporary people’s theatre group). We also borrow from the political and popular traditions of the subcontinent — Dastaan Goi, Jatra, Tamasha and Nautanki to name a few.

What impacts us most is the politics. Theatre is about critique, it’s about my ability to say ‘no’ and my desire to ask ‘why.’ We look back through history, history that tells us nothing can be permanent, that is record of those who stood and fought tyranny and authoritarianism. Gujarat 2002 was difficult and so was Babri Masjid but so was the emergency of 70s and never forget the anti-Sikh pogrom of the mid 80s at the heart of the country where I live.

Yes, and what is happening today, here and all over the globe cries for activist intervention.

What were the kind of content you started with? I heard you even adopted out of Aruna Chakravarti’s novel (Alo’s World?) to make a play. So, what was the content of your plays? Were you scripting your own lines?

We started with adaptations of plays with explicitly activist content which could be made more activist and imposed on our reality. Ibsen’s Ghosts, inspirations from Simon de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing. And post-1996, we were creating more and more from our own scripts, often containing multiple plays tied with thematic thrusts. And again, in times of repression one reverts to adaptations, of those who stood up to the challenge of their times, specially at the doors of gender, religion and class (the three themes of Pandies).

What we did for Aruna was akin to what we have done for other friends of Pandies, fiction writers, create small dramatic enactments based on parts their novels/short stories to go along with the launch and publicity of their works.

Have you moved away from your earlier models? What is your new model?

From proscenium to (while retaining proscenium) community theatre to (while retaining proscenium and community) workshop theatre that was the trajectory of Pandies before the pandemic struck our world. 

The pandemic thrust us into a new model of cyber theatre. The group meets every Sunday but with Covid and the lockdown, we all went hibernating for a few months, awestruck by what struck us.

And then we started meeting online. It was amazing, we were able to connect with members in US, in Philippines, in UK and in different parts of India. There was the frigidity of the online mode but the ability to converse with so many people in their respective bubbles was just great. We met every Sunday. And started with storytelling for each other. With around thirty people that process took some Sundays. And then we started thinking of doing online plays using zoom. These were live online, no recording and each ending with a question-and-answer session with our audiences.

What was happening around us, the pandemic, and the equally deadly forays of our right-wing rulers made us look for avante garde activist plays from the past. We turned deliberately to the American tradition (important to let it be known that even the most decadent capitalist center has a solid activist theatre tradition) and did one agit prop and one proto-feminist play. Subterfuge was important and it was also important to say that even in the darkest of hours people have stood up to tyranny and fascism. Clifford Odets’ Till the Day I Die (1935), an anti-Nazi play of the agit prop tradition is aimed as much at Hitler as at McCarthy and relevant against all fascist governments. Broadcast simultaneously on Zoom and Facebook, the play got over 7000 hits. Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928) was the second, a proto feminist play it raised issues of mainstream violence and suppression of ‘other’ voices. We were making quite an impact. Our audience was not confined to people from one city but spread internationally as friends all over the world who had wanted to see our plays (we have travelled and performed abroad twice, once in Manchester with an anti-fascist play — Cleansing in 2002 and in New York in 2012 with Offtrack, based on the lives of young boys ‘rescued’ from platforms in India).

We decided to connect with communities that we work with at least in and around Delhi through zoom. And we discovered the horrors for ourselves. While the rich had actually been ‘worried’ over the lockdown, the poor had taken an unfathomable hit. The incidence of domestic violence was at a peak (lockdown, problems getting ‘booze’, little help from cops and NGOs). Our young friends — now in late 20s, with whom we had been performing since 2006 since the Nithari (slum outside Delhi) pogrom had been thrown out of their meagre jobs, belonging to families of migrant labour — had seen it all and refugees from Afghanistan — in a bad state anyways — were really hit. And they were all artists, performers and storytellers par excellence. So, we decided on a storytelling festival where people from these sectors would narrate their stories in the same cyber format. And we asked our audience to put in some money and that was entirely distributed among the participants. The stories that emerged, personal and fiction derived from personal, were simple exhilarating.

What and how many languages do you use and how do you bridge linguistic gaps?

Language is highly political. We set out as an English group but with Macbeth itself some crucial scenes were being rendered in Hindustani (the opening scene and the porter scene). By 1996, as the group was going totally activist, a multi-language form had evolved. We were still keeping a section of English in the proscenium (had to be translated or made easier in the slums and villages shows) but sections of Hindustani and diverse languages of North India are being introduced. A recent example is an adaptation of Manto’s(1912-1955) stories and writings (Saadat Hasan Manto: Pagaleyan da Sardar), about 60 percent in Punjabi and 40 in English with no other language used (Punglish). We do a lot of translation work, including at times on the spot.

Who does your scripting? How do your scripts evolve?

The original scripts are a collective, collated exercise and emerge after months of workshopping on an issue within the group. Most of the Scripts are written by me or my colleagues from Delhi University, Anuradha Marwah and Anand Prakash.

Who are your crew members and how many team members do you have? How many did you start with?

The total number is above 100. Many leave for a while and return from careers and families. It is strictly volunteer group. The group has tried variously models and the one that works and keeps it activist intent intact is the one where we do not pay ourselves for our time. A project involves a total of about thirty people.

What was the reaction of your colleagues when you started Pandies? Did it find acceptance/ support did you receive from among your colleagues, the academics, and the media?

I would like to add that the reactions from colleagues and academia have been interesting and mixed. Pandies is the first and possibly the only story, of a group tracing its origins in college society theatre and move on without a break to establish not just a national but an international reputation. Even as the model evolved from proscenium alone to in-your-face activism, from seeking and getting funding to putting in your own money and/or collecting it from the audience but never compromising on the political content of what you do. It makes people uncomfortable, especially in the early years, say the first decade — “is this theatre at all?” Today it is seen a story, as an experiment that worked  — the sheer survival of the group from 1987 to 2021 and beyond creates a space for admiration. Students spread across this university, over other universities in India and abroad have been the most ardent support system.

The media has been supportive, quite a bit actually. Over the years, the Pandies’ fan club has extended there too. We got some adverse reviews to begin with but more from those from the academia, who were writing in papers and journals, who had problems of simply — I cannot see activist success stories from the university itself.

What has been the impact on the people who are part of the Pandies? What has been the impact on the audience?

When you do political theatre the impact is on all sides of the spectrum. And the best place to measure the success is your own side. The empathy, the killing guilt and the desire to do more manifest in the group members, especially after series of tough workshop theatre evidences the impact.  

I saw your play in an on online forum. What exactly made you move towards what you called cyber theatre?

Basically, the pandemic. But it has been a good experience, sheerly in terms of reach and numbers (the first play had 7000+ hits though we never got near that again, also we were ticketing plays after the first). We always crib about the reach of market theatre and how activist theatre falls by the side. The cyber medium actually gives an international access to live theatre. Think the potential is huge.

How would others access these plays?

Amazingly the reach of the smart phone is huge. When we worked with communities, we did send out signals to make available smart phones for our performers and their local audience but discovered that not much was required. The internet does at times pose problems, even for us, there are technical glitches at times but then we have glitches everywhere. And technology, as young techie at Pandies told me, is to be used and not feared. If the audience can suspend disbelief in theatre, what’s a glitch or two on screen.

The potential far outweighs the hurdles.

You had interesting pieces (or rather pieces) evolving out of slums and migrant workers. You had an interesting take on why slums develop. Can you tell us?

The ignored margins of our world. Metropolitan cities, and I speak of Delhi — my abode specifically, attract people from all over. The prospects are great, and it is not untrue, as we have seen in our experiences of performing in so many slums and more importantly creating theatre with those who live there, that life is actually better for most. They earn more, eat better and find better school and health facilities. The trajectory is both simple and awful, many villages around Delhi become abodes for migrants, first on rent and then ownership. These margins are also the blot for the rich and famous who live around there in big bungalows and condominiums. They berate the residents for being thieves and drug peddlers and use them for a supply of menial help, maids, drivers, and the same kind of drugs. Working with them and creating theatre one realises that the grievances from the other side are worse — of exploitations, profiling and being treated worse than animals.

What was the impact of this piece on migrant workers and the theatre you had with Afghan refugees among your audience? Who are the people that constitute your audience? How do they respond to these plays? Do you have collaborations with more universities or theatre groups?

In the preceding decades Pandies has performed in practical every college in Delhi University besides performing in universities all over including IITs (Indian Institute of Technology), TISS (Tata Institute of  Social Sciences), Jammu, Bangalore and colleges of Rajasthan and Jharkhand. The tie-ups and collaborations are specific project related. Pandies has over the years been very zealous of guarding its artistic and political independence and anything that seeks to compromise that even slightly is not welcome. We have long lasting collaborations with organisations that work in areas we are in — Shakti Shalini (NGO Women’s group), or Saksham in Nithari (NGO running schools for children).

Can you tell us its reach — universities, theatre halls, small screen? How far have you been able to stretch out in thirty years? Tell us about the growth.

Bourgeois theatre rules the world. It’s connected  and money generates more money. pandies’ endeavour has been to connect not just at the university levels, not just at national levels but at international levels, evolve collectives that deal with exploitation and oppression at diverse levels.

We perform and do workshops. The group’s reach has been wide. Going on a narrower, sharper course over the last decade to be able to work with the severely marginalised, those who don’t even come on the space of development of the downtrodden.

The nature of our theatre enables us to connect with the underserved and more than 80 percent of the work does not come on the page of the dominant middle class. Performances and presentations all over the country and many abroad use the pandies’ template, Syrian refugees in Greece (2018), Gypsy communities of Ireland (2013), communities in NYC (2012) and nooks and corners of our own country including the Muslim valley of Kashmir where angels fear to tread.

What are your future plans?

As the world opens up, all varieties of work have started again. Workshops with our underserved margins and a full-length proscenium production are both long overdue.

At the same time the cyber experience has taught us the importance of reach, that those who go physically away don’t have to opt out of working for the group.

So yes, we seek a malleable form, a hybrid that combines stage theatre with all its power and is available online live, and the online form too will merge together to the performance which will be more far reaching and accessible. Given the group’s depth we will get there and soon.

Thank you.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

People matter more than Money

By Keith Lyons

Some of my best friends on Facebook aren’t my friends anymore

It was the post on Facebook, in the early days, before, you know, before it got really serious. “Does anyone know of anyone actually getting this virus?” The question behind the question was something like ‘this is all fake news, all made up, this is not real’. In the comments section, her FB friends and followers were quick to respond. No. No. Don’t know. No. No. Don’t know anyone. As if to confirm suspicions. So, the poster followed up. Wasn’t it interesting that no one of her hundreds, perhaps thousands of friends, had themselves or knew of anyone with the virus?

When I checked later that week, the denial and dismissal hit some bumps. People, from around the globe, added comments to the list. Yes, they knew of someone who had it. Yes, one of their friends got COVID. Yes, I have it.

So that conspiracy theory in the making was quashed. I selected first unfollow, then unfriend. And thought about blocking or reporting.

But like the arcade game Whac-A-Mole, more so-called Friends were re-posting ‘alternative news’, or penning their own takes on the virus. Sure, we are in a democracy. Sure, information is distributed. Sure, we can be critical of official sources. But when a friend posts, all in upper case, “THIS IS ALL CRAP” I am tempted to turn off the shouting. Because this is a sign that someone has been contaminated, just like in the horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead. Ironically, it is their shouting about all the unnecessary fear and overblown panic that suggests that they themselves are afraid and panicking and have chosen to find comfort in the thin veneer of insight that comes with conspiracy theories. Just that you can’t call them conspiracy theories. Non-mainstream views sounds nicer. Alternative news perhaps.

I’m told not to believe public health officials, political leaders, epidemiologists or scientists. Because, somehow, without educational qualifications, just with a little time using Google and YouTube, my friend is now privy to the real truth, and I am just a mere witless sheep, so naive, so unable to see that this virus hoax is actually a black swan event being used by the powerful elites and clandestine organisations to bring about compulsory micro-chipping, GPS tracking and vaccinations. Or is it really a white swan event, and we could have seen it coming?

So, who will achieve world domination through the pandemic and the recession to follow? The coronavirus itself, isn’t that its goal, aided and abetted by human carriers? All of this is a tad confusing. There’s an invisible virus which is wreaking havoc, it has almost closed down many nations and brought a halt to human activity. We can hear the birds singing, the water is clearer, the air is breathable again, and filled with smells and fragrances. It is an unexpected benefit of lockdown. In such a short amount of time, the Earth has started to heal. We’ve seen how a new world might look, with the kindness of neighbours, a sense of community, time to pause, linger, reflect.

There’s a psychological test, where you imagine yourself in a white room, with no way out. What do you do? Your answer is supposed to indicate your attitude towards death, specifically your own death. In a way, the lockdown has been like a mini-psychology test, to see how we do behave. Are we productive and organised, with full routines and self-care and connecting with others? Or instead, do we mope around, eat too much, binge on Netflix or entertainment as a means of escape, rather than use this time to sort out some things in our lives? Funny how a few months ago many of us were complaining we don’t have enough time with our families or that we are putting off doing things because we are too busy. Yet when the opportunity to spend quality time together or the freedom to do that home decorating task finally arrives, instead we find ourselves wanting to kill those we live with, lamenting over our lack of progress on those rainy day errands, or getting into a cycle of avoidance, regret, and guilt.

In these turbulent times, many things have been put on hold. Not just haircuts, or holidays. But many things have carried on too, though in ways that are not so familiar to us.

The first of my friends to get COVID-19 was in Canada, though she wasn’t able to be tested to confirm her case. One of my best friend’s mother died at the start of the lockdown, not from the virus, but from the kind of natural causes that sees you go out in your late nineties. Travel restrictions and prohibitions on gatherings meant a small service was held via video link.

A comedian and actor from my childhood, Tim Brooke-Taylor, died from COVID-19, on the other side of the world, but because he’d been in the living room when I was young, it seemed like it was close. Then, just a few days ago, a friend calls from China, bearing sad news. One of my friends, a Tibetan in her sixties who founded orphanages and schools across Tibet, had died in Switzerland. The cause of death, I check and re-check the translation on the article in the newspaper: the virus. Tendol was the kindest, big-hearted, loving person I have ever met. She was literally mother to over 300, having welcomed street children, abandoned waifs and orphans into her homes.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, it seems to have separated out those countries that have acted quickly from those who haven’t, or those lacking resources. The daily updates of confirmed cases, patients in hospital, and deaths seems to be too much like the Olympic medal table. We check on how we are doing, how others are doing, how we are doing in relation to our rivals. Self-proclaimed experts ponder exponential curves and possible projections, politicians casually dismiss that it might hurt tens of thousands of people, but they are standing in the way of economic growth.

I would like to go on Facebook and tell others about my friend Tendol, who more than once told me she was ‘the happiest person on Earth’. I would like to let others know that this pandemic is human, not mathematical. I would like others to know people matter more than money, that you can re-start an economy but you can’t bring someone back to life, that if you let go of selfishness and greed you may find your love extends beyond yourself, your family, even your country.

I would like to say this to all my Facebook friends, though the ones I’d really like to reach are now quarantined, unfollowed, unfriended.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).