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Glimmers of war through a veil of normalcy

March 23, 2024 

Saturday, March 23
7 p.m.
Lviv, Ukraine

We arrived in Lviv on Saturday afternoon and immediately I was struck by how normal the city seems. A bustling urban area, with trams and buses and traffic and crowded sidewalks of people – even mothers holding the hands of toddlers in knit stocking caps with tiny matching boots. For a reason I can’t explain, seeing children on the streets, acting as though it were any other Saturday in any other city, was the most surprising thing of all. All this time and I hadn’t before really thought about children, many of whom I saw were small enough that they couldn’t remember a time when their beautiful city wasn’t under siege.

There are no overt signs of war in Lviv – no blasted-out buildings, not even a broken window. Everyone walks around with an air of silent self-assurance. Shops are open, teenagers are chasing each other, and half the people are texting and not paying attention to where they’re going. There’s music in the streets and the aroma of restaurants open for the lunch crowd. Everything seems as though nothing’s wrong. Our Ukrainian guide even jokes with some pride: “This is what a war-torn city looks like.” And I soon realize he is right to be proud; the people of Lviv clearly are not letting the threat of Russian rockets stop their Saturday afternoon.

But it doesn’t take long to see the glimmers of war through this veil of normalcy. I notice more men than you would expect – none older than 30 -- without arms, legs, or hands. In the center of the square where our hotel is, panels feature photos of handsome men with long bios. Not being able to read the language (or even decipher the alphabet), I would have guessed that they are candidates for public office – until I take a closer look. What I can understand are the numbers. All of them are pictured in uniform, and all of them have death dates within the last week. Storefronts are decorated for Easter with bright flowers and bunnies; but the stained-glass windows of the cathedral are covered with some sort of metal siding. Everything is fine…and yet, there is a feeling that something isn’t quite right.

That evening we met three locals for supper. Two women and one man, a priest, all of whom work in the mental health field. If you saw a webinar Catholic Health Association hosted about Ukraine last October, you heard one of the women speak about her work counseling victims of war. I’ll include the link at the end of this post – please listen to it sometime. This work should be noticed and supported by the world.

A lively conversation starts among the table, going back and forth between Ukrainian and English, and I end up speaking one-on-one with the woman directly across from me. She appears to be in her late 20s and was introduced to the group as one of the psychologists. Her English is impeccable and her phrasing articulate, but she is quiet by nature. She tells me about one part of her work: she facilitates group therapy for women whose husbands or sons are fighting or have fallen in the war. “They are so angry,” she said. “And sometimes it is hard for them to talk about it.” She shows me pictures of women wearing headscarves and sitting in a circle in the middle of a church, clearly engrossed in listening to each other. “They cannot be left alone with their pain and anger, so we meet in places where they can talk. Where they have community.”

I tell her that Americans think Ukrainians are brave. “What else can we be?” she asks. “We all have only one life and we must live it no matter what.” She then shares she and her husband have two children, ages three and six, and chose to stay together as a family in Lviv because they thought it was important for the children to be with extended family. “They are only children once,” she says. “We must create a good childhood for them.”

Her words seem wise beyond her youth, but the conversation soon moves to a more general topic of the importance of mental health and trauma care for people. The food is served, and we join the larger discussion of the whole table. As dinner is ending, she is translating for the priest, who does not speak much English. She then adds her own story: “I went to Odesa six months after the war started to help the mental health providers cope. I listened to what they saw and experienced and knew I could not do it. It took me four months to even be able to speak what I had heard.” She struggles for words for a second, then continues: “My mouth would open, but no words would come out. I couldn’t talk about it.”

I couldn’t imagine the horror of what she had heard and seen. I was expecting her to say she quit that job, but she didn’t say that. She instead said, “And so then I knew that my place was to come back here to listen to people who have been affected by war, and to help people in Lviv.” The exposure to others’ unbearable pain, still so obviously real for her, may have caused temporary silence; but it didn’t paralyze her. It reinforced her vocation to serve others.

We all started to say good-bye and thanked each other profusely. Now I was the one speechless. What in the world do you say to people that courageous? Who day in and day out raise their children and absorb tragedy and still dress up on a Saturday night to have dinner as though it’s any other Saturday night in the world?

In her book “Eat, Pray, Love”, author Elizabeth Gilbert asserts that every city has its own word that defines it. Gilbert says New York’s word is “achieve,” and Los Angeles’ is “succeed.” After having spent only one day in this city, and having met and spoken with just four average, every day, heroic Ukrainians, I think I already know what Lviv’s word is – “prevail.”

CHA webinar (must have CHA login to view):

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Glimmers of war through a veil of normalcy