Signs of an Approaching War | Volodymyr Rafeyenko | Granta

Signs of an Approaching War

Volodymyr Rafeyenko

Translated by Sasha Dugdale

It was a long chilly spring, a strange spring, and we walked every day by the lake. To the west of the lake was the dacha settlement where we were living. Friends we had made in 2014, when we fled from Donbas after it was occupied by Russian fighters, had given us permission to live in their dacha, and we ended up staying there. So for five or six years our home had been a fairly ridiculous, barely inhabitable summer house, constructed by different owners through the eras. And in early 2022, we were still there. It wasn’t really set up for living in, and it was about an hour’s drive from Kyiv (between Bucha and Borodyanka, if those names mean anything to you). But it was beautiful countryside, with forest to one side and on the other a deep blue lake, about three kilometres long.

I remember very distinctly the birds appearing this spring. It was as if they had fallen out of the sky and into our forest, all on a single day. There were so many; more than ever before. I had not noticed such variety until then. My wife is an amateur ornithologist, she can identify many species and knows the particular details of each, and she, especially, was taken by surprise, and would spend time identifying each new bird that flew past our dacha.

Out of curiosity, and because it had become her hobby, my wife joined a Facebook group called British Bird Lovers. This small but friendly group of English ornithologists put up pictures: robins – we call them malinovka – and others that slowly became familiar to us. We learned their names and studied their habits.

But the behaviour of these newcomers took us by surprise. One small and nameless bird flitted along the road, chasing a huge raven. The raven seemed impossibly large, it flew low over the tarmac, and the little bird, no bigger than my fist, swooped down and attacked it with cries. The raven fled in disgrace and we were sorry not to have identified its little pursuer. I remember, too, a large group of storks. Over a dozen of them, they took up such a space in the sky. They were not in any kind of formation or flock, but at the same time they were clearly together; not just gliding in the insane blueness of the sky, but travelling in an extraordinary, harmonious trajectory, a dance-flight. The sight of them made me want to weep.

Strangely enough, we never even considered that this was not an accident, that the universe was attempting over and over again to tell us something. We were ourselves migrating birds; in a sense, refugees, displaced persons, without a home or a home town.

The rain fell incessantly. The trees grew so abundantly that it was almost frightening to observe. It was exactly what we had seen in Donetsk eight years before. Why had we been blind to it then? Why hadn’t we gathered up our possessions and moved to Kyiv? I don’t know. In fact, this spring, I did have some inkling that all of this reminded me of something, but I suppressed it, I put it to the back of my mind. I told myself that I shouldn’t be superstitious. That I had refugee syndrome. I told myself that the coming summer would be wonderful, and I should give thanks and stop thinking negative thoughts.

Only a person can be so carefree, so unaware. I even had some experience. After our first flight I began thinking about how an excess of natural life compensates for death that comes all too soon. Nature seems to know the future, because for the natural world everything is cyclical. But despite all this, I let the signs slip by me. We didn’t evacuate in time, even though the birds tried to warn us.


On 24 February 2022 at 5 a.m. Russia began shelling Kyiv, Dnipro, Ivano-Frankivsk and Kharkiv. A few hours later we were encircled. The only road to safety, to Kyiv, was the site of fierce battles. We were trapped. We later found out that many people had fled to their dachas, thinking it would be quieter there. But it wasn’t: day and night the artillery thundered. Explosions shook the house so thoroughly that the doors opened as if of their own accord whenever a shell landed. Shrapnel and shells were embedded in the gardens and on the roads. A village about three kilometres from ours was occupied by Russian soldiers and they committed brutal atrocities. A whole large family was shot because they refused to feed the occupiers. The Russians used the civilian population as a human shield, firing their guns from backyards and gardens.

After a few days we lost electricity. The internet went down, the shops shut and thousands of people were caught by surprise, they were simply not prepared. On the first days of war, in our tiny village of summer houses, there were ninety-nine adults and thirty-four children. A few pregnant women, some disabled people, and some elderly people. We needed heart medicine, insulin and so on, but there was no way of getting it. In the early days a line of cars tried to get past the Russian checkpoint, with white flags on their bonnets and roofs. Some were successful, some not. It was a lottery, no one could predict how an attempt would turn out. We buried a family of two adults and two small children in our cemetery – they were the unlucky ones.

There were places in the forest where you could sometimes catch a mobile signal and we would search them out to hastily try to call our families and friends. Dozens of people would meet in the woods, all hoping to find a signal, and then all talking at the same time. One person yelled, ‘I’m alive, Mum!’ Another pleaded to be rescued, unable to comprehend that it couldn’t physically be done. And a third shouted, ‘I love you, I love you.’ The person at the other end of the line could no longer hear them, but we all had tears in our eyes.

I can’t write about everything I saw or experienced. I can only say that when volunteers were able to rescue my wife and me, to bring us to safety, I spent half the journey out staring at Russian soldiers at their checkpoints, tanks wedged between buildings, rural homes that had been smashed to pieces by shells. The other half of the journey I spent thinking about 2014.


We lived back then in the centre of Donetsk, by a park, and we couldn’t help but notice the number of slugs and snails – and mice. In an industrial city, with a million inhabitants, the mice ran fearlessly down the streets day and night. They crossed my path as I took my morning run or strolled with the family. The rain fell in sheets. The trees blossomed out of season, all at once. The lilac and the chestnut and the elder and even the apple trees, everything blooming so profusely at the end of April it was like an image from Shakespeare, as unbearably clear as the Apocalypse of John.

Every morning I took my run around the town ponds and the birds chased me along. The ravens and the jays and other tiny birds. They swooped down on my head, harassing me, screaming and crying like children. Then they would overtake me and sit on the path ahead of me, still screaming. It was as if they were trying to force me away, force me to leave this city that was destined to fall to barbarians.

Much later I explained all this to myself as the effects of life’s compensatory mechanisms. Nature knew that soon there would be death in that place, and she was compensating as she knew how. Nature fountained forth with the same desperate energy that would course through the battles fought in these places six months later. And hundreds of people died. And it will never end.


Photograph © Nazar Furyk from My Own Private Louisiana

Volodymyr Rafeyenko

Volodymyr Rafeyenko is a Ukrainian writer, poet, translator and critic. He initially wrote entirely in Russian, but following the outbreak of Russian aggression in 2014 he switched to Ukrainian. Mondegreen: Songs about Death and Love is his first novel in Ukrainian. He is the Ukrainian translator of Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich's War's Unwomanly Face.

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Translated by Sasha Dugdale

Sasha Dugdale is a poet and translator. Her fifth poetry collection Deformations was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and her translation of Maria Stepanova's In Memory of Memory was shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize and the 2022 James Tait Black Prize.

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