I moved to Kharkiv, the embattled second city of Ukraine, in autumn of 2022, one month after the surrounding area’s liberation. I had founded a small charity to help restore war-damaged buildings in the spring of that year, and we planned to begin repair work in the heavily shelled surrounding villages. Kharkiv still felt as though it were sleepwalking, nobody quite believing that the horrors might have partially subsided.
My first flat in the city was in the only undamaged building on what was once a beautiful street in the centre. Sod’s Law ensured that the apartment above mine belonged to an amateur DJ, the only other resident left behind on the street. All through the night he would mix blaring music. I have had noisy neighbours before, of course, and I have lived with amateur DJs whose hobby would keep me up throughout the night. But in time of war, when the city is a black hole of silence in between the sirens, its few residents having cleared off the street long before curfew, electronic music poring through the plaster of the ceiling somehow becomes comforting. Music is such an intentional noise, and the sound of this inescapable proof of life provided some comfort in the context of the enveloping silence around us. The consistency of it – the knowledge that the beats will maintain their rhythm, that the next bar can be predicted, the pattern maintained – compared to the spontaneity of the other sounds that permeate a war zone, felt reassuring.
Driving up the main highway to the villages where we work, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was a warplane flying low overhead. The weight of the hundreds of tanks that moved up and down that highway during the height of the fighting last year damaged the asphalt, meaning that now any contact with a car in motion creates a loud, aggressive hum, recreating the sounds of the battle machinery that was stationed there not long ago.
Once you have turned off that main highway and entered the villages, the first thing you notice is silence. The Kharkiv soundtrack of regular air raid sirens: gone. Electricity here was cut off almost immediately after the war began, and with it went the wailing. The loud generator rumblings that you heard in Kyiv or Lviv over the winter months as Russian bombs pounded Ukrainian infrastructure are also noticeably absent. The few cafes and shops that once existed here have either been destroyed or lie empty, owners and workers having fled. Silence rules in the villages and the people who still live here have gotten used to this new, uneasy peace. The silence is not like the silence you will find in a village untouched by war. It is deeper, filled at first with a taut tension and then eventually with an uneasy calm. In Kyiv or Kharkiv, a sense of panic reverberates with the sirens, no matter how used to them you might become, but these border villages are closer to danger than the cities, and have suffered a far greater damage, and yet, in the absence of sirens, the silence cocoons you.
Other than the occasional thud of artillery in the distance, all you will hear is the barking of the hundreds of stray dogs who roam the villages. Many were abandoned when their owners fled and the streets are awash with puppies. Occasionally an international charity will turn up and evacuate some for adoption in Europe and America, but the problem goes beyond what adoption could solve. One woman half joked to me that there had been more evacuation buses for animals than there had been for people. Some of the dogs went mad when the shelling was at its worst and turned violent. Ukrainian soldiers shot them. Generally, the ones left are friendly, if loud, and will follow you around begging for food. They aren’t provoked by the sounds of shelling any more, though villagers say that at the beginning of the war the barking dogs and bangs of artillery always came together.
Peace is a strange word to use for the silence that exists in these post-apocalyptic villages. The war is only a few miles away and the scenes of burnt-out cars, flattened homes and makeshift graves on the sides of roads would surely attest to anything other than peace. It does feel peaceful, though. You know that you are deluding yourself, that the lack of notification of danger is not a real absence of danger, but we choose to bask in our ignorance, filling our ears with wax. For the residents, this peace has even more pertinence. If you ask them to describe the worst months of the war, the answer is unanimous: holosno – ‘loud’. For them, the silence now is a promise of momentary safety, a reassurance that, at least for this second, the danger has passed. They describe the hellish months when they found themselves at ground zero, in the so-called ‘grey zone’, held by neither Russia nor Ukraine, and tried to learn to distinguish between ‘our’ artillery (Ukrainian), and ‘theirs’ (Russian), and between ‘incoming’ and ‘outgoing’ fire. People claim that they can tell the difference and will immediately announce each thud to be one or the other, but I can’t hear either way, and the head of one village admitted in hushed tones that, a year into the war, she still can’t tell them apart.
For some, the silence becomes permanent. One woman I met had been rendered deaf by German and Soviet shelling in Kharkiv during the Second World War. Deaf charities worked hard in the beginning of the war to evacuate people like her, the most vulnerable to the shelling, but she, like many others, refused to leave. When her village was under attack, she would work out the need to move to the bomb shelter by the severity of the vibrations underfoot. If the shock wave became visible – that is, if she could see her windows shaking – it was time to go to the basement. Other people I’ve met have constant tinnitus, as though the sirens on the streets have occupied their eardrums.
A Kyiv music producer, Timur Dzhafarov, now serving on the front line, described to me the horrible loss of control over what you hear in the context of the war. In peacetime, you can put your headphones on, ask someone to be quiet, or shut the door to a room. Some sounds may be unavoidable, but generally you consent to what you hear. On the front line, sound attacks you, trapping you within it. In towns and cities across Ukraine, the thunder-like bang of an explosion can come at any moment. Cities are big, and most people will not see explosions for themselves – but the sound is not so easily avoided. A rocket hitting any part of Kharkiv or Kyiv can be heard across the city. This creates a constant feeling of claustrophobia, of being trapped at the whim of people you don’t know, or see, or understand, who have taken control of your hearing. Most countrywide air raids are caused by a particular type of missile-carrying plane taking off in Belarus, regardless of whether it actually crosses the border. Sometimes, these planes are launched just for the sake of playing with Ukrainian air defence, confusing it and sowing panic, plunging the country into the wailing of the air raid.
Ordinary sounds change their meaning in the context of war when the reverberations of sound can mean death. The kamikaze drones used by Russia to inflict terror across Ukrainian cities are called ‘mopeds’ in popular vernacular, as they sound like an engine revving. Suddenly the sound of an actual motorbike driving past evokes new terror. Fireworks sound like gunshots, while the whistle of a train can be heard as an air raid siren. I watched a child accidentally burst a balloon on the street in central Kharkiv, and the adults around her jump and swear. A refugee from Dnipro, now living in Ireland, told me that the best investment she had made since leaving Ukraine was door silencers. Before then, every slam of a door in her new house would induce tears and panic in her young children. One bar in Kharkiv, which reopened over Christmas, insisted on playing tracks that have air raid sirens in them. Each time, newcomers jump when they hear the music. When I first went there, I couldn’t quite believe the callousness and insensitivity of the owner. On reflection, I understand it better. This is a reclamation of these sounds, and a reclamation of autonomy over your reaction to them.
Since I moved to Kharkiv, I have seen a slow, tentative rebirth, both in the city and in the surrounding villages. While some villages are completely destroyed, those that have suffered less damage are coming back to life. Residents are returning from Europe, or elsewhere in Ukraine. They clean up their rubble-filled homes and begin to settle into this new reality. Liuda, who has remained in her home throughout the war, described stepping out of her home one morning in December and crying Dobryy ranok! (‘Good morning!’) and hearing people from practically every house on her street respond, a cacophony of greetings and undeniable proof of life. Where electricity is restored, people can once again tune into the radio or television, making a private soundscape within the walls of their own homes, entirely separate to that which the villages had to endure as a collective. The wildlife is returning too – human beings are not the only victims of shelling; small birds and squirrels often die of heart attacks induced by the shock of the noise. Now birdsong is coming back, joining the soundscape of stray dogs. It will be a long time before live music returns to these villages, but that isn’t to say that plans aren’t in place. In the settlement of Velyki Prokhody, ten kilometres south of the Russian border, the local house of culture was occupied by Russian soldiers for seven months. With blown-out windows, rubbish piled on the stage and shrapnel holes in the seats, the work to restore it will be massive. The plans, however, are already in place. The village mayor, a kind man called Oleksandr, who was himself captured and tortured by the Russians, shows me the dressing room, still filled with traditional Ukrainian costumes, hidden by the residents who remained during Russian occupation. He promises me that soon enough they will reopen the building. Only ninety of the village’s 800 residents remain, but as more and more come back, he knows that the need for music and art will return with them.
Photograph courtesy of the author, Derhachi, Kharkiv, November 2022