Hranitne, a frontline village, uses poetry to cope with trauma of war
HRANITNE, Ukraine — In 2015, Iryna Zlochynska planted apricot trees in shell craters, and started writing poems to cope with Russia’s war.
As a nurse, Zlochynska, 53, has seen blood and destruction in her Donetsk Oblast village of Hranitne, located 720 kilometers southeast of Kyiv.
Eight adults and three children were killed by shelling in 2014–2015, and almost half of the houses have been damaged in fighting in the Russian-instigated war.
Four people were killed on Zlochynska’s own street, which is separated from the rest of the village by the Kalmius River. The area is now considered to be out of the government’s control.
The sound of shelling can still be heard regularly in the village of about 3,000 people.
Zlochynska daily crosses a small makeshift bridge across the river (the main bridge was destroyed in earlier fighting), and passes through the final checkpoint of the Ukrainian army to get to her workplace at a hospital. There, she treats dozens of distressed patients, mostly elderly people.
And sometimes she reads her poetry to them in a quiet, shy voice:
“If you knew how scary it is to be at gunpoint and see a squinted eye.
If you knew how scary it is when Grads and cannons plow the ground with shrapnel.
If you knew how scary it is when you see cartridges and grenades, not toys, in the hands of little boys.
If you knew how scary it is when a young mother, not an old woman, is burying her child.
If you knew how scary it is when there’s a hole instead of a house, and the ruins silently stare at you. That’s what hell is.” Zlochynska is one of several residents of Hranitne who started writing poems during the war. She said it helps her to forget about the grim reality around her.
She never fled and, over time, noted how the picturesque valley around her village became dotted with craters from shells. Once she spotted two dead, dry trees, and wrote the following poem:
“There are two dead trees amid a wounded steppe. This summer doesn’t smell of flowers. There’s a smell of ashes and blood where children once played, night- ingales sang and couples kissed at sunrise Don’t go out today, don’t go out!” Psychologist Olena Pylayeva said that some people start writing poetry when they are facing deep emotional pressure. “The poetry helps them overcome the horrors related to war and loss of the feeling of security,” she said.
Pylayeva, who travels to Hranitne and other war zone villages with a mobile clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, said she noticed that the locals often start using the arts to cope with stress.
Pensioner Valentyna Tymashova, 72, worked as a teacher of chemistry and biology for 47 years. She had never showed any interest in poetry until 2015, when she had to hide for many days from shells in a cold basement.
When Tamashova reads her verses, her voice and hands tremble: “All the streets are empty in Hranitne. A shell breaks the silence. They are hitting us every night. Tell me please, for how long will this last? The nights are dark, long and scary. Mortar shells are whistling, Grads are rattling and bombs are exploding.
We are all saying goodbye to our lives. Our nerves are strained to the limit.” Tamashova said she often starts crying when reading her poems. But then she starts feeling better. She reads them to other residents, and has already got some fans.
Sofia Baraban, 64, a former accountant, started quoting Tamashova’s poem from memory. “She gave me the poem and I copied and memorized it,” Baraban said.
Baraban has learned several poems about the Donbas war by heart. She showed a large scar on her arm — the result of a shrapnel wound in 2016. She had to travel some 50 kilometers to a hospital in Volnovakha for treatment.
Before the war, Hranitne was a part of a district centered on the town of Boikivske ( formerly Telmanove), which is just 20 kilometers away. But now Boikivske is controlled by Russian-backed forces.
Since the road to Volnovakha is long and bumpy, and a bus goes there just twice a week, the villagers feel isolated, which also makes them feel depressed.
Hranitne’s hospital is located in an old building damaged by war and bad weather. The local doctor lives in another village and can’t come daily.
The village lived through fierce fighting in the autumn of 2014 until the spring of 2015. At least nine Ukrainian soldiers were killed there.
Pensioner Hanna Zaika, 69, a former medical orderly, memorialized one battle with the following poem: “In a meadow by the valley black poppies have blossomed Three brothers from Zakarpattia have fallen at Hranitne. They fought, and took prisoners of war.
They gave their lives for their beloved Ukraine. Oh girl, don’t cry, don’t mourn, dear. Just bow low to the red poppies growing over the river.”
Unlike other residents, Zaika wrote her poem in Ukrainian, not Russian. She was born in Lviv Oblast. She said that she had contact with her relatives in western Ukraine because of the war. They now think she is pro-Russian.
Zaika has developed heart problems and gets free treatment from Doctors Without Borders.
Pylayeva said most of the residents in the war-torn villages are people in their 50s to 70s, who were brought up in Soviet times, and are wary of psychologists. But they are slowly changing their attitudes.
Pensioner Yury Topolov, 72, a former driver, started going to Pylayeva six months ago and says she has helped reduce his stress. Topolov likes poetry but doesn’t write it. He, instead, plays the accordion and sings his favorite songs to stay calm.
“For mental health, the arts are always a way to get help, to find new inner resources,” said Monika Bregy, a mental health activity manager with Doctors Without Borders.
The organization is now considering setting up a psychological therapy group in the village.
Pensioner Hanna Zaika stands inside the public library in the village of Hranitne in Donetsk Oblast. Zaika is one of several residents of the embattled village who recently started writing poetry about Russia’s war against Ukraine. (Anastasia Vlasova)