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)

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