Measuring Time: How It Feels to Lose People in Ukraine

The unseen toll of the war in Ukraine

Rachel Jamison
Human Parts

--

Photo courtesy of the author

A Ukrainian teenager who supplies a unit of tankers near Kharkiv told me “Ukrainians don’t measure time in months or days. We measure it in lives lost.” At the time he had lost 12 friends since February and almost died himself; that number is far higher now. Yesterday it went up by two.

I met that teenager because I set up a donor-matching program, Protect A Volunteer, to directly match donors with foreign volunteers and Ukrainians on the front line to get them the flights, winter gear, and medical supplies they need. We helped his unit get stoves and warm clothing. Each time we supply them they are fewer in number because some have been killed since the last time.

We also supplied International Legion units. The first unit we supplied sent us enthusiastic thank-you messages and videos. That unit doesn’t exist anymore. Two were killed and nine seriously injured, now either in hospitals or at home.

My main work in Ukraine is I direct the NGO Safe Passage 4 Ukraine. We started with the intent to help Ukrainians fleeing the war and use airline miles and hotel points to allow them to join family members in the U.S. or Canada. We began operating in April but the first cases we handled weren’t for Ukrainians, they were for foreign military volunteers seriously injured on the front line who had no way to get out of Ukraine and no money to go home. They reached out for help and we responded. I learned how to help them transport bodies of fallen comrades, to get them through immigration when they have brain injuries and can’t answer questions, and who to contact in Ukraine when family members reach out wanting to know what happened to their loved one and where are his remains. A few weeks ago multiple people contacted me about posts all over social media looking for someone to help find an injured American and get him out of Ukraine. I found him and we are making plans to bring him home. The medic who saved his life was killed last week.

I have no military experience. My role is an especially strange one where I function much like a casualty officer but by coordinating everything on my phone and computer while working a full-time job as a law professor. The military never trained me how to decompartmentalize and that does not come easily to me. I don’t know how to set aside my emotions while doing a job and I’m not sure I am capable of it.

Since the war started I’ve helped a few hundred foreign military volunteers and Ukrainian soldiers. In March I helped the first foreign volunteers fly to Ukraine by finding donors to cover their plane tickets using airline miles. I got to know many of them well and some are like brothers. I watched what happened to them in Ukraine and what happened after. Of the people I assisted back in March, there is only one still fighting in Ukraine. The rest have gone home with physical and mental injuries. I’ve seen men I thought I knew change into someone I cannot recognize and watched the gregarious, loyal, reliable, and wonderful people I met become sullen, withdrawn, silent, and angry. I’ve seen them come home without limbs and without memories but filled with shrapnel. Sometimes I take a call from Ukraine but it’s to tell me their friend has gone home but he is now homeless and has no money because he spent it all defending Ukraine but is too ashamed to say so and so won’t ask for help himself.

I notice some of those same changes developing in myself. I see the requests for help come into SP4U and pray I don’t know them but in too many cases I do. I know the names, I know the faces. Anger finds me more quickly but laughter is hiding. It is harder to focus and harder to listen. I don’t know how to act in normal situations because I am not in Ukraine, everything around me is in peace so I should be at peace but I am not. I’m not at war either. I don’t know where I am. I attend faculty meetings where we discuss syllabi and plagiarism policies and then find an airline donor to book an American veteran in business class because of pain from shrapnel. I talk to students about improving their essays and oral arguments and then check my phone to see a request to identify someone injured or killed. I coordinated a medical evacuation while watching my students debate at Oxford Union. I want to turn my phone off and go to the beach for a day but worry about what would happen if someone in Ukraine needs to reach me but cannot. I look at the things in my apartment that I used to enjoy and wonder who that woman was who owned them. I see the unread books on my shelf and my snowboard in the corner and struggle with the reminder that I used to be someone else and do something different.

In April I lost my first friend in Ukraine. When I heard the news I was on a video call with a close friend, an Iraq war veteran. She has had to learn how to lose people. She told me that if we remember the ones we have lost then they are not really gone. They live on with us. Then she prompted me to remember the good things I knew about my friend and everyone else who died with him on that field in Mykolaiv.

In November I helped an American go home for a break. He was one of the first volunteers to arrive and had been fighting with a Ukrainian unit since March. He became my friend. Today I was on a video call with him. He got the news that his entire unit died in an airstrike in Bakhmut. I watched him go from laughter to silence and watched his body grow tense. I had no idea what to say because what can possibly be said? I told him that if he remembers them, then they are not really gone. He told me his memories of one of his friends. But how does one person hold the memories of everyone?

There are so few of us now remembering so many. Since February 24 most of the world has gone on with their lives. They do not know the losses we know. They watch media reports of Ukrainian victories and Russian failures that say nothing of the price paid. That makes it all the more difficult to bear. Sometimes people tell me to take a break, to go on vacation. They mean well but being around people living lives in bliss just makes me angry as I don’t understand how they can go on and leave the rest of us to endure.

For me these feelings are new. I didn’t know war until this year. But for the people I evacuate from Ukraine they are used to war. They have lived it for years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, Lebanon, Kosovo, and everywhere in between. I could tell them how I feel but I don’t have to because they know how I feel. They felt it long before I did. They have endured this for years while the rest of us lived happy peaceful lives and they watched us laughing and smiling and tried to do the same but could not. They only tell me that they are sorry I have joined them on this right side of Heaven and wrong side of Hell. They are so sorry I came but also happy to welcome me and now that I am here there is no leaving; we are here for life even if we don’t really know where here is.

On New Year’s Eve I reached a breaking point. I wondered if I could go on. I didn’t know if I could keep doing this and didn’t know if it was worth it. That same day the first injured legionnaire I helped leave Ukraine contacted me to say thank you. I told him my fears. He said yes it was worth it. He knows because he is alive and told me never to question my worth or the worth of what I do again or I will need to tattoo it on myself.

I am not Ukrainian but my time is 19 lives.

--

--

Rachel Jamison
Human Parts

Director of Protect a Volunteer protectavolunteer.com, which helps get equipment and supplies to volunteers in Ukraine.