This article originally appeared on VICE Romania
I find it hard to feel empathy when I read news about the conflict in Ukraine; the truth is that it really doesn't move me. The dead and the wounded, regions won and regions lost, shots fired, winners and losers. Like all wars, it's gradually turned into a sort of corpse inventory. I can, however, feel empathy towards someone's life experiences. That's why, earlier this month, I travelled from Bucharest to Kiev to see how the war looked through the eyes of Ukrainian soldiers.
I quickly realised that I was naive. My translator, Irina, warned me not to get my hopes up: "Have you ever interviewed somebody whose been to war? You should expect them to be reluctant to talk about their experiences. Do you think they'll give you details about how it was to see their comrades get shot or that they will cry about how they ate mouldy bread and drank water out of ditches? No soldier will tell you how tough it was or how afraid they were."
Luckily for me, I met Oleksandr Tkachuk. Oleksandr is normally a filmmaker but has spent the last year of his life commanding a squadron of Ukrainian soldiers on the Russian border. "This war isn't just physical," he told me. "It's also cultural. I have nothing against Russian culture, but at this point there's an ideological conflict."
His wish to contribute to that cultural revolution motivated him to start the Music of Warriors – a project documenting soldiers' musical talents. "I was walking through Kiev and I saw a musician playing a cello – he wasn't military, just a street musician. But the sound of his instrument was so dramatic that it really told me the story of what has happened in Ukraine in the last year. So, I convinced him to dress up as a soldier and play his music in a video. The video was unexpectedly popular online. After this, I decided that I could go even further, so I invited all sorts of soldiers who played musical instruments to join," explained Oleksandr.
He then opened his laptop and showed me a video of Ihor, 'the Pianist' – a soldier from the Donbas Battalion, whom he had filmed at the Kiev Military Hospital. "Last summer, after the massacre of Ilovaisk, Ihor was taken prisoner by Russian separatists. Ironically, they held him prisoner in a former music school, where he found an old piano, which he was allowed to repair. Almost every night, he would sit by that piano and play classical music. The guards and the prisoners would gather to listen to him and they would all cry and cheer for him together."
I immediately thought of Roman Polanski's movie The Pianist. But despite his fantastic story, the only public mention I could find of Ihor was a small piece of news on local television. "He's an introvert. He doesn't like to be interviewed and foreign journalists don't know how to get in touch with him," said Oleksandr.
'The Pianist', as his battalion comrades call him, was born in Western Ukraine 24 years ago. He graduated from music school in Kuty, but never played in public before the Euromaidan revolution, when he and other musicians gave concerts in solidarity with the protesters in Independence Square. At the time, he was a law student at the National University of Chernivtsi.
After a couple of failed attempts, I managed to speak with Ihor on the phone. The connection was terrible and the call would break every few minutes. He was shy but nice and tried his best to answer my questions but, as Irina warned me, he refused to tell me how he was treated during his detention:
"Those four months I spent in detention were hard. All 100 of us tried to stick close together, like brothers. There were a lot of difficult moments, but we tried to get over them with humour and music. Music is the only language everybody understands," was all I could get out of him.
Though I could only imagine what Ihor went through during those months, it was even harder for me to understand how he had the strength to return to the front after that. "War is like a drug: once you experience it, it never lets you go. Now, I want to see it through. We won't give up. We'll see it to the end, until we are victorious," he explained.
Ihor's tale is rather different to what you'd expect from a war story. But I'm glad that, instead of another gory depiction about the horrors of war, I found one about its humane side. The Music of Warriors project is ongoing and Alex is still looking for soldiers who – like Ihor – are able to express their experiences through music.
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