When the cries of a war veteran surface thirty years later

A boy walks by unexploded Russian shells in the village of Andriyivka close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Apr. 11, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

As a child, journalist Nigina Beroeva collected shell casings and entertained the public with her childhood stories. In February, she was surprised by the unexpected explosion of her memories at the sight of Russian tanks on their way to Ukraine

As a child I used to collect shell casings in my back garden. I had a rich collection. Three kilograms of shells and some live ammunition. We exchanged them with friends, played games, and compared serial numbers. It was fun. At least, that's the memory I have. I didn't flinch at the sounds of gunshots and explosions. I got used to it. I remember one day when there was bombing very close by.  The lights were out and my mother was very nervous, walking up and down the room in the dark. I sat on the couch and knitted; I felt at ease.

There was a lot going on in those days. A neighbour's funeral. Terrible rumours. One day they started bombing. I had already left for school and my mother couldn't find me. She was running around the neighborhood, looking for me. There were tanks and explosions all around and she couldn't find her child. At that time I was lying face down on the floor in my schoolmate’s  apartment. I'll never forget my mother's hysteria when she finally found me.

I was seven or eight years old... It was almost 30 years ago. Not many people know about the civil war in Tajikistan. It lasted more than five years, according to different sources, and 160,000 to 230,000 people died.

Over the years my memories have been polished to a shine. They became like mementos on a shelf to show your friends. These stories were great for noisy company and for a second date. But then the war came. 

It was during a military parade. Soldiers were jumping out of helicopters, shooting into the air, and that's when I found myself under a bench, crying. I was sure that these "memory shells" had already been defused, that I could play with them like my shell casings without detonating them. 

But they did explode. Not when I was covering the war, no. They exploded at the end of last February. When Russia started a war against Ukraine. I was safe compared to people in Kiev, Kharkiv, Odessa, Mariupol...

I was in the Russian Belgorod region, on the border with Ukraine, filming for France24 military equipment that was going to shell Kharkiv. I had seen the equipment many times, but this time it was completely different. It was my country’s regular army before my eyes. I was filming tanks and howitzers, and I knew that in a few hours or days people would die from their shots. 

And that's when memories from my childhood detonated inside me. Those memories that I didn't know about; the ones that hadn't been polished to a shine. They exploded and I was nauseous and shaking from what I saw on the side of the road in Belgorod.

Every day I think of the millions of Ukrainians with these "shells" planted inside them. They will be exploding for years to come. Like the shells left over from World War II that explode even eighty years later. Children and adults, every survivor, will hate the military salutes (I have hated salutes all my life). They'll shudder at the sound of cars popping. They will cry at night. They will dream about the war... That's why the crimes of this war can't be measured or counted.

A friend of mine from Kyiv, who survived the bombings in the city, wrote me that it was only now that things have become really scary. Now that the air-raid alarm sounds rarely, when the war has gone to the East. It's scarier now than it was then. The life-saving adrenaline has receded and the wounds are beginning to open. Awareness and endless dull pain are coming. For those who survived the war, the war will never end. It will always be inside of them. Even then, especially when the world begins to forget about this war…

The Russians who stayed inside the country and those who fled have their own traumas. Their shells. Their fear. I'll talk about that next time.

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