2nd August 2022


17 minutes read

Diána Vonnák

In War’s Orbit

translated by Owen Good

2nd August 2022

17 minutes read

It was February. The roads around Kyiv were covered in thick snow, barely a hint of brown on the slush when more snow began to fall. The bag-eyed taxi driver and I crawled along in early morning traffic. Every now and again he wound down the window, spat, and continued his monologue. At first glance he’d seemed barely twenty, his nose looked like it had healed badly after being broken, his nails were chewed to the quick. He might as well have been talking to himself: it didn’t enter his mind to seek eye contact and he left me no space to answer. Occasionally he landed a whopping smack on the wheel for emphasis.

When you’re searching for their remains in a sunflower field, it’s impossible to look away, he said.

Son of a bitch, he added, gesturing at the minibus in the next lane that had taken advantage of our slowing during his previous sentence and was trying to cut in. You know, you’re standing in that sweet smell, not knowing when you might tread on an arm poking up from under a stalk. You’ve gotta constantly look at the ground so you don’t step on their face, you’re forced to see every goddamn rotting detail. The journey to Novi Petrivtsi was forty minutes and we were about halfway.

It was never my explicit intention to work in conflict zones, and yet the way things have worked out, for ten years now I regularly find myself in the orbit of war. Much of the time, my life unfolds according to a formal order: time is punctuated by scheduled salaries and annual tax returns, jobs mostly come with contracts and transparent career trajectories, and my EU passport barely ever closes doors. The future can be counted on and counted with. This calm is then intercepted by months and years of working in environments that are more exposed, with people living hand to mouth, their futures undone. Even those with good jobs know order to be chimerical. As a social scientist I have always worked on something other than the war itself, mostly endangered cultural heritage, yet often the war feels like a conductor, an invisible protagonist. In late summer 2015, when I first arrived in Ukraine, the front line had just become consolidated, the army was actively mobilizing, and the shock of the new situation popped up in unexpected contexts.

Bodies between the sunflowers.

It is not surprising that life in the orbit of war would be full of stories that are horrendous and raw. And indeed, even far away, more than a thousand kilometers from the front, my first weeks were filled with stories of the undertaker unwilling to evacuate the recently announced Donetsk People’s Republic due to the sudden spike in profit, the displaced student from Luhansk bribing soldiers at checkpoints on his way home to her grandma’s funeral, the Crimean girl whose parents hid her passport in the hopes of preventing her departure post annexation, and of young women assaulted by soldiers on trains.

As the irritable driver and I were leaving Kyiv, it was the start of 2018: four years had passed since the protest in the Maidan escalated. In an attempt to suppress it the riot police killed at least a hundred and injured a thousand. Days after the deaths, on February 22, 2014, the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. In addition to the chaos, he left behind a 140-hectare residence valued at 900 million dollars just north of Kyiv, near Novi Petrivtsi: Mezhyhirya. Shortly therafter, a new wave of demonstrations flared up in the east of the country, Russia annexed Crimea, the breakaway People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk were declared in the Donbas, and the most bloody fighting began. Back in Kyiv, the demonstrators took control of Mezhyhirya.

So anyway, the driver said after a long silence,  are you really not a tourist?

Then what’s any of it got to do with you?

Tied to NGOs, universities, and international organizations, we enter these situations with our every step cushioned by bureaucracy, stuffed with ethics guidelines, collected best practices, and complex insurance packages. I would be surprised if anyone truly believed we were prepared for the reality of being there. When we are cleared to go, we consent to playing along. We pretend that, provided we are equipped with an appropriate set of possible scenarios, having an answer ready for any unforeseeable event, we can anticipate the future. Foresee any form of trauma. And it is as if we could know how living through this future might shape us as well. Anything that resists this logic remains invisible in the eyes of this bureaucracy. Not taking place.

Is there any significant risk (inc. physical or psychological harm or distress) to the researcher and / or any participant. Could your research re-traumatize participants. Will you develop distress management protocols that both address ethical issues and provide ‘in the moment’ support. Should you sense any anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, will you inform the participant about the mental health services available to them. Will you collect personal, private, or sensitive information about the participants, for example, information concerning political convictions, gender or ethnic identities, worldviews, union or other institutional memberships, sexual orientation, and sex life. Will your project involve deliberately misleading participants or omitting information. Will you describe the main procedures to participants in advance so that they can make an informed decision about whether or not to participate.

The institutional bureaucracy that we are meant to rely on while navigating life in the orbit of war regards trauma as a distinct object, a clearly visible, avoidable landmark. Everything revolves around trauma, as if it were the only thing in light of which our role could be evaluated.

Did we witness it, cause it, trigger it?

Did we manage to avoid it ourselves? As I listened to the driver, I noticed how for a long time, a story like his with the sunflower field didn’t leap out from the rest, as it might have done in my first weeks or months in Ukraine. When I had first arrived, it was my sheer shock that punctuated what I witnessed. With the passing of time, as the conflict receded to the background for most of us away from the fighting, I grew more attuned to the less spectacular ways it altered life.  The shocking, the raw and the macabre, events that scream trauma were not the only or even the most profound face of war. It was increasingly the distortions of the everyday that got me. The unexpected shapes that shock, guilt, shame or loss could take.

written by

Diána Vonnák

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Issue 02


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translated by

Owen Good

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In War’s Orbit by Diána Vonnák
Written before Russia’s invasion, Hungarian writer Diána Vonnák explores the lives sucked into the Russo-Ukrainian war since 2014.