There is a Human Face to Suffering

This has been very hard for me to write, and I've been debating on whether or not to post it. None of this is about me and I don't want to turn it into something about me. I do, however, want to say a bit about Ukraine and a bit of why this conflict feels personal. 

About six years ago, I was wandering around the library. I wanted to read something, but I didn't know what. Nothing sounded right. I ended up taking a detour out of my usual fantasy section, and into historical nonfiction. I ran across a book called Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder. On a complete lark, I checked it out. 

Before this point, I'd read nothing at all about that part of the world. I knew Ukraine was near Russia, but that's about it. Then, I got this book and in some ways, it's completely changed my life. 

Bloodlands opens up with the Holodomor, something most people in the West have never heard about. I certainly never had, but I read that book and I was absolutely floored. Here was this famine that was so huge, so disastrous, so tragic that people had to literally eat each other to survive, and I'd never even heard of it. More, that event was so extreme, it was almost a character all on its own. 

And thus, my idea for Taub was born, a character who was a famine, who transformed the world as he ate his way across it. A man so infected with imposed-starvation, that's what he became. And from that character, came Seraphina's Lament, my first published book. So yes, Bloodlands did change my life. 

Something I never talk about though, throughout all the times I've spoken of Seraphina's Lament and that series, are the people I met while doing my research. You see, I realized very early on that if I was going to write a secondary world fantasy based on real world history, I didn't need to just know what happened, I needed to understand it. More, I owed it to the people to try to understand the human side of it. The things you can't really put in a book.

So I ended up going on the official Holodomor website and emailing some people, who emailed some people... and I went on some forums and between these two channels, I found a few people who were directly impacted by the Holodomor. Now, since the Holodomor happened in the 1930s, what I mean by this is, I found some people who were direct descendants of famine victims and survivors. And what's more, these people were delighted to talk to me, to share with me their Holodomor stories. They just, ultimately, wanted someone to listen, and wanted someone to know, and I wanted exactly that as well. So I listened, and I came to know... in what ways I can.

It's not an easy thing to talk about something like this, and the ramifications of events like the Holodomor echo through generations. It wasn't my place to question what they told me. I came to them and said, "If you want to tell your story, I'm here to listen" and then I sat quietly while they did just that in broken English, with me using Google Translate whenever I could to try to make it easier. 

Those first few conversations were hard. There was a language barrier. I don't think they really trusted me (why would they?). Furthermore, this history was personal to them. It was hard to talk about, and there's been so much argument about how the Holodomor didn't even exist, that they were a bit (rightfully) wary of me and my Western self. Would I twist events to fit my own narrative? Would I listen? Would I hear? Would I respect them? 

There was a lot to get past, and for a while, we were all stepping on eggshells... but there were moments with each of them when trust formed. A sort of "ahhhh" release of the pressure, and then the magic happened. Language barriers didn't seem so big, and the distrust dissipated. We started connecting, not just because of the Holodomor, but as people

Ultimately, a bond formed between us, forged of this interaction. Friendships developed, and we became close. Very close. 

More, when I was writing Seraphina's Lament, I realized very early on, as I was still listening to these Holodomor stories, that I needed to pay homage to the history I was basing this book on, so I pitched this idea for interludes to my friends in Ukraine. I asked them if it would be a good idea to include interludes based on real, documented historical events in my book as a way to pay homage to the stories that will never get told. It was they who said I should do this, and it was they who read my very earliest first drafts of these interludes and helped me tweak them to better fit my book. 

This act of people opening themselves so I could not just know, but understand the human cost of a tragedy changed my life and fundamentally changed the way I wanted to tell stories. Before I'd read Bloodlands, I knew nothing about that region, but after about two years of back and forth Holodomor discussions with people in the region, people who lived there and were descended from survivors, an entirely new part of the world opened for me to explore. 

I realized I was obsessed. I started voraciously reading anything and everything on the region I could get my hands on, for years I have been devouring Russian and Eastern European history. I'd learn something, and it was my Ukrainian friends I'd contact first. "Hey, I read this thing about Stalin..." and they'd kind of laugh and do their "Ah, I see you're reading again..." jokes. Then we'd talk about it. About what I read, about how they interpreted events either by living them, or by having parents/grandparents who did. 

About three years ago, I realized I was really sick of the language barrier being in place. It was my Ukrainian friends who were my most supportive when I first said, "I want to learn Russian." It was my Ukrainian friends who gave me my very first language lessons (One of them is a teacher, and we'd switch English/Russian lessons). 

It was my Ukrainian friends who opened up their lives, their histories, their language to me. It was my Ukrainian friends who opened up that part of the world. Who took history from being something I read about, to something I saw the human face of.

When I asked them if I could put their names in a dedications section of my book, each one of them turned me down. "This isn't about us," was the general sentiment. "It's about everyone touched by the Holodomor." So, I ended up putting a general dedication to the victims of the Holodomor in my book instead. 

From the moment I met these people, they've touched my life in profound, unbelievable ways. 

Years have passed since then. I looked it up yesterday, and my first interaction with them was about six years ago, and while we've had moments of distance over time (life happens), we've stayed close. Despite it all, we've stayed close. Lots of video calls, constant conversations back and forth. They call me their American sister and I call them my Ukrainian family. I knew if I ever went to Kyiv or Kharkiv, I'd have people there. 

So, while I've never been to Ukraine, I've, in some ways, spent years there. I have people there. I deeply care about what happens and more, I'm invested in it.

Yesterday my friends, my Ukrainian family, joined the fight. 

I'm lucky, because through horrible cell phone service, and dropped video calls, we got to say goodbye and I got to wish them well. I know a lot of people didn't get to do that, and I can't imagine what their families, their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, wives and children must be feeling. I keep watching these images out of Ukraine and just feel sick to my stomach. I can't imagine what it must be like, hunkered down in their bomb shelters, worried about their loved ones, hearing the explosions. 

I've lost touch with all of them. Yesterday, shortly after I got to say my goodbyes, service was cut off, and I haven't been able to contact anyone since. More, I don't really feel like I'd be doing anyone any good by trying to reach out to them at a time like this, so I'm letting silence reign and hoping for the best. Watching, impotently, from across the world as their motherland gets torn apart.  

Yesterday, I was completely frozen. All day. I just sat there and watched what was happening. In a lot of ways, this war is something purely modern in a way most others haven't been yet. Ukraine is a modern country with modern services, which means a lot of what's happening is being live-streamed, loaded onto Twitter and TikTok, giving the world a front-row seat of what an invasion is like. 

But I think it's easy to see this stuff as disaster porn, and forget the people living through it. My friends are school teachers and office workers. Restaurant staff and delivery drivers. They are normal people who go about their days trying to get from Point A to Point B as best they can, like all of us. They have kids and families and dreams and wishes. 

None of them woke up yesterday hoping to be invaded. None of them looked at the stars and thought, "I really wish I could fight in an unjust war brought to me by a foreign power hellbent on taking over my ancestral land." 

Leaving a place requires money and means, and there are a whole lot of Ukrainians who don't have either. And by the time the situation's severity really started to register, it was already too late. No one asks to be trapped in a conflict zone. No one wants to hold their children while bombs are falling. 

It's different when you can put an actual face you recognize on the suffering happening. If it's this hard on me all the way out here, I cannot imagine what it must be like for the people trapped there, or fleeing, or having fled. The Ukrainian people are dying in an unprovoked, unjust military campaign. They will fight. They will bleed. And they will do it in the name of their country. 

But they didn't have to. 

And I think that's what's bothering me, aside from the loss of life and the suffering. None of this had to happen. 

There is a human face to suffering.

The Ukrainian people are amazing. They have a long, long history of fighting tooth and claw against occupiers, insurgencies, and oppressors. Ukraine has a history of separatist activity, and they will fight. They are fighting. They will make it hurt. "They are welcome to come," one of my friends said to me yesterday. "I will bring them to hell with me." 


Maryia* is a school teacher who loves to sing.

Oleksander works in a restaurant and loves photography.

Andriy works in an office and dreams of having a fantasy story published in English.

Yulia loves spending time with her grandchildren. 

Svetlana dreams of someday traveling the world. 

They are real people with real faces. 

No one deserves this. 

I am struggling with this crisis. With the faces I recognize that I keep filling in on the videos I see. With the death and destruction. With knowing there's nothing I can do but wait and watch and hope... 

And I know what I'm feeling is only a fraction of what my friends are feeling. With what the region is feeling. 

This isn't about me. This is about people

The last thing one of them sent me was what I will end this post with. 

"Что-то очень не так." 

* Please note, I have substituted their real names with fake ones because, even if it's not really a risk, I don't want anyone to track them down or inadvertently make problems for them. The situation is so precarious I'm probably overreacting, but I feel better doing this, considering. 


  1. Sarah, I hope your friends are safe and that you're able to resume your friendship very soon. It seems as if the whole world has realised how amazing Ukranian people are. Slava Ukraniya!


Post a Comment