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Els Moors
-24 February 2022-

The day of the Russian attack on Ukraine marked a turning point for Europe, but also for the whole world. We invited the Belgian writer Els Moors to describe this day from a personal point of view - a moment we have all experienced, but each of us in a different way.

By Els Moors

‘Every day is a step in life, and so you must give each day its place as if it were the gateway to completing and rounding out our lives’[A1] , Seneca wrote in his twelfth letter to Lucilius.
What I find so beautiful about this thought is that a day is also always on a human scale: a day is as big as a human being is; a day is the most human measure of time. And no human being should be allowed to seize the days of others under the guise of some ideology or belief.

After days, weeks, months and years of waves of infection and corona regulations, I still wake up in the morning feeling displaced, in a state of readiness. ‘Trained’ by the authorities, I have become the cause and effect of my own numbness, suffering from corona syndrome.

But in the war that began today in Ukraine, neither masks nor protective clothing nor self-testing will be able to save human lives. Suddenly, everyone has friends who live in Kyiv. In the morning, I call my friend in Kyiv, a Dutch writer, on WhatsApp. At first I don't believe he will answer. Everyone is calling him now, I know, asking him questions he doesn't have the answers to. I’m shocked by his panic. I hear myself saying that the situation could drag on endlessly.

In 2014, I translated the appeal of the writer Yurii Andrukhovych for the literary magazine nY. In it, he wrote, "The new generation of Ukrainians grew up in post-Soviet times and refuses to accept dictatorship on principle. If dictatorship prevails, Europe will have to reckon with the presence of a kind of North Korea on its eastern border as well as with five to ten million refugees (estimates vary). The Ukrainian people are fighting for the European values of a free and just society; it is no exaggeration to say they are paying for it with their own blood”. While my friend rushes to try and leave Kyiv and the reports grow more alarming by the day, I am in Brussels, trying to feel what I might feel now that war is raging.

Fear narrows

On a terrace outside, I read some texts in preparation for a writing workshop that evening. The Schuman metro station is closed because of an emergency meeting of the European Council. Next to me sits a Dutchman who lights one cigarette after the other. He prattles on into his phone about the sale of drones, a million-dollar deal that explains his presence in Brussels during the European summit. I consider recording the conversation on my phone and making it public.

I think about how fear narrows. I myself have become narrow. Narrower than a full day's living, I have treated each new day since Covid as the narrow prison cell I have become. The Ukrainian homes that are bombed to pieces in seconds will have to be rebuilt over many long days. The people who die today will never wake up to see the sun rise again.

familiar sayings

Later, as I search for words for the feelings I should be feeling now that it is war, I come across a thesis online by a student who collected the most common familiar sayings in Russian – some hailing from poets like Pushkin, some borrowed from other languages. I cut and paste them together and use them to concoct a text, hoping that my Russian and Ukrainian brothers and sisters will recognise all these sayings as their own. I also throw in two lines from Plato because, as Seneca writes in his letter to Lucilius, the best ideas belong to everyone. And to this, I add myself: and like the peaceful days, they are shared selflessly. This poem is like a new full day that I hope will come.  

here nature gives us a foothold in Europe 
by the sea, here a window must be opened [A1] 
this land of undaunted idiots knows
politics of stick and carrot

of all the wild animals little Putin
is the hardest to tame
what he has he does not keep but
he cries when he has lost it

do not grieve do not call out do not cry
everything shall pass like smoke
from white apple trees 
who is happy in Russia?

a fish rots from the head down
one idiot's dream has come true
only the dead will get to see the end
of the war

you and I brother are mere foot soldiers 
and summer is better than winter
we have dealt with the war
take your coat

let us go home

With thanks to Nele Peersman for her research “An overview of current familiar expressions in Russian, their origin and translation into Dutch” (“Een overzicht van actuele gevleugelde uitdrukkingen in het Russisch, hun afkomst en vertaling naar het Nederlands”)