Who, if not me?

“I want no one to be lost, I want these sons to all come home to their waiting mothers,” says Lyubov who loves life, loves sunbathing, loves children, loves everything except this war. “These ones buried here in the graveyard, someone is waiting for them…” She lays her bunch of delphiniums on the grave between us. “They’re all our children. But between you and me, the children of rich families don’t fight. It’s the poor ones who are fighting.”

Lyubov, whose name means ‘love’, doesn’t own much: a ‘hero mother’ medal, some bits of old furniture in a flat stuffed full of memories and photographs of six children, one of whom never came home from the Ukrainian army fighting near Donetsk airport in January 2015.

Lyubov doesn’t even own this grave with its few delphiniums and its number instead of a name. It contains the body of someone’s son; she’ll never know if it’s hers or not. She doesn’t know if he was tall or short, whoever is lying here; was he fair or dark; married or single; good-natured or angry. But she can be relatively sure of one thing: like her lost son Zhenya, he was poor.

Before the war they were house decorators, foresters, miners, labourers. Alexander worked in a factory before he was mobilised, earning 1000 hryvnias a month (less than fifty dollars) ‘in an envelope’ – i.e. unofficially. Zhenya was a supermarket security guard. Yura was a contract soldier because everyone else in his town was, there was no other work.

I ask to see the rooms and possessions these men left behind, but many of them have no room of their own, and hardly any possessions. Yura lived with his parents and older brother in a cramped two-room flat. Alexander had just moved in with his new wife’s parents.

Instead their mothers and wives tell me about the birthmarks, the crooked little finger, the missing tooth, the crown of hair that grows anticlockwise. The dreams. Girls and cars; time to go fishing; a stable job and a family. Modest dreams.

They got their call-up papers and they went – with a shrug. “If not me, who?” they told their wives and mothers.

They’re the backbone of Ukraine, these people, in every small town and village, eking out a living from envelope to monthly envelope. They are not the Ukraine that leaders want to present to the West. That Ukraine is the more well-off and educated men who get out of being mobilised. Not just by having the means, but by having the will.

I don’t blame them; everyone is worth more than death in a trench and an unnamed grave. The ones with an education know that. They know they have something else to offer Ukraine: skills, experience, human capital, a promise and a future: more valuable than cannon fodder. Not these Sashas and Yuras and Zhenyas whose dreams and ambitions are so modest. Who can’t get decently paid work, and whose indecently paid work is still screwing them over.

The supermarket chain where Lyubov’s son Zhenya worked has not paid a penny of his salary since he was called up, despite the law which says wages should be paid for a year, reimbursed by the government. The family has not challenged it because Zhenya’s wife works there too, and she’s afraid of losing her job.

Sasha got his meagre forestry commission salary ‘in an envelope’ before he was called up. When he was mobilised, the forestry commission stopped paying. Sasha’s wife decided to make a fuss, and she got the salary eventually. Sasha, unlike Yura and Zhenya and Alexander, came back from the war. His old job had been filled by someone else who was not likely to make a fuss about a salary ‘in an envelope’.

Sasha spends much of his time drinking these days. Recently he smashed his mum’s elderly TV set, so she couldn’t watch patriotic news about the war anymore, and weep for other people’s sons.

If not me, who? They went because they had to. Each one with his birthmark and his crooked little finger and the crown of his head that his mother knows like she knows nothing else on earth and that nothing can ever replace, not ever, not ever –

They went because, in their heart of hearts, they know they are expendable.

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