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Signs of War – Leaving Ukraine

by David Elley


It’s time for me to leave Ukraine. My time is up, for now. I have responsibilities outside Ukraine that need my attention. Not the least of which is that I carry over 120 pieces of artwork from Ukrainian children that deserve to tell their stories to the world. I have a lot to do, I have four or five exhibitions of some kind to organize, from Prague to the US to the UK, from cafes, to city halls to the Scottish Parliament building and Portsmouth Cathedral. I am going to be working for Ukraine until I am able to come back.


I am much more adept at seeing the “Signs of War” now, but I am now reflecting on the imperfections in my reaction, even now to the Ukrainian friends I have made, and to understand and not to judge the people here who are trying to ignore the war and find someway to be happy, at least in the instant.


Poppies mean something very specific if you are from UK, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. They are a symbol of a lost soldier, each flower is a single lost soul. Every year plastic ones are sold before November 11th to raise money for wounded veterans and their bereaved families as an act of Remembrance.


For Ukraine I did not know the answer, I saw poppies as a motif on vyshyvankas in the city centre, so I asked to be sure. “No, they are a sign of sorrow” came the reply. I continued the discussion with my reflections on poppies, loss, and the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Major John McRae, written in a concrete bunker you can still visit. It lies next to a war cemetery several km north of the Belgian town of Ypres.


“ In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below…… “


A few hours went by, and I realized I had missed a sign of war. My story of the poppies is my family’s history: my great uncle served in the Tyneside Scottish Division that were mown down opposite the Lochnagar Crater at La Boiselle on the Somme, July 1st 1916. It is history, I have read the battalion adjutant’s diary (in long hand and microfiche), and it does not record his name when he was shell-shocked out of combat in July 1917, less than a km from McRae’s bunker. It is history, it is all over a long time ago.


For my Ukrainian friends here, this is the present. I have not asked of anyone’s situation while I have been here, I assume that everyone is doing what they are doing to support a family member, or to remember a family member.  So, I apologized for talking about history as some kind of academic curiosity. As another friend of mine says, the past is what makes us who we are, but we should face forward, with faith and with love to prepare us for the future. Here I was breaking the rule again.


The “War to End All Wars" did not end war. We are here now in Ukraine, and people here are losing everything because of an echo of that war a long time ago. My apology was graciously accepted as not needed.


My sense of belonging here is directly related to the people I have met here, the people of Lviv and Kyiv, who, unlike me, are staying. Unlike the five to seven million Ukrainians who have left in the last two years, and of whom, many are not coming back. Working with them has been the biggest sign of war for me. After a conversation in Mano’s Bar last evening, actually outside in the mild evening after the rain stopped, I knew of three people at the kitchen who had lost someone: a son, a brother, a husband. And we still work side-by-side with a common purpose to end this and that no more shall be lost. That is the resolve I take with me.


I spent my last morning today, to walk the 2km to the Field of Mars, the Lviv Military Cemetery, visited by President Zelensky this last week. I walked slowly on the gravel paths between the faithfully and beautifully appointed graves. A mother and friend were polishing the wooden frame and the benches of her son’s grave. Another was refilling the oil lamps and candle holders of their grave. I took a few pictures of graves, a man who was older than I am now when he died, a female combat medic, her favourite soft animals in attendance. I walked slowly up the hill and closer to current time, the dates were getting later and later. Each grave reflecting on the love of the families who so carefully attended to the graves.


The last picture I took, I can see her now in the picture, top right, behind the last set of flags on the right of picture. There’s a brown pony tail and pink head band, now that I know what I am looking for. She was mostly hidden by the set of flags on the grave between us, I had not seen her. It was only when my feet on gravel disturbed her, did I notice her when she briefly turned my way. She carried a little baby girl, pink bobble hat, in a carrier on her chest and when she turned back to the grave she was standing near, a grave I knew was less than a month old, she continued swaying gently to help her baby stay asleep. I was going no further and I turned around immediately. I had had such a strong reaction to this surprise, a father’s reaction, I had to retrace my steps. My most powerful and last sign of war, until I return.



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