“This photo contains sensitive content which some people may find offensive or disturbing.” A phrase I see often when I scroll through my social media feed these days. The photo is blurred, and a drawing of a crossed-out eye appears in its stead. I am being protected by a social media platform from seeing images of war.
Five years ago, on a different platform, I saw a close-up of my eldest brother Volodya. He had volunteered to serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and was killed on the frontline. No blurring, no drawing of a crossed-out eye. Instead, it was my brother’s face that was crossed out, a crudely drawn red cross scrawled across the image. It was both offensive and disturbing. If it had been blurred, would I have tapped to see the image anyway? I suspect so. The caption mentioned my brother’s full name and then, in Russian, it stated that the “Ukrainian executioner” had been exterminated on such and such day, followed by the date of my brother’s death in action in the Luhansk region.
I took a screenshot of the post for some reason. Perhaps I was guided by my historian’s training, which taught me that everything must be preserved as part of the historical record, no matter how disturbing or offensive. As well as being saved on the hard drive of my computer, the image of my brother’s face—crossed out in red—is permanently etched in my mind.
In my academic work, I specialise in the history of the Second World War. Over the last decade, I have collected many testimonies of active participants, survivors and victims of hostilities, and analysed archival documents related to that war. The language of political violence was familiar to me and the stories of war I consumed often left me moved or disturbed, but, mostly, I treated them as research material. In 2014, however, my world was shaken by a new war in my own country. A few years later, my brother was killed in this war. I was no longer consuming other people’s wars. The war was now consuming me.
Now it was my family’s story that could offer a human touch to the maps of battlefields. It was my brother’s death that could give depth to otherwise impersonal numbers of casualties.
It started with the obituaries. Their very existence was hard to take in. I come from an ordinary family with no claim to fame. None of us would expect an obituary in a newspaper. As we were getting ready for my brother’s funeral in Ukraine—my family and I had been living in the UK for two decades, and arrived in my hometown, Lviv, from London—I started to encounter one obituary after another in local and national papers. Many were shared on social media. Those who knew that Volodya was my brother had me tagged in their posts. I read them one after another and soon realised that there was a pattern to them: they had a similar structure.
They all started with the general information—name, age, and the basic facts about army service—followed by details of his death in action. And then there was a line about how much he loved his hometown, Lviv, which created a good bridge for the next section: the fact that he had come back to Ukraine, after living abroad for many years. The next paragraph described this “heroic” return from the comfort of western Europe in order to defend his homeland.
I do not know whether this “heroic return” was a deliberate choice, or whether whoever wrote the obituary simply filled in the gaps in the scraps of my brother’s life that they had access to. The truth was that my brother did not come back to enlist. He had come back several years earlier: he was tired of being an immigrant and chose a hard life at home over a hard life abroad. These obituaries might have created a picture of a heroic war loss, but they were not soothing my grief.
After the obituaries, news articles about my brother’s death started to come in. They covered the funeral complete with photos of an open coffin and my family standing by it. I managed to avoid journalists who asked for an interview by the graveside. My mother gave in to some of them and so the reports quoted her heartache. Our grief too was a news story.
Becoming part of the war narrative was disorienting for someone who was used to writing it. So, at some point, I decided to take ownership of my story of war and shape it the way I saw fit. Ukraine fatigue descended soon after the start of Russian aggression in 2014. By the time of my brother’s death in 2017, the war in eastern Ukraine was entirely forgotten in western Europe and I thought that my personal take on it could serve as a reminder that people were still being killed, tortured, and displaced on the other side of Europe.
I started by writing a documentary play. For me, the theatre has always been a powerful way of communicating challenging information. Documentary theatre is particularly effective in this regard, as it has the power to turn audiences into witnesses, even if what it portrays is a rerun of someone’s experience and not the real thing.
Referring to photographs depicting war in her Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag says that they “are a means of making ‘real’ (or ‘more real’) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.” The same could be said about documentary theatre. It can transform the viewers into a community of people that, to put it in Sontag’s words, “would include not just the sympathizers of a smallish nation or a stateless people fighting for its life, but—a far larger constituency—those only nominally concerned about some nasty war taking place in another country.” Like the photographs for Sontag, the documents presented as part of a theatre show can facilitate the act of witnessing.
When writing my play, I wondered what exactly I wanted my audiences to witness. I equipped myself with a story—that of my brother—and some documents, including the videos from his phone that he took in the warzone. Piecing together the traces of my brother’s life through objects and stories, I called the show All That Remains. Keeping the house lights up to acknowledge the audience’s presence, the actors passed some of these artefacts around: the brief handwritten autobiography that my brother submitted to the military commissariat, drawings by school children made for soldiers, and other paperwork I found among his belongings. In this way, we created a physical point of contact between the world of theatre and that of war. We facilitated a space in which the audiences were able to witness how a war in a forgotten part of Europe could profoundly change a family’s life in peaceful London, far away from the trenches. Our audiences entered the warzone in the safety of a theatre, but the proximity to the war created by art, we hoped, left them less able to flick the channel next time the news story from the actual warzone popped up on their screens.
Writing and performing this theatre piece restored my ownership of my own war narrative. I managed to find a way of being both a character, a supporting actor to my brother’s lead part, and a narrator at the same time. I still had moments of doubt about the right I had to see my brother’s story as a tool for raising awareness of the war. But it turned out to be an effective tool, so I continued to use it, and eventually the play transformed into a non-fiction book: The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister. This was my way of de-blurring the picture on west Europeans’ screens depicting Ukraine. Of saying: you must tap here to view the content, keeping it blurred will not make this war go away.
The war didn’t go away. On the 24th of February 2022, the world of over 40 million Ukrainians shook just like mine had when I got the news of my brother’s death. A few weeks before the full-scale invasion, I was approached by several British journalists to give my take on the situation. These conversations often started with them asking me whether I had someone in immediate danger: in the army, or in regions close to the Russian troops amassed around the Ukrainian border. The entire nation was in danger, of course, but the journalists wanted an identifiable story. I had already made peace with my brother being a narrative tool I could use to bring attention to the war, so I told them about his death back in 2017, emphasising that if Russia wasn’t going to be stopped, there would be many more losses like his and many more families’ lives destroyed.
After a few such conversations, I realised that this might have been a compelling narrative device for a play or a non-fiction book, but my brother’s death was old news. The journalists were in pursuit of something or someone that could make news. Soon after, the Russian army ensured that there was plentiful material for all the journalists who wanted to report on the war. The entire nation had stories of death, displacement, torture, humiliation, fear, and, what often came as a surprise to those who looked for stories of victimhood, of defiance.
As the Russian shelling of cities and villages progressed, my social media feed turned into a list of obituaries: a mix of official heroicised narratives, much like my brother’s, and reflections of broken-hearted friends and family. Some mourn soldiers, others civilians. They come in different forms but they each add to the record of this war. Those in mass graves don’t get obituaries. How does one write a collective obituary? Many more are missing with no graves at all.
As much of this war is broadcast almost live—whether by the media or the public—the act of witnessing it far beyond the frontlines seems inevitable. But in spite of the omnipresence of the images of war, or, possibly because of it, our witnessing does not necessarily translate into the sharing of trauma and thus the responsibility to do what it takes to end the war. It does, however, translate into war fatigue. Those covering the war are all too aware of the need to keep their audiences engaged. But how do you report on a small village shelled by the Russians after the razing to the ground of the city of Mariupol? How do you talk of military losses after the mass graves of civilians in Irpin, Bucha and Izium?
In her “Close-up of death,” published by Index on Censorship in 1993, Slavenka Drakuli describes a news report about the death of a little girl in the shelling of Sarajevo. She gives a damning analysis of the report as an invitation to the audience by TV cameras “to participate in their necrophiliac obsession with death and atrocity.” She questions the value in filming thetragedy of a family, all of it, including the body of a little girl, the father wearing a jumper stained with his daughter’s blood, the mother ravaged by grief, the funeral, a little coffin, the shallow grave in the frozen ground. “The only thing we have not witnessed is the moment of death of the two-and-a-half-year-old,” says Drakuli. She questions the motivation of this reporting “in the name of documentation.” Documentation that was meant to serve as a preventative tool for future atrocities but that has failed in this role time and again.
“[W]e have the idea that everything has to be carefully documented, so that shameful history can never be repeated,” writes Drakuli. “And yet, here they are. Generations have learned about concentration camps at school, about factories of death; generations whose parents swear that it could never happen again—at least not in Europe—precisely because of the living memory of the recent past. They are fighting this war. What, then, has all that documentation changed?” She explains that the change has happened to the audience. “We have started to believe in our role in this casting: that it is possible to play the public. As if the war is theatre.”
Three decades after this text was written, the questions posed by it remain valid. Like Drakuli, I believe that the sharing of the record of death and destruction brought about by war must have the aim of bringing about change at its heart: the aim to snap people out of inaction, to prevent war fatigue. But I disagree that the public is passive by definition, because passive spectators can be turned into active witnesses.
Earlier this year, Cannes, a place that has seen wars imagined and real played on a big screen many a time, witnessed a protest by a group of Ukrainian filmmakers. Dressed in evening gowns and dinner jackets, they made their way up the steps covered in red carpet, lined up, and lifted transparent cards depicting the crossed-out eye, the symbol familiar from social media platforms, to cover their faces. Two other protesters unfurled a banner that said: “Russians kill Ukrainians. Do you find it offensive or disturbing to talk about this genocide?” It is up to us if we choose to see the blurred image in focus. If we choose to succumb to war fatigue or remain active witnesses. Regardless of how the war is narrated, it is up to us how we consume this narration.
I have tapped on every photo and video that has appeared blurred on my screen since the 24th of February 2022, to see the atrocities committed by the Russian troops in Ukraine. I didn’t always agree with the publication of such footage or images, but I looked at them to bear witness. Experiencing and explaining this war to myself and to others has taught me two lessons: first, when narrating war, I must do so with the aim of bringing about change. This includes victory for Ukraine, a lasting peace and justice. Second, when consuming war narratives, I must embrace my role as a witness with a sense of responsibility for what I have witnessed, and channel this in order to bring about change.
Fatigue is a weapon of war. It is directed at those who don’t need to run away from bombed-out buildings; it is directed at us so we don’t even look at images of bombed out buildings, and focus instead on how much it will cost us to heat our own homes, untouched by bombs. Our attention is drawn to the soaring prices in our supermarkets while Moscow uses the threat of hunger as another weapon of war. The aim of war fatigue is to make us seek ceasefire, not victory; concessions, not justice; to exit this war without ensuring lasting peace.
Let’s not forget that the source of our own worries is the same as that of Ukrainians, and it’s in the Kremlin. The key to winning this war together is maintaining solidarity with Ukrainians whose lives—not only livelihoods—are under threat, staying alert as witnesses of their suffering, and rejecting our war fatigue as Ukrainians continue to demonstrate their defiance.