Life on the Edge. Focus Theme

Life on the Edge. Focus Theme

Curated by Tetyana Ogarkova and Volodymyr Yermolenko

The program is implemented with the support of Documenting Ukraine, a project of Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Vienna, Austria) and INDEX.

There is no limit, just
a border and a goal
elusively close and
sharp, so high and
Kateryna Kalytko (translation Dominique Hoffman)

A car trip from the bustling capital, which hardly differs from its pre-war version now, to the frontline, where life as we know it ceases to exist, takes only about eight hours. And even if tanks would definitely need more time to cover that distance—which makes many of us think that there is a long, long way between us and real danger, the enemy’s missiles and drones fly much faster—and it is often your neighborhood in Lviv and Kyiv, Kremenchuk and Drohobych, Rivne and Khmelnytskyi that becomes the epicenter of the war.

At least once during the last two years, people in most Ukrainian cities and towns felt that the front line was right next to their homes—in their maternity hospital in Dnipro, in their supermarket in Kremenchuk, or in their kindergarten in Brovary.

But nothing brings one back to reality better than a car trip to the front line. The first few hundred kilometers farther away from the capital offer nothing particularly new or unusual, except that traffic jams get rare. But farther on, at the distance of 100 km from the frontline, civilian cars gradually disappear, and at 50 km, mostly the military ones are to be seen.

Here, houses and buildings bear increasingly more traces of shell hits. Wounded, blind buildings—the closer to the frontline, the fewer unshattered windows. As if the blinded buildings were looking inside themselves, rather than outwards.

Missing go also street lights, colors, and human faces—above all, those of children and younger people. The closer to the frontline, the older gets the civilian population. Up until only the oldest remain—those who cannot be resettled or uprooted, as if they were hundred-year-old trees. These people are a continuation of their own homes, hostages of their geography, of their history.

The closer to the frontline, the more rarefied becomes the landscape—fewer people, less movement, less life. A passerby in the street is already an event. An open coffee shop is the center of the emptied-out city block. A military car speeding past you is action. Distant sounds of explosions completely replace the usual sounds of the city. The closer to the frontline, the faster people move between places—here you quickly learn that death always approaches faster than you move away from it. The air itself becomes dangerous.

Who are those who remain here? And who comes and returns again and again?

Those who remain cannot—or will not—do otherwise. An old man from Izium who buried here all his three grandchildren, together with their parents, in a coffin he constructed from wood planks and carpets. Or another from the Korabel neighborhood in Kherson who takes care of a 99-year-old woman lying in the apartment with plywood-covered windows, in just a few kilometers from the enemy’s positions. The one who lives in hope that the old woman will live to a hundred and that the enemy will eventually retreat.

Residents of Kherson, who survived the occupation and flooding, have now moved under the ground. It is in the city’s bomb shelters where they hold exhibitions and read books today. Despite bomb death falling from the sky. There are no more libraries in the city, but there are bookcrossings arranged in the basements of the Ostriv neighborhood.

Residents of Kamianka near Izium live in the ruins of their own homes, with interiors turned inside out. These people remove anti-personnel mines from their yards and try to mend their homes, piece by piece. With the materials brought by volunteers. With what the military gives away. They fight for life, continuously and patiently, in full recognition that they are unlikely to live to see their homes and neighbourhoods fully rebuilt.

Residents of Velyka Novosilka, or Velyka Yanysola—this Greek name reminds us that these lands were inhabited by the Greeks forcibly evicted from Crimea by Catherine II—survived the Russian offensive in 2022. The Ukrainian counteroffensive in the summer of 2023 also started here. Today, just a dozen kilometers from the front line, they take care of their domestic animals and work on their land. They make jam and insistently offer it to the few visitors. This southern black soil gives birth to all vegetation. This black soil is worth everything for them.

Residents of Izium come to mourn their dead, stuck under the rubble of the apartment building on First May Street, where 52 people died in an instant after the explosion of a 500-kg Russian aerial bomb. They come to recall how slowly their neighbor from the third floor, who got trapped, was dying. To recall how the boy next door, who had no face left after the explosion and who could neither speak nor eat, refused to come out from under the rubble.
Residents of Kharkiv write poems on the walls of their buildings.

Residents of Posad-Pokrovske collect books for the library that now lies in ruins—but which will be inevitably rebuilt.
These people remain on the edge.

The frontline is held by the military, people in pixel, ripped away from their homes, no longer their own selves, for countless months. They are here to risk their lives, act on orders, sleep in other people’s homes, in trenches, in dugouts.

These people have forged a new community, with its rules and laws, with its connections, humor, with its brotherhood and sisterhood, with its daily losses. They speak their own language, which is getting increasingly opaque to civilians. On this edge, on each of its points, at every moment a new Sich is being born.
Among people pixel there are those who have a special inner strength to stay here. These are the ones who look behind the frontline—as that’s where their home is.

For these people, fighting on frontline is also fighting for what is behind it. For their childhood yard, whichis now under occupation. For the poplars in the schoolyard, which remember your first love. For the forest near Mariupol or for the house in Starobilsk, which you have just renovated—and now the invaders have settled there. For the collection of embroidered shirts that was left in the closet in Polohy. Because your neighbors told you that the invaders had been shooting at them too, at these very embroidered shirts, out of hatred for everything Ukrainian, even for Ukrainian clothes.

There, beyond the edge, there is still so much of ours. What we still need to try to return. “And there is no edge—only the border and the goal, elusively close and sharp, so high and clear,” our poet Kateryna Kalytko says instead of them.

This edge runs through our country. For many of us, two years ago it ran very close. The destruction in Irpin, Borodianka or Moshchun reminds us of this today. Now it is a little further. Now to get to this edge takes eight hours by car.

But wherever it runs through, this edge has ceased to be a metaphor. Like death, desolation or loss. These words regain their literal meaning. They leave cuts and burns.

There, on the edge, where life faces death, the former delineates its boundaries even more clearly. It feels even more clearly where it ends and where non-existence begins. Where the silence of nothing begins pressing.
Life on the edge is the edge of life itself, it is the point where life desperately fights for itself, where it protects its every millimeter. Life on the edge is the vulnerability of our bodies, the fragility of our settlements, the continuity of our care.

On the edge, those things take place that change everything. It is not the periphery of some center, it is the center itself. There is no opposition between the center and the edge, because the edge itself is the center. Its rhythm is the rhythm of the heart. It pumps the blood by which the whole organism lives.

The edge is where everything begins, not ends.

On this edge our world is not disappearing. It is being born there.

Right there, in the rarefied air of danger, the calmness and safety are being born that allow millions of people to set their alarm clocks in the evening, to plan their work day or even their week, to schedule work meetings for the next month or to plan a vacation in six months.

On that edge, in the imperturbability of the sniper, who motionlessly lies in wait for the enemy, and in the concentrated movements of the infantry, that digs into the ground and has no right to leave their positions, our freedom of movement is being born, which provides millions of people from outside Ukraine with the opportunity to buy a plane ticket to Paris or Toronto, to fly to any other part of the world.

The same human concern for the environment, that forces European governments to limit CO2 emissions or to implement new environmental programs, originates in the destroyed villages. It all begins where the 85-year-old woman Nina from the village of Korobochkyne, who by some miracle survived after a shell had hit her house, continues living in the summer kitchen but does not leave the ruins of her own house, because her dogs live there—as her family members.

Right there, where the crew of a medical evacuation vehicle, risking their own lives, transports the wounded from the positions to the stabilization point, that love is being born, which lives in our movements, when we take a newborn child in our arms and strive for this new life to be long and happy, for it to withstand all the tests and to continue itself.

There, on the edge, people desperately do what they believe in. On the edge, people dare to be what others only consider as their beliefs. To be an embodiment, to stand in the face of evil, upright, holding the rest of the world behind your back. Our common world.

To understand Ukraine, one should be be at the front, visit the front, help the front. To understand Europe, you have to understand Ukraine. This is the edge which is the center. Even if this is the center that bleeds.

Let us listen for this edge. There is not the end of life there. There is the beginning of it there.

Today it seems to us that to get to the frontline takes eight hours by car. But the frontline runs inside us. In fact, it is already inside us.