Foreign Policy Digital

The Poet Laureate of Hybrid War

The tragicomic absurdities of 21st century warfare are finally being transformed into literature.

On Dec. 1, 2013, at least half a million people gathered on the Maidan, the large public square in the center of Kiev. They came to express their outrage at Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who the day before had sent Berkut, his riot police, to bludgeon the students protesting his sudden refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For these young people, Yanukovych’s decision foreclosed the European future they had imagined for themselves. For the hundreds of thousands who joined them on the streets after they were beaten, Yanukovych’s violence against Ukrainian citizens broke an implicit social contract.

Among those who came to the Maidan that December day was 24-year-old Pawel Pieniazek, a journalist from neighboring Poland, who had studied Ukrainian at Warsaw University. The demonstrators were hurling bottles, flares, and cobblestones newly dug up from the pavement; the militia was using gas. Pieniazek bent down and tried to cover his face with a scarf. He saw people running, and he got up and turned around: On one side of him was a kiosk, on the other Berkut. He took out his press accreditation and shouted that he was a journalist.

“And who the fuck cares!” a Berkut officer shouted back.

Then a club came down on his skull. Pieniazek cringed, covered his head. Then came another club, and another one. He began to run, but running meant running the gauntlet. When Pieniazek finally got away, he looked for help, but all the ambulances were occupied by other wounded, bloodied people. He found a television station van, where a girl tried in an amateur way to bandage his head. Some 20 minutes later, a doctor who had finished taking care of other wounded protestors re-bandaged his head and warned Pieniazek that he needed to get to a hospital right away.

At the hospital, the young foreign journalist was received warmly. The doctor who X-rayed his head told him that they needed to go out on the streets and finally get rid of this government, because it was impossible to live like this.

Today, nearly four years later, there is still a war going on in Ukraine, although on this side of the Atlantic it has been largely forgotten. Given the conflagration in the Middle East and the refugee crisis in Europe, U.S. President Donald Trump’s flirtation with a nuclear war against North Korea

Three men are attaching a slab of fiberboard to cover a shattered window. One of them says: ‘I would be glad to talk, but we have to fix this quickly. The shooting is about to start.’ Every day they clean up and do repairs, despite the fact that the following day everything is going to be destroyed again. It’s Sisyphean labor, and they subject themselves to it with complete awareness. Why? Even though in the course of this conflict I’ve been fed a similar line dozens of times, it always ends the same way: with my giving in. Because what should I continue to discuss with them? Make a drawing on a piece of paper to show that 50 people will not succeed in surrounding 1,500 regardless of how motivated they might be? There’s no point. In the Donbas, geography, measurements, all possible theories, and above all common sense have gone to the winds.

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