“Say it louder,” the groom’s father teased the young couple. The timid “I do’s” barely registered in the high-ceilinged Odesa wedding hall. I looked at the empty rows of chairs and fought back tears.
My cousin’s friends didn’t come to her wedding. They left Ukraine to escape the air raids.
My feet ached. I never wear high heels. But today I hoped that the glamour of dressing up and holding flowers would challenge the emptiness of war. I wanted to claim the right to something unnecessary and pretty at a time when electrical blackouts were about to start. Beauty brings joy. And living amid violence, when it is easy to forget that joy exists, beauty becomes a lifeline to normality.
When my father phoned in February to say that the first air raid siren had sounded in Odesa, my hometown in southern Ukraine, I answered the call in Nairobi, where I work for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Having spent 13 years in conflict areas, I now had to grapple with this horror at home.
Soon, I went back to Ukraine on an emergency assignment for my job. I had always enjoyed organizing travel to go back home, anticipating the time I would spend with family and friends. But as I looked at the airline tickets, my mouth was dry and my heart was pounding. I would be stationed in Kyiv, which was close to the front lines at the time.
When I finished work and went home to Odesa, I saw my city drained of life. Looking at the dirty piles of sandbags blocking the empty streets, I felt nostalgic for the past. I missed my friends, who’d become refugees abroad. Missed walking along the Black Sea beaches and not seeing “DANGER: MINES” signs. Missed not being woken up in the middle of the night by air raid sirens. Missed not being afraid.
In Ukraine, any attempt to envisage the future was drowned out by uncertainty and fear. “Think short term,” I told a friend over the phone. “This will make it easier.” My friend, a single mother with two kids who was now taking refuge in Austria, was struggling financially and was anxious to know when or if she could return home. “Think short term,” I repeated to myself, whenever I tried to imagine how my family, my community, people on both sides of the frontline could recover from this.
Not thinking about the future seemed like the only way to stay sane. Then my aunt rang to say her daughter was getting married.
I had recently returned to Nairobi. The excited mother of the bride was texting me pictures of wedding dresses, rings and cakes. I browsed Instagram accounts of clothing designers still in Odesa, hunting for my own dress. It felt as if we were organizing a grand event, not the small ceremony that was planned. For the first time in many months, the dread of uncertainty gave way to anticipation. Our future existed if we could plan for it.
I had never been sentimental about weddings. I used to think of them as boring and old-fashioned, something people pretended to enjoy. But amid the uncertainty that now infused our lives, I came to realize that weddings are a promise to the future, a public vow of a shared life. At a time when making plans seems to be a luxury few Ukrainians can afford, someone in my family was willing to take that risk, to prove that life could not be reduced to stockpiling candles and pasta.
The preparations distracted us from constant fear. My fear for my family’s safety. Their fear of air alerts, of a winter without electricity and water. Of being separated from people we love. Of a future without promise.
When working in conflict areas, I am often surprised by how quickly life rushes in during a lull in the destruction. Signs of it can be found no matter the extent of the damage. I’ve seen toys being sold in bullet-ridden market stalls in Ethiopia, Gazan amputees playing soccer and Nigerian women who lived beneath tarps sewing elaborate dresses. The way we imagine lives in war-torn countries is shaped by news coverage, often images of suffering and violence. Wars create pain, uncertainty and fear. But survivors can’t live on pain and fear alone.
The invincible craving for beauty and joy that I long admired in survivors I now experienced myself. My Instagram search led to a deliberately over-the-top shiny red dress from a designer in Odesa. She was worried that her usual customers abroad were now afraid to order from a business in a conflict zone, but she kept her tailoring workshop open, organizing her schedule around power outages.
Since all of Ukraine’s airports were closed to civilian flights, traveling home had become a logistical nightmare. I flew into neighboring Moldova, then crossed the border on foot past tents set up for refugees.
In the end, six family members witnessed the vows. The wedding was proof that my cousin and her fiancé believed the future was worth thinking about, and their hope was contagious. I wanted a day of beauty for not only the two of them and for those of us who were present, but also for the people we loved who were not there. By dressing up and celebrating we refused to let violence control every aspect of our lives.
After the ceremony, we took wedding pictures in a nearby park and then sat in a cafe. The barista, smiling apologetically, told us an air alert had been announced, and that they would have to halt service. Customers, she said, were welcome to use their bomb shelter. A few months prior, people spent hours hiding in shelters, but alerts had become so frequent and so familiar that hardly anyone paid attention anymore. That day, none of us moved.
“If you can hear a rocket, it means it is not flying toward you,” I once overheard someone say. In Odesa, we share survival tips like cake recipes, with the same level of dispassionate detachment. Absorbing fear into our routines and making jokes about life and death does not mean we are not afraid. Fear is the most human feeling there is. We have survived as a species because we know how to be afraid. What is truly terrifying is when you get so used to being afraid that it makes you numb to being alive.
We finished the day on a rooftop restaurant. The place was packed with people celebrating birthdays, taking selfies or simply enjoying the view of the Black Sea bathed in an autumn sunset light. A bouquet for the bride arrived from a friend now in Germany. There was well-wishing for a happy future with kids and successful careers and exotic travels, even if most men are not currently allowed to leave the country.
We only spoke about war in hushed voices, as if it were an obscenity — as if we didn’t notice the missing friends. Out loud, we made promises to the future.
Alyona Synenko (@AlyonaSynenko) is a regional spokeswoman for East Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross. She is based in Nairobi and has worked in Colombia, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Nigeria, among other countries.
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