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Kateryna Kalytko

Kateryna Kalytko (1982) is a poet, prose writer, and translator, and a board member of PEN Ukraine. She has published ten collections of poetry and two books of short stories. Her writings have been translated into more than twenty languages. Kateryna has received numerous literary awards and fellowships, including the Central European Initiative Fellowship, KulturKontakt Austria, Reading Balkans, Vilenica Crystal Award, Joseph Conrad Literary Prize, BBC Book of the Year, and the Women in Arts Award from UN Women. In 2023, she was honored with the Taras Shevchenko Literary Prize, Ukraine’s highest award. Her recent writing features striking imagery that pieces together a violent and shocking picture of war, conveying the loss and pain experienced during a search for safety and identity. As a translator, Kateryna focuses on the Western Balkans, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina, with nearly twenty translated book titles in her portfolio.

Multiple Exposure

by Kateryna Kalytko

A war you directly experience forever stratifies your perception, as if it drives a needle between the layers of the image your eyes perceive. The image becomes a photograph with multiple exposures, where several layers, several stories overlap simultaneously. War makes reality schizoid.

I wake up in one of my favorite cities on this planet. Sarajevo is bathed in the April sun, blooming fruit trees shine on the slopes of Trebević in the morning mist, and light white smoke rises above homes where something is cooking. This sight always brings me peace and comfort, as if I know that time stands still in those narrow streets, allowing you to dive into timelessness. However, when you know the anatomy of the siege of Sarajevo, Trebević looks at you differently: through the eyes of Serbian snipers and artillery crews who hunted citizens from their mountain positions for three years.

In front of the hotel, there is the bustling street, known during the war as Sniper Alley – the most dangerous zone in the city under fire. The intersections of Marijin Dvor, with pronounced Austro-Hungarian architecture – often featured in my collection of old Sarajevo postcards – also appear on other, bloodier postcards from the war and in reporters’ photographs, where people run under fire, where something burns, where someone already lies motionless, face down, stripped of the need to run. The sun reflects off the blue glass of Sarajevo’s “twins” Momo and Uzeir, two Yugoslav-era skyscrapers. They also burned during the war, appearing in photographs as tall torches, but now they are restored with no visible scars. The “twins” are named after a popular radio comedy duo from the socialist era, consisting of a Serb and a Bosniak – a story of emphasized close coexistence.

I stand and wonder if anything in Ukraine was ever named after the Soviet duo Tarapunka and Shtepsel, where the Ukrainian traditionally played the clumsy fool, and the Russian, although also funny, was significantly smarter. It seems there was nothing similar, fortunately. Somehow, I immediately think of Kyiv’s Arch of Friendship of Peoples, already modernized with a prominent crack. Because what Russia has always done to Ukrainians cannot be called either friendship of peoples or simple coexistence: It has always methodically oppressed and killed. Therefore, even now, there is nothing new. A few weeks after my return home, the sculptural group dedicated to the Pereiaslav Agreement–which sold Ukraine to Russia with all its cannibalistic manipulations for immediate political interests centuries ahead–will be dismantled under the Arch of Friendship of Peoples. But for now, I do not know this.

Wars are never the same because they are not abstractions. They have specific ideologues and executors, different variants of weaponry and supplies, different ways of media reporting and legal assurance. They have different prerequisites, and the basic mechanics of coexistence–for example, between Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks–are very different from the tragic neighborhood of Ukrainians and Russians. But can the very temperature of a genocidal war be constant, already in its development?

Behind me is the Holiday Inn hotel, still with the Olympic symbols above the entrance – built for the ‘84 Olympics, one of the greatest prides of Sarajevo’s past. It became widely known in a different way: as the main home of foreign journalists during the siege of Sarajevo, often appearing in Western films. As a hotel whose staff, under constant shelling, continued to maintain normal hotel life on the less-targeted, safer side, it operated without electricity and water, feeding guests even when it objectively had nothing to offer. A less known, but important fact: At the beginning of the war, this same hotel was the headquarters of Radovan Karadžić and his family. This is just one morning picture of a Sarajevo neighborhood with multiple exposures.

For me, the part of the Kyiv road where the Russian attack on Kyiv was stopped is also a zone of multiple exposures. But it’s not just that. In Ukraine, there are already enough war memories and places where they are layered and manifested. But here, where I pass several times a week and where the once fresh wounds have already started turning into old scars, I still see everything in layers. Here, houses were burned and shattered, though you can’t tell now. Here, an explosion turned a loft upside down, where a pink baby stroller stood lonely under all the rains and winds for a long time. Here, pine trees scorched by fire still stand by the road. Here, a gas station was blown up, and here, a large logistics center was burned, with twisted metal wall profiles still not restored. Here, only the foundation remains of a roadside restaurant, and here, a burned Russian military vehicle stood for a long time after de-occupation, slowly dismantled for parts. Here, an overpass above the road was blown up, and next to it stood a shot-up yellow bus without wheels with an uneven, painted sign that reads “Children” – as if that could have stopped anyone. And here, by the road, were bodies of people: some remained sitting in their burned cars, some shot lying on the asphalt. In the summer, all these memories are densely overgrown with grass and filled with birdsong, and I am still not sure if the road will ever be peaceful for those who have seen this.

In Sarajevo, after many years, they have restored the famous cable car to Trebević, and now at the final station on the mountain, there is a cozy café with an observation deck. Nearby is the Olympic bobsled track, very modern for its time. During the war, it served the Serbs as an artillery position, and the ridge of that demarcation of reality still stands – painted with graffiti, inhabited by the experiences of young people who came here after the war to peacefully smoke a joint or have sex. I once had sex here, and for a moment, I even managed not to think about how I had done the most life-affirming thing in a place from which someone aimed to kill someone. But now, with the new Ukrainian experience, having coffee on the terrace with a beautiful view of Sarajevo seems almost blasphemous. The city pulses in the valley, truly maximally open, accessible. The sun shines on the roofs of Vratnik, the old Ottoman quarter on the opposite slope. And I recall a conversation with an old woman there: She talked about hearing a shell fired from Trebević – it jumped on the roof like a cat. The woman wondered why it was so rhythmic and loud, and, realizing, only at the last moment managed to jump out of the window before the house exploded and caught fire. From here, you can also see Vijećnica, the former national library, also set on fire by a Serbian shell. It burned for several days with its invaluable archive of over two million items, including manuscripts written in bosančica, an authentic Glagolitic script. For several days, some cried over the books, some watched the high smoke from afar, some found colorful pages scattered by the wind in their yards, and some lost their loved ones in that fire. Today, Vijećnica has been restored with the help of investors. It is beautiful again, and exhibitions, concerts, and receptions are held there. But I don’t feel comfortable inside – it echoes with the emptiness of a home that was once filled with books.

From the observation deck, you can also see a bit of Grbavica – the area of the city that was occupied during the siege and imbued with all the experiences that occupation brings: People in basements, and those who disappeared without a trace, vandalism and looting by outsiders in people’s homes, dependence on their moods and the amount of alcohol consumed, rapes and children born from those acts. The voices that the residents of Grbavica continue to hear even after the reintegration of the neighborhood in 1996. At this place, I think about “Izolyatsia,” once a wonderful art center in Donetsk, which Russian occupiers turned into one of the most terrifying concentration camps in recent European history. Many Ukrainian intellectuals connected to the region have experienced “Izolyatsia.” In everything they have done and written since then, you could hear the voices they heard in the dungeons. The great challenge for everyone is not to let those voices overpower their own voice.

In Sarajevo, we have many conversations with people from the cultural sector who survived the Bosnian War in various ways. Lejla talks about how they, as young artists, strove not to let the war stop cultural life in the city. About the “Obala” art center, the photo exhibitions, and art projects at the time, and their difficult international journey. She talks about the first screenings in the wartime cinema “Apollo”: admission cost one cigarette – which was not cheap in the besieged city. After a long abstinence, it was enough for the team to get dizzy from the smoke. She also recalls how a friend advised them to return from events in pairs, with a gap between them: if a sniper decided to shoot at them, at least one would have a chance to survive. She shows group photos with Susan Sontag, who came to Sarajevo with projects at that time. One of the participants of the Ukrainian group resembles Sontag, which also has a strange multiple exposure effect.

Damir laughs as he recalls how, during the siege, he saw many girls on the streets with the same strange hairstyles. He couldn’t figure out what it was or where it came from. Later, it turned out that electricity had appeared in Sarajevo for a few days and everyone saw Bjork on MTV. He talks about the unbearable weight of memories. Damir fought in and photographed the war, and then, when it was all over, he left his archive in the military unit. (I guess I understand him, I have thousands of war pictures on my phone, which I took and never, ever look at.) There were too many memories, they burdened him, and he didn’t want to return to them. He didn’t want it so much that he didn’t rescue the photo archive even when a bulldozer came to demolish the former barracks. Nothing survived.

Faruk also fought in the war and now, with all that experience, feels best while fishing by the river. We will continue our conversation about modeling memories in two months in Kyiv, over a glass of prosecco on Yaroslaviv Val. He will recall himself as a soldier, the things that interested and worried him then, the fleeting experiences, and he will say that there are almost no preserved photographic testimonies. He remembers having long hair, posing with a friend for his wedding photo, and now he wishes he could remember something from that time, but the material has slipped away. Only the changing substance of memory remains. Multiple exposure.

Saša in Sarajevo reads an excerpt from his essay on Srebrenica, where you can feel the survivor’s guilt: The beginning of the war in Bosnia caught him in the USA, and he stayed there, becoming a strong voice for his community. At that moment, I recall a conversation with his father a few years ago – a conversation in Ukrainian, the language of his family roots. The elder Hemon talked about how the Serbs approached and took over the mountains around the city. How the family left on the last evacuation train, desperate and crowded, how behind that train an enemy shell destroyed the mountain tunnel, how a wave of sorrow swept through the carriages with the realization that returning was impossible.

Aida recalls how she first crossed the cemetery in front of her building, hiding between the tombstones from snipers, to join a then-unknown group of volunteers in a basement on the other side of the street. At the very beginning of the great war in Ukraine, Aida wrote a letter to Ukrainians in which she tried to explain what awaits us – the letter was published in Ukrainska Pravda. Now we are talking about the devastating nature of hatred, but also about the right to it – and it turns into a heated debate about nationalism. Each of us wants to convey something that escapes words, something essential. The Bosnians want to explain that ethnic nationalism was the phenomenon that destroyed harmonious multicultural coexistence, especially in Sarajevo, erased the superpower of its polyphony, leading to what seems like ethnic representation but is actually a caricature of interaction. Ukrainians try to explain their political nationalism – or rather proactive patriotism – as the force that enables ethnic diversity to unite around the idea of freedom, to resist centuries-old Russian expansion that tries to erase precisely that freedom, diversity, and polyphony. But not everything can be explained. Wars are not the same. Perhaps only the depth of trauma can be universal. It is easy for me to imagine how in 30 years, V. and I, with colleagues and friends, will tell the next war-torn generation about our resilience and visibility, about cultural institutions that, even without funding, tried to reach the world, about concerts in the subway under bombardment, about literary festivals with big names during power outages. But there is no guarantee that we will be able to explain well what truly made us who we are. We will know. Someone will feel it. If we survive.

What is reconciliation after a war, and when is it possible? It is hardly like a peace agreement imposed by the international community, which serves as a constitution for over 30 years, making the state dysfunctional and in an attempt to allegedly reconcile ethnic conflicts, actually only eliminates complex identities – as is the case with Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Dayton Agreement. Nothing passes. The man with whom I spent several happy years in Sarajevo had a phobia: After every public event, he expected some young face to approach him and introduce themselves as the child of that Serb who tortured him in the camp. No one ever approached him, but unknown young people subconsciously disturbed him for the rest of his life.

A few months after Sarajevo, we will sit with a volunteer team in the library of a village on the front line in the Kherson region. Summer rain will fall, through the windows we will see the occupied left bank of the river controlled by the Russians, with the lowered level of the Kakhovka Reservoir. Wojciech Tochman, a Polish reporter and author of a book about Bosnia called “Like Eating a Stone,” will talk about how he never expects his protagonists to show reconciliation and appropriate reactions – it is unethical and immoral. He will say that there is a difference between reconciliation and forgiveness: Reconciliation happens at the level of communities, maybe technical interaction and coexistence, while forgiveness is a deep individual process. And all of that takes a lot of time.

But for now, this is the last night in Sarajevo, and Damir, with Ozren Kebo, shows us his best photographs, telling the stories behind them. These are impressive works: There is a lot of blood, despair, anger, a sense of collapse; there are people in uniforms and with weapons, severed heads, desecrated beards, screams, tears, dead children, refugees, and, in the eyes of women, something more than sadness and despair: the abyss of such knowledge, which is not available to people without that experience. The characters mostly look into the camera. It is not quite a reportage approach, but it is precisely the way history looks deep into you.

The next morning, just before leaving, I sit in the “Kalem i misk” workshop. Master Adnan, at my request, is mixing a handmade perfume for V. Suddenly, I wanted to bring something intangible, fleeting, like air, like the awareness of the possibility of life and humanity after the end of the war, to someone close to me. Baščaršija looks exotic enough, colorful and vibrant, to imagine that everything is fine and nothing is complicated. But outside, a group of tourists is loudly preparing for a trip to the Tunnel of Hope. Again, multiple exposure.

The lilacs are blooming astonishingly. I was once told that in the first post-war spring, their bloom flooded the entire city, as they were the only true flowers. Because during the long winters without heating, all the trees were cut down for firewood. Lilacs supposedly did not burn well, and that’s why they survived; they were the ones that bloomed. In “Sarajevo for Beginners,” however, Ozren writes that the people of Sarajevo had to burn collected works of Serbian classics. It was like an act of household revenge, a moment of justice, something that bizarrely could oppose the destruction designed by Serbian intellectuals. In the past 30 years, new gardens have grown in Sarajevo. Now they bloom.

The multiple exposure of a war perspective always creates a crack in reality, and the game that reality offers depends on the value of the coin you insert into that crack. On what you want to see after all. On the generosity of the one telling you the stories, on their goodwill. Why these stories? Nothing can stop a war that has matured in crazy minds. Everything will repeat, sooner or later. The story goes that you know how life was and that you can still preserve humanity within yourself during the war. And we will do that when our war ends. We will be awkward, bitter, tired, full of scars. We probably need to save strength for generosity. To tell. To bloom again.