Ukrainian Portraits, Diaries from the Border by Marina Sonkina (Guernica Editions 2023)
Ukrainian Portraits is a difficult, yet compelling read. Sonkina is a writer from Vancouver, Canada who was born in Russia and spent half her professional life there. Two of her sons were born there. She has family throughout Russia and the Ukraine.
At the outbreak of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Sonkina, amidst confusing reports and in numbing shock, decided to travel to Europe to assist Ukrainians fleeing the carnage through the Ukrainian-Polish border at Korczowa. As the portraits unfold, we meet an array of refugees, just some of the many hundreds Sonkina encountered as a volunteer at the border refugee centre.
Each portrait is moving in its own way and Sonkina captures these individual stories with raw poignancy. Here is an excerpt where she summarizes the common narratives: “Each story was different yet have many followed a similar pattern: destruction and loss of property or homes; weeks in basements with scarcely any water, food supplies and electricity; the howl of air raid sirens; separation from loved ones and concern about their well-being; screams of traumatized children; and then finally escape, over many days. Escape on foot, by trains, buses or sometimes cars, with detours necessitated by rockets and missiles; crossing rivers on boats where bridges were blown up.”
Information is scarce, refugees are confused and frightened, with few resources and no clear destinations once they reach the refugee centre where Sonkina volunteers. We are given a stark look at daily life at such centres. The uncertainty is overwhelming. The reader meets the elderly Vera and her daughter Anna heading to Denmark; Olelna, a grandmother from “…Chernihov, that hell…” trying to reunite her grandson, Kolya with his mother in Finland; the sisters Tatyana and Katerina trying to choose between Luxembourg or the more familiar Poland, Tatyana saying hearbreakingly, “Nobody wants Ukrainians in Europe, that’s for sure. They call us swine there…” a sentiment propagandized by Russian Internet trolls.
Sonkina does a masterful job of capturing both the desperation and the hope that the refugees carry with them to the border. The book is both emotionally intimate and politically insightful, offering a glimpse at the complex machinations of war and the nearly insurmountable difficulties faced by the civilians who are affected by it.
In the acknowledgements the author thanks the publisher for seeing the urgency of the subject matter and publishing the manuscript without delay. Reading through these portraits one is inculcated to the sense of urgency. The world is filled with competing urgencies. Ukrainian Portraits is an unvarnished account of the human face of war and the truth of its ultimate cost.