The different perceptions of danger

The picture is one of a mortar impact on the side-walk in Kharkiv.

With the launch of Russia’s full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine on 22 February 2022, our lives changed for good.

The war had started back in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the Russia’s back insurrection in Donbas. But somehow, past the initial shock, most Ukrainians had gone back back to their daily lives. This was probably part of the incredible resilience that they demonstrated to the world later on, that enables them to keep going no matter what. The problem is that it also numbs them to deal with issues before they become critical as well. This allowed Russia to wage a war from 2014 that somehow was deliberately forgotten by most, in Ukraine and in the public opinion of most of the world.

24 February 2022 was a tough wake-up. Everyone was immediately affected and a primal feeling of physical danger struck everyone. Yet, Ukrainians had to somehow adapt and live with this. Moving regularly between Paris and different parts of Ukraine, it often struck me to see the difference of perception about a war depending on whether you are afar or living it in your daily life.

When the war started, it was a huge shock for everyone. This is because you are afraid for your physical safety, because all bets are off, because you have no idea what may come next, what tomorrow -if any- will be made of. You understand without fully comprehending that the life as you knew it is gone and that there are many consequences you do not fully seize as of yet. You also understand that some of these consequences you may not understand because they depend on what is going on.

This is a huge difference between those there and the one far away: while the shock of the war is shared, those who live it quickly have to get on with their lives. Although absurd it may seem, a person needs to live, have a job, do something. This, actually is crucial if your country wants to have a chance to win the war. You have to have a functioning economy. This leads to behavior that may sound strange from afar but that just make sense.

The classical exemple is the one of the air alerts, which are materialized by sirens. Those are stern, gloomy reminders of the war. They may happen one, twice, twenty times a day. They may last for a few minutes or several hours. They may be followed -or preceded at time…- by shelling, but most of the time, if you are a bit behind lines, it is not uncommon that most air alert come and go without actual kinetic activity.

If you live far from the war, you picture yourself running into shelter whenever As true as this may be, people do not have hours to loose every day so they make a choice of seeking shelter or not. In my experience, very few actually do after a while. People learn a pattern and will make an unconscious decision about whether they need to act upon an air alert. It comes down to a gloomy unconscious statistical game about whether there is a big enough risk to get hit so that you will interrupt what you are doing: your job, groceries, walking your child to the park.

There are tools that enable you to somewhat make yourself an opinion. In Ukraine, there is an app, showing where the air alerts are active in the country. So if there is one plane in the air in Belarus carrying a couple of missiles, most people will ignore the alert as the occurrence of such activities is frequent and the chance you individually get hit is low. If only your region is targeted and that you read in Telegram channels (the other main tool) that 78 ballistic missiles are flying towards you, then it is another story.

This does not mean that everyone will abide by this rule. The striking exemple was probably when we missed an appointment with a real estate agent with Mila to visit a flat and that she got quite mad that we had not made it according to plan. We pointed out the air alert and the fact that the city had actually been hit pretty hard on that day, to no avail.

From the side, you will probably this person as irresponsible. I would not pass a judgment on her, but I will certainly seek shelter if I feel endangered and feel unapologetic about it. But the fact is that a lot of people will not budge and continue what they are doing. This is undeniably dangerous. You may speak of a boiled-frog syndrome. But it is also this kind of behavior that enables a country to fight off aggression.

To some limited degree, it reminds me of Primo Levi’s It this is a Man, depicting inmates in a concentration camp, conscious that they may well all be killed soon, and yet organizing a sort of trade markets of all sort of objects.

Humans get used to anything, and wars are not exceptions. This is neither good nor bad. This is the way it is.

Serendipity of a shelling provoking a full blackout: you can gaze at the Milky Way from downtown Lviv

Normal abnormal in downtown Kharkiv: air alert is on but life goes on.

Bon appétit and may this evening be calm!