Many years ago, a friend’s young niece pulled me aside at a cookout, a clutch of crayons and construction paper in hand. “I want to draw you,” she said.
Reluctant but unwilling to argue with a determined nine-year-old, I obediently sat for a portrait, wondering just how ruthlessly this little Rembrandt would exaggerate my worst features. But after a few strokes, her hand fell still and she looked at me, perplexed.
“I can’t make sense of your hair,” she said.
Apparently my unruly locks, badly in need of a trim and a root touch-up, weren’t easily replicated with a few grubby Crayolas. I could only laugh at such childlike candor.
That same honesty was brutally evident in a set of drawings made by Ukrainian children who have fled Mariupol, a city so relentlessly bombarded by Russian forces that it has been essentially leveled, with thousands of civilians killed. While a brave contingent of Ukrainian fighters, holed up in the Azovstal steel mill, resisted the attacks as long as possible, trapped civilians were forced to shelter in basements and bunkers for weeks. Multiple attempts to rescue them were thwarted as Russian troops continued their shelling, violating not only the dubious word of their own government officials, but international law and human decency itself.
Those managing to flee Mariupol have recounted the fear and filth they endured under siege: drinking rainwater from puddles, without food, medicine or even basic sanitation, huddled under rubble and the unending stream of both Russian weapons and the genocidal hatred that launched them.
In the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, psychologist Hanna Chasovnykova has been organizing art therapy sessions for children who have fled Mariupol, asking them to put at least a fraction of their unfathomable experiences into images.
The first color of choice among the children is black, Chasovnykova told BBC News correspondent Hugo Bachega.
One eight-year-old girl drew the tank that destroyed her grandmother’s house; a nine-year-old boy, remembering days of hunger and hiding, traced eyes wide with fear. An 11-year-old girl, who had two friends killed by the Russian attacks, sketched a dotted line from a black cloud in the sky: shrapnel from a Russian bomb exploding and lodging in her head. Loud noises frighten her; she fears going outside.
Chasovnykova is helping the children to heal from trauma by encouraging them to add color to their artwork – a flower here, a Ukrainian flag there, the sun shining in a corner of the sky amid the warplanes, which one boy redrew as large birds dropping eggs instead of bombs. The exercise is a way of sparking hope in both the hearts and still-developing minds of children deeply wounded by war.
As that war nears its fourth month, with thousands killed and more than 13 million displaced, other drawings are being made: a geopolitical map of Europe and the world that is dramatically different from the terrain of the past several decades, and a new visual of what we’d come to think of as an outdated subject — fascism.
For indeed, as Yale University historian Timothy Snyder notes, the unprovoked war Russia has inflicted on Ukraine with astonishing cruelty is fascist, even as its perpetrators claim to be battling fascism itself. In a column for The New York Times, Snyder explains that “calling others fascist while being a fascist is the essential Putinist practice” – a “schizofascism” in which Russia’s “hate speech toward Ukrainians,” where “‘Nazi’ just means ‘subhuman enemy’ … makes it easier to murder them.”
The conflict’s bloodshed and repression won’t be neatly contained to a single country, either: Snyder warns that “if Russia wins in Ukraine, it won’t just be the destruction of a democracy by force, though that is bad enough. It will be a demoralization for democracies everywhere. … If Ukraine does not win, we can expect decades of darkness.”
And should we permit such gloom to descend upon this world – through sloth, apathy, cowardice, isolationism or all of the above – how then will we appear to our children, and how will they draw us?
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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