New Voices:
The An Post Writing Prize

Read through the six incredible shortlisted Essays, in the running...

November 5th 2023 - Shortlisted

The Way from War to Peace. The Valley of Gratitude

Peace and war are two opposites, two completely different states of being. But they always go hand in hand. Just one instant separates them. An instant from a peaceful quiet to the first shot, the first explosion. Everything suddenly turns on its head. The world doesn’t just lose colour, it turns grey. Just grey. Plans and dreams, affairs and things to do. Everything changes in just one instant. Thoughts, emotions, facial expressions. Fear doesn’t settle in immediately. The real fear appears when we hear the scared crying of children under wailing sirens. Anxious heart flutters so fast we can’t count the heartbeats. Peace and war. We had been born and lived in a peaceful world. It was an easy truth and it was natural. Only from the elder generation we learnt horrible stories about a war. We saw war in the movies. Heard about it from the news. But it was always somewhere else, not here. And suddenly, the war knocked on our doors. It was hard to believe, to wrap one’s head around the fact that something like that could happen in the era of Artificial intelligence and global projects. Humanity as a whole has grown to be much more intelligent in recent years. But, it seems that wisdom, rationality and humanity have stayed on the same level as last century. Peace and war. The first war starts with a capital letter, the second only ever in lowercase. Death, suffering, grief. Everything we are supposed to protect ourselves from becomes an instrument for an absurd suicide. What for? Was it ambition, or maybe a mental disorder in those who had overdosed on power?

Everything was leading there. Three months before the war began, I called my friends and family. Warned them. But nobody believed me. Some even laughed at me. But now everyone carries a black mark in their memory – February 24th, 2022. Half past four, Kyiv time. The world has stopped and gone numb.

The war announced itself. There were first explosions from the missile hits. It started. I woke up, turned on the TV, computer, I listened to the dictator’s speech, full of lies. It felt like there was a hole in my chest. I was empty. Mechanically, as if I had been taught to do so before, I prepared for the changes to come.

To the new lifestyle. When there was only one goal – to survive. I put together my “survival suitcase”, taped my windows so the glass shards wouldn’t fly everywhere from the shock waves. I spent hours in basements, and bomb shelters. It was like all of my emotions had disappeared, but thoughts wouldn’t leave me alone and were swarming in my head like bees: what next, what to do.

There was news on the Internet about the open borders for Ukrainians. You have to go, I told myself. Because with my health, I wouldn’t survive all these catastrophes. After some deliberation, I chose Ireland. The climate of this island country suited me perfectly. I had to wrap up some business. And only on May 27th, at the Kyiv Central Railway Station, my journey into the unknown began. A train to Poland, then a flight. A few hours on board and then, a big group from Ukraine arrived at the Dublin Airport. We were greeted, and then we were led through the long halls. Such attention and care was a nice surprise for the upset and exhausted refugees. The road from the war to Peace was so long. A road from the sunny, but gripped in grief and suffering Ukraine, to the overcast, but peaceful Ireland. It was my turn at the border control window. Another second and I hear those wonderful words: “Temporary Protection”. A stocky officer, built like a Viking, smiled and heartily stamped down my passport. Temporary protection granted.  This brilliant island opened its doors before me. On our first day in Ireland, we were given rooms in a hotel in the picturesque countryside, not too far from the town Swords. Days, full of incredible hospitality, quality service and care went by slowly. We slowly began to get used to the new climate and new environment.

To the new, so strange to us, people. But we had never expected such hospitality. We always wanted to thank both the hotel staff and the owner, and the Irish nation as a whole. At first, we decided to just clean the plot of land nearby our housing which was supposed to be either a lawn or a flowerbed. There was a small wheat field near our country house. The strip of uncultivated land ran along the white concrete wall, separating the wheat field. Some maples grew there. And this strip was full of local weeds. We decided to clean that mess and plant flowers there. The first push came from Natalka from Odesa, in Viber messenger chat group: “Borys, just imagine! They sell marigold saplings right next to the supermarket.”

So, this is how, step by step, a community of Ukrainian florists and gardeners was formed. Maria from Kharkiv, Valentyna from Kherson, Nastia from Dnipro and Borys from Kyiv. We made our first flowerbed with those marigolds. It was very symbolic on our part. Then we were joined by Oleksandra from Odesa, Oksana from Nova Kakhovka, Iryna from Zhytomyr, Olena from Mykolaiiv and Vitalii from Kyiv Troyeshchyna. So, things started to brew, so to speak. We bought and planted lilies and chrysanthemums, dahlias and roses. Geranium, lavender, mint, fern and some unknown to us plants. We planted them into pots. Into old buckets, and round plastic containers that builders, who were fixing the hotel’s second building, would give us.

Our flowerbeds were formidable and stylish, even if we were far from professionals. At some point, we had an idea to separate the flowerbeds from the trees. So we incorporated that idea. We bought some tree bark mulch. Put thick layers of it around the maple trunks. And then we put next to each tree careful rows of round fist-size stones. There were a lot of them in the local soil. Oh how hard those stones made it to prepare the soil, along with the withered blackberry and ivy roots. We barely managed to rip those out! Of course, it was exhausting. But the result was so rewarding. We slowly built a flower alley. An alley of gratitude to our hotel manager Linda, and her husband Bryan, who’s a driver. To the hotel owners. To all the Irish. To Ireland as a whole.

Soon, we prepared wooden plaques with flags of both countries and names of towns the people who made the alley came from. Alla Yurivna, from Ochakiv, planted a whole host of flowers near the hotel entrance. And we could see she knew what she was doing. And it is a pleasure to note that a lot of Ukrainian kids helped us. After the New Year, we planted two pine trees. I think that in the months to come, the number of those will grow.

So this is how we have built an alley of gratitude. Thank you, Ireland. For your kindness, shelter and for Peace.

Borys Koval

Borys Koval

Swords, Co. Dublin

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