War Beyond the Borderlines: a conversation with Evelina Kvartunaite

Micaela Brinsley

War Beyond the Borderlines: a conversation with Evelina Kvartunaite
writings and conversations, both condensed and rearranged for clarity

Micaela Brinsley: How did you become involved with supporting people from Ukraine who fled the war?  

Evelina Kvartunaite: It really felt like a thing that wasn’t my choice. It felt like if it wasn’t me, who would do this? Especially since the war wasn't a big surprise, it has been going on for years. This massive scope was really heartbreaking and I jumped into it with everything I had: my resources from previous work in the conflict areas, language, time, network… Maybe ten days after the war broke, I wrote in my diary because I really didn’t know how to deal with everything, how to talk about it all so I turned to science and research: 

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                                                                                                                            March 5th, 2022

Hermann von Helmholtz was among the first scientists who calculated the rate of nerve conduction in humans. He approximated that the speed of nerve conduction in humans was between 50 to 100 metres per second.  I have been thinking a lot about that lately, how we are never really in the present moment, how much our perception, all the signals and processes that take part in our brain, travel by the electrical pulses that connect our body by neurons. How it reacts and activates our body.

It’s an intense process. Even though technically it only takes part of a second, everything we experience, it’s already happened. It’s a bit like looking at the stars and realising what we see is really old light. In the current moment those specific stars might not even be present anymore.

This is how it’s also felt to experience what has been happening in the world lately. As if those neurons and nerves and perception are negotiating for time, to question, to ask to refresh; there must be a mistake. It’s hard to make sense of things that don’t make sense. It’s hard to negotiate with myself and allow myself to be okay understanding that the whole truth might not be available for me, ever. The complexity and unfairness have been really daunting for the past good while. The future, I try to grapple with it. It’s really also feeling like that light of the stars: uncertain and paralyzed, pulsating slowly but not promising much.

Another scientist, Seth S. Horowitz, who researches human hearing, balance and sleep, he says the only certain way to be in the here and the now is if you move away from the conscious brain. Which means no thinking, no seeing.

Hearing is the fastest sense—it’s mechanical. A sudden loud noise activates a very specialised circuit from an ear to spinal neurons, which means it bypasses the brain. A reacting body releases adrenaline, no consciousness involved. As much as I find this research fascinating, I can’t help but think about all those people constantly being woken up by air raid sirens several times, day and night. How terrifying that presence of the here and now is.

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MB: What did a typical day look like? Is there such a thing as a typical day?

EK: I must admit to absolutely no regularity except getting used to never ending surprises, reacting to needs, simple things like finding someone a suitcase someone could donate. To complex situations, like navigating logistics within the country to support movement of stranded people, kids, or injured civilians as I was mostly focusing on civilians and the humanitarian support.. I would really say that you never know what you are capable of until you need to do unimaginable things. 

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                                                                                                                          March 16th, 2022

When you reside within your skin, you can feel it. You are holding all of you: your anger, your kindness, your fears, your tenderness, everything that makes all of you, you. I feel it more than ever. And even if I am not producing professional content, not developing workshops at the moment, I feel like I am really residing within my skin. Within the moments that are there for me like gemstones: glowing in the sunlight, changing lightness and shades with every breath.

It’s not an easy path to navigate. People, feelings, basic things like packing up lunch and thinking of where to buy a ticket. It’s beautiful and it’s painful at the same time. Not in a macabre way. It’s raw and true. Like placing yourself in the hands of strangers while your own blood is too overwhelmed. It’s literal and it’s metaphorical. But it’s always real.

The biggest things I am learning, these past three weeks, is about connection, trust, and empathy. The very essence of humanity, of being raw and beautiful, of being in pain and laughing anyways. It’s a gift to feel humbled by people’s kindness, people’s faith; attention or even failure for the lack of knowing, understanding of cultural references. We need to fail more, to know and I keep saying to someone I love, I am so so happy to learn that you still have more ways to fail, because it means… means that there is more space for growing, more space for sparkles and learning and creativity.

I find so much faith and strength in people who run from war, still have time to look forward to flowers, take time to observe and be surprised. I find it so humbling again and again. We are all in this together. 

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MB: What has most surprised you about this work?

EK: I suppose, most of all—how naturally it came to me. How it was a natural response. No questions asked. 

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                                                                                                                             April 13th, 2022

Do I deserve to feel anything? To react? More and more I find myself pondering about that. In the beginning, it was just small glimpses, moments or even fractures. This week someone asked me how I was. I responded that I find it super difficult to answer that question ever since the war started. There was a pause where I exhaled, still not knowing how to answer, but it was met with a quick, ‘but you are not Ukrainian’ which led me to a more perplexing moment of reflection. I questioned it again and again. Do I deserve to react? Do I deserve to own that part of my reality?

I am not Ukrainian. Not even a little bit. I did not flee the war. I am only doing my little bits to support those people who are, Ukrainian, or not. This war or another one. I have been doing it ever since I was 16 years old, starting with the fleeing people from the ex-Yugoslav War to North Africa, Syria, Eastern Turkey or the Caucasus. Is it a privilege? Is it a choice? Is it a human obligation to do the best I can? Everything of both and something else?

With the passing of time I have more and more questions. I also hear more and more questions, opinions, and reflections. I think about the privilege. About the time we have, not to consider privilege. The opportunities to forget are privileged ones. And it startles me in moments, when a simple question can become paralysing, so confronting. It’s not about comparison. At least not to me. There will always be someone who feels worse than you. Someone who is less alive than you. There will always be also someone who is better off.

A close friend of mine says she wants to think about everything in the terms of water: if there is a flow, there is a reason. I keep also reminding myself that we live not to avoid uncomfortable conversations, confronting questions, challenging situations, deep cuts. I keep telling myself all those things are only the proof of the meaning, resilience, lessons, quests. This is how I am learning about the touch. Touch of reality, mostly. Mine and others’. I read somewhere that people only become real when they have an opportunity to share their noise or their silences, with others. John O’Donohue, who wrote a book called Anam Cara, said friendship is one of the most beautiful places where longing reaches its original fulfilment. Then it deepens, purifies, and changes. People only become real when they share their authenticity. One needs a lot of courage to do so. I should know.

At the moment I still feel like I am collecting stories, pictures, fragments of what reach my eyeballs. Eyes are the human organ that contains the most water. I am still far away from being like a poem: light, effortless and holding space. I divide the silences in diminutives. I think of suffixes to escape the fear of talking in public. How do you touch another world and don’t become part of it? That takes a lot of courage, I should know. To touch another world, another reality. To allow yourself to breathe.

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MB: Is there a story told to you by a Ukrainian woman you’ve met which really moved you, that you’d be willing to share here?

EK: I have always been touched by stories, by people carrying them. However I am not sure if their pain and tragedy needs to be amplified. I want to hope that people eventually will return to the peaceful days, simple life, create a better future for themselves and their children. What I see with the people that I work with now as part of psychosocial support services, it’s a trauma that is still ongoing. It’s also stories of resilience, adaptation, creativity and strength. 

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                                                                                                                             May 22nd, 2022

I heard the sentence, ‘we always find words for the things we no longer need to say,’ and it really grabbed me. I always question everything so I was really questioning it. Do we? What are things we no longer need to say? What’s the point? How much weight and importance do we put on the words? Into them? Around them? How much silence needs to linger around the words to make them feel or seem different? More or less important. More or less heavy. Words like love or pain? War? Freedom?

Where I come from language is very important and very treasured. We speak the most archaic Indo European language, probably on the verge of entering the list of languages that might disappear. Currently under 3 million people speak it. It has no articles and uses word endings instead of prepositions to indicate relationships between words in a sentence. Words have stresses that can totally alter their meaning depending on how they are used. Diminutives are very much loved, and the language has no swear words. If Lithuanians feel the need to curse and swear, they might call someone a grass snake or a toad. One of the letters in my surname is ‘ė,’ which does not exist in any other language. I heard somewhere that this letter is a symbol of femininity because it is only used at the end of women’s names. I don’t know if we can go that far, but I thought it was interesting. With all this complexity and history, there is also a lot of space in the language. I call it, ‘needing to read the air.’ The things we don’t say can be as important as the words we say. Or even more important. The air, the spaces in the between. It’s that walk with an old friend when you don’t need to talk. It’s a gasp before everyone starts clapping. It’s that silence of the bad news arriving.

Words can be like apertures into things we treasure or are really scared of. Lately, I have been trying to find words, to navigate spaces with words that are not even mine nor theirs—speaking Russian to people who are running from the Russian invasion. 

Hearing compliments that I speak well. Feeling guilty I actually do. Feeling grateful as it’s probably the best way to communicate with them. It’s a language I haven’t learned at school. It wasn’t obligatory anymore, when I was going to school. I learned it by listening to others, trying to find ways to connect with them. 

It’s important to learn languages. It’s essential to try and navigate rooms that words open for us. I’ve been slowly learning more words in Ukrainian. Slowly learning how to sit with the pain and uncertainty. Sit in the apertures of silence. So maybe I am slowly learning about the words for the things we no longer need to say….

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MB: We’re coming up on the one year mark of this war very soon. Given what you’ve heard from Ukrainians who’ve left their country behind, what do you think the rest of us need to know? What can we do?

EK: I think we need to be aware, to continue being involved and informed. The war isn't stopping just because news cycles do. Asking people, if you know someone, making sure they know you are there if they need you. Learning more and educating yourself…

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                                                                                                                              June 27th, 2022

Way back, what now feels like an eternity, maybe in March this last year, a journalist asked me some questions. One of those questions was, ‘what do you think is the biggest obstacle when it comes to helping people fleeing the war in Ukraine?’ I remember not taking a pause to think. It was so clear then. Feels like I had a premonition, when thinking about it now. I said, ‘the biggest issue is perseverance.’ I believed it so strongly then and see now, how much fatigue people have when it comes to heavy, unresolved issues, suffering, survivor’s guilt, guilt for having more than more unlucky people or many other issues I hear from people, as time goes by.

Can you get tired of war? Can human sacrifice become something you just get used to? How different is this narrative from hundreds of movies that arrive on a daily basis, on our screens and devices? How do I stop feeling guilty from ‘darkening the mood’ when I mention Ukraine after arriving at a social gathering? How do I measure how much I can lift, how much I can carry, for a long while?

‘The biggest issue is perseverance’ — because it's time we allow ourselves to realise real life is not a reel. Things we don’t necessarily like, we can’t just switch a channel. Because the longer something is held, the more it gets heavier. Even if you cry, even if you share and talk about it. It stays there. Unmoving, frightening.

A while back I came across an artist who chose to stay in Kyiv: Yevgenia Belorusets. She said, ‘I think everyone has the right to think and talk about the war. It is our common pain, the common pain of all humanity. The whole world is, in a sense, responsible for what is happening. This is an act of violence, bloodshed, brutality, and genocide. Anyone, anywhere in the world, must connect with this. If somebody has travelled out of Ukraine for whatever reason but feels it necessary to talk about it, let her speak.’ 

To be honest ever since the very beginning, I keep waiting for certain wisdom to arrive. I keep thinking it every time I enter spaces where I do my best to help, where I join groups of people to hold spaces for pain and suffering. Or just for connection. Being quiet, so the tears can arrive. 

I feel like I will be waiting for a while. Because there is not much sense to this, at all. There are words that hold, that support, that create moments of connection. But they don’t bring relief.

It’s only proof to keep on going. Persevering.

(cc: Anastasiia Mykytiuk)

Evelina Kvartunaite
is a photographer, graphic artist, educator, and facilitator, an advocate for life long learning and a community manager. Mostly, she's passionate working towards a sense of belonging through personal development. She also hosts a podcast, has authored a few books and is a founder of NGO Word Up, which promotes social inclusion and diversity through spoken word poetry and creativity.

Micaela Brinsley

Micaela Brinsley is one of the co-editors-in-chief of La Piccioletta Barca and editor of interviews, as well as fiction and essays.

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