Seán Moncrieff: ‘My daughter said I might be mildly traumatised. Her generation likes to throw around the T-word’

My mind felt stuffed with everything I was told and everything I’d seen, to the extent that I found it difficult to answer the simple question: what was Ukraine like?

As I wrote here last week, I was recently in Kyiv. We heard a lot of stories. Many of them were – to use a much-devalued word – inspirational. Many of them were horrific.

Back in Ireland, my mind felt stuffed with everything I was told and everything I’d seen, to the extent that I found it difficult to answer the simple question: what was Ukraine like?

One of my daughters suggested to me that I might even be mildly traumatised by the experience. Her generation likes to throw around the T-word with a bit too much abandon for my liking, but in this case, she might be right – which, compared to the many profound and life-changing traumas I heard about, I find a slightly shameful thing to admit.

One story stays with me: in the Kyivan suburb of Borodyanka, we met a woman called Lena. It was in a space between apartment buildings that had been rendered uninhabitable by shelling, and across the road from buildings that had collapsed altogether. People had died there.


Lena was standing in a long queue waiting to get UN-administered aid. But don’t think bedraggled war victim: Lena was put together, wearing a smart coat and with a full face of make-up. Her outfit, she told us, was what she was wearing a year before when she last left her home.

She only left because her son had begged her to because his house seemed to be in a safer part of town.

Her other son, who lived with her, refused to evacuate. This was a common theme in many of the stories we heard. People wouldn’t evacuate because they couldn’t quite believe what was happening, or out of defiance, or because, frozen by fear, they simply didn’t know what to do.

Soon after Lena arrived in the other house, she got a phone call from her neighbours. The shelling is more intense now, they told her. We are going to leave. You should get your son to do the same.

Lena rang him, but he wasn’t in the house at all. She instructed him to go there, find some money she had hidden and come over to his brother’s house. Ten minutes later, he rang back to tell her that it was too late. Their house had been destroyed – and so too had the neighbours’ house. They died there.

“Every night,” she told us, “I dream about them.”

I didn’t have to coax this story out of Lena. She wanted to tell it; and I got the sense that she had told it before, to anyone who would listen: perhaps in the hope that each telling might slightly dilute the pain of what she felt. But she was just one person in a queue of hundreds; each of them, no doubt, with their own story.

People in Borodyanka lost not just their homes, but all that was recognisable about their lives: friends, restaurants, sports clubs, jobs. They have shelter and food, but that’s about it.

Many of them volunteer. They try to fix up the parks and sweep the streets; anything to move the place even a small bit towards what it was like before; an attempt to heal their own trauma made physical.

In time, hopefully, the place will be rebuilt. An economy will be re-established. For some, the psychological scars will heal over; for others, the wounds will remain open for the rest of their lives, in turn affecting their families and the people around them. It’s like a virus that won’t completely die out until that generation has passed away too.

But we don’t have to go all the way to Ukraine to find examples of this intergenerational trauma. It still exists in the northeast corner of our island; and like Ukraine, it illustrates how resilient people can be. And how bafflingly monstrous we can be to each other.