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Paul Vallely: On the front line of war, words matter

07 July 2023

In Palestine and Ukraine, artists fight back in their own way, says Paul Vallely

Alamy

The Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina, who died last week

The Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina, who died last week

WHERE is the front line? For the award-winning Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina, it was in a pizza restaurant — 18 miles from the actual fighting — that was targeted by a high-precision Russian Iskander missile, which killed her and 12 others. She had set fiction aside when her homeland was invaded, and instead began to document Russian war crimes — until she became the victim of a war crime herself.

For the London-based Palestinian filmmaker Mo’min Swaitat, the front line was at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, after a thousand Israeli troops, with air support and rooftop snipers, launched a dawn attack this week. The theatre where he trained, he’d heard, had been bombed, and the entire street bulldozed.

For the director Evgeniya Berkovich, the front line was in the Moscow theatre where she staged a play about women who travelled to Syria to join Isis — a cautionary tale of how Russian society marginalises young women. She is on trial after a Soviet-style pseudoscientist, calling himself a “destructologist”, claimed that the play’s “ideology of radical feminism” could provoke terrorist acts.

For the poet Artyom Kamardin, the front line was a square near the Kremlin, where he gave a public reading of his poem “Kill me, militiaman”, and urged fellow Russians to ignore the military call-up. For the artist Sasha Skochilenko, it was the St Petersburg supermarket where she replaced price tags with messages like: “My great-grandfather did not fight in WWII for four years so that Russia could become a fascist state and attack Ukraine.” Both face a decade in prison.

Words matter in war, or in a “special military operation”. That is why Israeli Defence spokesmen euphemise “fighting” into “friction”. Their soldiers do not “kill”, but, rather, “neutralise”. The media, afraid of being called anti-Semitic, subconsciously fall in line, using passive verbs for Israeli actions — “Hundreds wounded in Jerusalem clashes” — but using active verbs when a Palestinian “stabs” or “kills”.

Then there is language that implies a symmetry of power between Russia and Ukraine — or Israel and Palestine, when UN figures last month showed that Israeli forces have killed 114 Palestinians in the territory this year, while Palestinians have killed 16 Israelis. This is not to suggest any moral equivalence between Russia and Israel: Russia’s invasion was unprovoked; Israelis have been routinely attacked, even if their response is often disproportionate.

Writers and artists fight back in their own way. Swaitat’s Freedom Theatre recently staged a production of Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the pigs who become indistinguishable from men controversially stand for the Palestinian and Israeli authorities uniting against the best interests of ordinary Palestinians.

After the Russians bombed the theatre in Mariupol, they declared that the stench emanating from the rubble had nothing to do with the hundreds of victims buried beneath. Rather, they said, it came from “fish storage in the theatre basement”. Berkovich responded with a sardonic poem beginning, “Do you claim to love theatre like the fish claim?”

Two weeks before she died, Victoria Amelina wrote about a painter, Polina Rayko, whose work had been lost in the floods unleashed by the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam. “Art lives as long as the world sees it,” she wrote. Perhaps that’s what the authorities are afraid of.

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