Letters from Banana Street: Humour and rage in wartime Lviv


‘I won’t unsee a thing. I will not forgive anything. I swear to write about it so that no one will ever forget about it. And I won’t forgive’

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Anastasia Nikulina, a Ukrainian writer, storyteller, instablogger and book critic, has kept a diary of her life in Lviv since Russia’s invasion. It tells a story of hope and humour, resilience and rage.

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April 16, 2022

We called our place in the bomb shelter Banana Street. It was my adult tree-house under the ground, our seats made from banana boxes.

There’s a high-rise building where I live. It towers above the ground. Under it, there is a small makeshift town — just between the cars and parking spaces. Our men set up a warm area for children there. There was a heater and the space was separated by a canopy. You felt like you were at a cozy grandma’s home in the village. Next to it were other spaces that were settled in by people like us — mostly they were filled with chairs, which we used to keep on our balconies. Pallets, cardboard, and sleeping bags with coats on top.

I moved into my apartment in January. We had just finished renovating. It’s been months, but I still call it new — I’m still not used to it being mine, and me being its. When everything is so fresh and brand new, you see every scratch, every flaw, and want to make sure that everything is OK. Then, boom… you have a shack under your home and all these scratches mean nothing now.

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Our bomb shelter is nothing special — just an underground parking garage. The builder of our complex said that the place was safe. There’s a thick layer of concrete and ground above it. There are several exits and there’s ventilation. So it was a bit calmer there. We brought some items from the pantry: boxes, pieces of parquet and foam. It was everything we had left after the renovation, and we joked that half of the pantry was also dragged down. T. made benches from what we had, so we could sit. Later, blankets were brought from our country house — so rough, prickly, with their own history, and it became even warmer and softer. Our makeshift home sat within an empty parking spot until one day we saw a car there — a huge SUV that left us almost no place to rest.

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We needed to find a new spot. We walked through the garage and found a free space between some walls, where there was no place for a car, and moved our things there. We bought banana boxes for 20 cents at the supermarket — they are hard and can hold our weight and, compared to the concrete floor, we don’t feel as cold on them. T. made three long beds from them. We brought sleeping bags there. It’s warm in a sleeping bag. You can easily lie down, and then you fall asleep to the sounds of footsteps and conversations, neighbours walking in circles, cats meowing, and children riding scooters or just running around.

The Banana Street bomb shelter gets its name from the banana boxes used for makeshift beds.
The Banana Street bomb shelter gets its name from the banana boxes used for makeshift beds. Photo by Marina Schultz

There’s an eternal winter underground — very cold, almost freezing. So when I hear the air-raid sirens, I dress for winter, even if it is +16 outside. When we went there for the first time, I put on three pairs of pants, a winter coat, gloves, and a scarf. The second time, I found my snowboarding pants and wore them, too. And a blanket to cover all these layers of clothes.

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At first, we had lots of company — five other neighbours whom we befriended at the beginning of the war, a family from Kharkiv, another family from Kyiv, my editor with her daughter, a colleague from my publishing house with her cat. Now there are three of us: me, T. and M. from Odesa, who lives with us. Each has their own banana bed. When there were more of us, it was more fun. We played board games, joked, and laughed a lot. When there’s just three of us: M. is on the phone or talking with me, T.’s playing on the phone, too, and I’m reading some fantasy e-book.

When the war started, everyone knew they had to pack their life into one backpack. I won’t put my new home in a backpack. There’s too little space. But I am grateful for it — grateful that it is the way I wanted it to be. And I’m grateful for the banana boxes. Home is where you are. You’ll always take yourself with you.

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May 4, 2022

The last book I read about war was Julia Berry’s The Gentle War. I’d read it as a book reviewer before Feb. 24. It was a truly gentle love story, set against the background of the First World War. What I didn’t expect from this book was that the story would start with ancient gods.

In Lviv, we have our own Greek gods standing on guard over the Town Hall. In Rynok Square, in the city centre, there are four fountains — three gods and one hero: Diana, Neptune, Amphitrite, and Adonis.  Four guards. It was so cozy to sit on the wide rims of the fountains, especially on warm summer evenings, listening to the sound of guitars, sometimes singing along and sometimes just leaning on the shoulder of a friend or lover.

Today, though Lviv can look like a normal touristic city, crowded with people, our Greek gods are walled up, hidden, and closed. They are wrapped in scaffolding for their own protection.

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We couldn’t believe that the war could come here. By soldier’s feet. The statue of Diana is right in front of the volunteer centre, where I have been working since the first days of the full-scale invasion. When I saw a fence being built around it, it thought,  “No, is it really happening?”

Reading The Gentle War, it was difficult to imagine how people can love, laugh, dance, and listen to music when death is lurking outside their window. When death is lurking in the sky. I had never thought that I would also have to live during a war, to choose how to live. I found myself in this book. I live in it now. And it’s terrifying.

Anastasia Nikulina sitting on the fountain at Rynok Square, Lviv, which is now walled up and closed.
Anastasia Nikulina sitting on the fountain at Rynok Square, Lviv, which is now walled up and closed. Photo by Marina Schultz

February 28, 2022

Before now, it was weird to smile during the war. But today, humour has become our armour, strengthening armour that does not allow you to fall into the abyss that looks at you every day from the news. And what kind humour works best? Life. Life stories that take you away from the freezing news, which makes you forget how to breathe.

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It all started with the hooligans from Obolon (Kyiv district) — the Ukrainian word for them is “hopniks.” These kinds of hooligans seemed to be extinct. In my childhood, hopniks stopped their victims, usually hipsters or geeks, in the street and made them give their money or mobile phones. Modern hopniks simply stop enemy tanks. They take a piece of asphalt, make some threats, and pinch the tank from the Russians. Can you believe that?

There was a woman from a Ukrainian village who told an enemy soldier: put these seeds in your pocket, you f—ing fertilizer.

Then there was a grandmother, as kind as a dandelion, who gave enemy soldiers cakes with laxatives, and then set the toilet on fire as they were defecating.

There was the lady who knocked down a Russian drone with a jar of salty tomatoes.

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There were the Roma who brought a cart full of grenades on horseback. Or the same Roma who stole tanks and brought them to our soldiers.

Combat geese — the patriotic birds who, out of fear, flew into Russian jet engines and downed planes. And combat bees, who stung soldiers to death.

What about the ground? The Ukrainian soil from Chernobyl also fights on our side. As we say: you can leave Chernobyl, but Chernobyl will stay with you wherever you go.

A young boy rides his balance bike through the cobbled streets in Lviv, Ukraine, on April 30, 2022.
A young boy rides his balance bike through the cobbled streets in Lviv, Ukraine, on April 30, 2022. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

This is the moment when everyone is on your side. War unites former enemies against evil.

The stupidity of the enemy seems deceptive. It is too easy and too desirable to think that everything is so good here, and that all of the Russian tanks are stuck in the swamps, or that they are broken, stolen, and destroyed. But in the midst of this sunny news, you realize that behind these victories are lost lives. Plenty of lives of our guys, plenty of civilian lives. Plenty. And the worst part is that there’s nothing you can do with it.

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These humorous stories feel like a little tractor trying to get out a huge tanker — like in that famous meme.

Meanwhile, one jerk joined the defence squad in Odesa and then shot his own squad in the back. Of course, he will be found. But it won’t bring those men back, and it hurts. It hurts.

March 1, 2022

I woke up in a terrible state. Morally devastated and exhausted. Guilt tormented me: because I am alive, that I am all right, that my relatives are alive, that everyone is nearby and the air-raid sirens in Lviv are simply sirens, not planes. That we were not bombed as much as Kharkiv and Kyiv. I feel guilty that it is quiet here. T. said: “You should understand that no city, no person from there would want you to be bombed.”

I immediately remembered my stepfather’s death, when I couldn’t eat anything. I bought a bun. I picked up the bun and just choked on guilt knowing that he would never eat again. He could not eat anything normally during the last months of his life, because of his cancer. And I can just do anything. Do I have a right to eat?

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Do I have the right to live the way I live now? When people in many cities of my country don’t have even water or food or sleep?

I wanted to lie down and curl up and imagine that there is nothing and nobody around. T. said, “You can’t lie down. You have to go and do something.”

So we went to the volunteer centre. In peacetime, this was the library where I would launch each of my new books. Now it is a place of strength where volunteers (not only from Lviv) gather to weave camouflage nets.

We have the coolest neighbours: from Kharkiv, Donetsk, Kyiv, Odesa and Zaporija. We’re weaving nets together. I sneeze all the time because there is a lot of dust, and I felt sick but I know that it is because of my nerves and morale. Over time, I weave my nets faster and better — practice helps. I imagine how my net will be useful, how it will help our warriors, how it covers them and how it will save them. The girls started singing: “Our father Bandera, Ukraine-mother…”

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Anastasia Nikulina sitting between the walls in the library (volunteer center) – iwhere she’d been sitting with the volunteers when Lviv was bombed at the first time.
Anastasia Nikulina sitting between the walls in the library (volunteer center) – iwhere she’d been sitting with the volunteers when Lviv was bombed at the first time. Photo by Marina Schultz

The siren stopped us in the library. It’s said that the walls are strong and that the main thing is to move away from the windows. I call T. – he says that he is in Sykhiv (another part of Lviv) and that he will hide there. I was nervous, but not like before. It turns out that you can worry in different ways.

I visited friends: O. and V. I hugged them one by one and hugged their cats — fluffy anti-stress. When we’re together, I feel as if it’s peaceful again, as if everything is fine. But we only talk about the war. We hug to destress and then go home.

My friend from Kyiv, A., wrote me: “The internet was cut off from us. Mobile communication is very bad, and a bomb was dropped on a neighbouring village.” Farewell. I can’t imagine it, and it’s happening right now. I do not want to believe that we need to say goodbye. I try to believe that everything will be fine.

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A TV tower was bombed in Kyiv.

D. from Petersburg said they were told on TV that they had warned all civilians about the attack, that civilians had been asked to leave their homes to avoid casualties. What? Wha-a-at? How could they warn Kyiv residents from Russia? How? People died. I hate them. I hate so much. D. also logically understands that it is a lie. He said he showed my videos at work – the authorities there don’t show anything about us. Everyone was shocked. A. from Kyiv wrote that communication and gas have been restored to them. I exhale a little. But her son did not get in touch with either of us – he’s in the city, helping the territorial defence.

Al. (a colleague from my publishing house) wrote that she was leaving Kharkiv. She asked if it is OK in Lviv. She said, “I’m hysterical, can you tell me that Lviv is safe?” I calmed her down and said, “Everything is quiet. We will meet you, take you and your cat at home, you can stay at our house.”

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I read news: “Powerful explosions were heard in Kyiv.” And I hate them. I hate, I hate.

The main word I use in my chats with friends is “bitches.” Powerless and declarative.

We went to bed. We’re going to meet Al. tomorrow. Let her arrive calmly.

A. wrote that her son was at home. I exhaled.

I wish that the war would end tomorrow. And I understand that it will not end.

April 22, 2022

Alex brought a toy to the volunteer centre to help kids de-stress — Ironman. The boys tried to kick the figure in the street, like a ball, but it didn’t work. So T. took a piece of material, wrapped it in scotch tape and made a real ball. When we heard the air raid sirens, we decided, for the first time, not to hide. We went outside and began to pass the ball to each other. Then we played “doggies” – a game where one player is a “doggy,” trying to catch a ball, while the other players pass the ball to each other. We were even joined by a man in a soft lion costume and another man dressed as Spongebob. The sky was cloudy, like before a storm. The weatherman promised rain at 5 or 6 p.m. When it rumbled in the sky, we thought it was thunder. It really sounded like that. It thundered three times.

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A girl ran out of the library, panicked, shouting that we were idiots and that we must hide in the shelter immediately. She shouted, “These were explosions. We’ve been bombed!” We ran back. Then it became clear that what we heard was not thunder.

My mother was at grandmother’s home, not far away from the explosions. They saw everything burning, even a high-rise building. D. from Petersburg sent a stupid message about the shelling of military facilities. God, they’re crazy!

We sat between the walls. More news followed — there was a swarm of missiles flying towards us. First they said there were 17. Then 30. So scary! I wrote to my girls. I started writing to my friends on Instagram.

Discussing the supply of medicines from Germany in the office of the library director.
Discussing the supply of medicines from Germany in the office of the library director. Photo by Marina Schultz

We heard that smoke was visible near us. Of course these idiots ran outside to watch the smoke. N. (a 29-year old boy who behaves like he’s 11) asked, “What is it?” T. answered, “It’s a cloud! It’s going to rain.” N. believed it. I said, “Damn, you can’t make fun of a child like that.”

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When you are in a state of mind where your main thought is, ”I may be dead now,” it helps to share your feelings — to write about them to those who will hear you. And in fact it does not matter what they write back. Anything works. The knowledge that you are heard is soothing. I wrote to everyone that I love them. I was really overwhelmed with love. It is so strange to write about love when hatred overflows within you. But really, when you hear the air siren, you feel hate. Then you feel fear and love. When you hear explosions — fear and love. When you learn where the explosions were, it’s hatred. But love… it really exists. I am glad that I can tell so many people that I love them. I am glad that so many people can write me back that they love me. I thank the world for this love.

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We played the game “Never have I ever” between our shelter walls — a game where someone says something they’ve never done and others bend a finger if they did that thing. A player who bends all of their fingers needs to choose — to tell a truth or do a dare. It was very fun and noisy. I felt younger around these people, because they all were between 16 to 22 years old  and I’m 32.

April 3, 2022

After the latest news, especially the videos from Bucha, I see Lviv in a different way. I can’t unsee it, like hallucinations.

I can’t stop thinking about the windows of new buildings, which are now black from ceiling to floor and look like eyes with cracks, covered with ash and concrete. Each kitchen sink has a rocket in it.

On the news, I saw a bridge with flat, clean asphalt with a crowd of people huddled together under it. There were men with yellow ribbons on their sleeves next to the crowd. Every bridge I see now makes me think of this destruction.

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On my phone, I saw Russian soldiers stealing. T-shirts and sports suits that still smell like other people’s perfumes sit on hangers in their malls. Men’s hands are hastily packing clothes in backpacks, stuffing them against jewelry still warm from people’s bodies. Money that was supposed to be invested into studying at university, or a trip to Japan, or the recovery of a friend — all gone. Still warm. In someone else’s backpack.

There’s an old model of bicycle called “Ukraine.” When I see people riding new bicycles, I think of grandfathers riding in Lviv on their Ukraines, their bicycles like steel horses, and imagine them on the ground, their chests pierced.

Smoke is seen in the sky following a Russian missile strike in Lviv, Ukraine, on May 3, 2022.
Smoke is seen in the sky following a Russian missile strike in Lviv, Ukraine, on May 3, 2022. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

When I see people standing near vending machines, I remember the dead in Kharkiv who were killed looking for filtered water — they form a line, sleeping forever beside empty bottles.

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I imagine the artful wrought-iron fence of houses — houses with fluffy carpets and broken doors, inside which are bound hands and women’s legs that are wounded with purple constellations, and, in this constellation of wounds, I see Mars, bright and red.

In a tiny basement, where rows of pickles are lying around, mixed with things that were supposed to be thrown away a long time ago, a dead mother rests.

I won’t unsee a thing. I will not forgive anything. I swear to write about it so that no one will ever forget about it. And I won’t forgive.

March 8, 2022

“Do you know what that is?” — I showed a cobblestone to Vlada, my editor’s six-year-old daughter. They came to us from Kharkiv.

“A cobblestone,” Vlada answered. The cobblestones were still wet and dark gray-blue after the rain. Like the scales of a snake.

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“No. It’s a scale. A dragon scale. Do you know that a dragon sleeps under Lviv? A huge one, the size of the whole country. And his tail is entwined with a High Castle (the highest point of Lviv), and on the tip of the tail, you see, that’s where our flag is.”

“And when will the dragon wake up?”

“He will wake up during our greatest hardships and danger and he will defend the city.”

Vlada loved the story so much that she started telling it to other children she met. It was the first good fairy tale to come to me during the war. At first I couldn’t write at all. Many of my colleagues felt the same way. They said, “I can’t write even a single line. Maybe I’m not a writer anymore.” Only rhyming lines came to me. And it was strange, because I am a prose writer. But these days I can only speak about my feelings through poems.

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The power of words is strong. Before the war, I had a lot of mystical coincidences related to my books — like meeting the heroine of one of my stories, but 10 years older. This girl said that everything that I described in the book happened to her. That’s why I really wanted to write about the quick end of the war, about our victory. But I couldn’t. Then other texts came. Dark and scary. That’s how the pain came out of me. My friend Mila said, “Now there is a lot of pain, anger, hatred in the space, so you feel it and catch it.” Then I wanted even more to write something positive, something that would help those who would read it.

The dragon-tale grew into the idea of ​​a children’s book, but who knows what will come out of it. Then I wrote a poem. Friends from my volunteer centre put this poem to music, to the accompaniment of a guitar, and sang it in the library, while other volunteers continued to weave nets.

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The dragon slumbers underground —

the size of a whole state.

Sleeping safe and sound,

A serpent’s dream is his fate

The dragon slumbers underground,

But how can he awaken?

Thunder? Rocket? Siren? How?!

Will he leave us all forsaken?

Now no longer does he sleep –

The land is torn apart.

He stretches his fiery wings.

His solemn fight must start.

The dragon rises on the field

As fury takes him over.

Invulnerable, his scales a shield,

In his eyes rage glowers.

The dragon rises in the sky,

Awakening his buried brothers.

With a deep and mourning cry,

He avenges weeping mothers.

He spreads his wings over the land,

In his eyes, victory glimmers.

At his breath, his foes disband

And disappear as sinners.

His job complete, now he lies

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In a land of peaceful trees.

The invaders swiftly died

For stirring this dragon country.

I hope I’ll write this book and I know exactly how it should end: with our victory.

February 24, 2022 (the full-scale war begins)

I started this diary to remember. Everything bad, especially the worst, is carefully suppressed by our memory, erased a little to protect us. And I don’t want to forget. I want to remember what I felt during the war, so that future generations won’t forget, too. Diaries are our memories — they define us. They remind us of who we are and what we went through. If you forget — history will repeat itself.

Anastasia Nikulina writing her war diary in the Banana Street bomb shelter during an air raid.
Anastasia Nikulina writing her war diary in the Banana Street bomb shelter during an air raid. Photo by Marina Schultz

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