The Zoo inside the Zoo. The Unconsidered Casualties of an Untold War
We don't even bother to include them in the count of what we call "collateral damage."
The eyes are coral brown – they have eyes so transparent, so void that you can look right through and see the rubble laid behind. They live in tiny cages. She stood and she looked straight into my eyes, her gaze laden with pain, melancholy and fear. Torn fur and fear, an uneasy association with such a noble animal.
Several hundred meters away, in the outpost of the city of Sartana, shelling has started again, artillery fire and gunshot, the sound familiar from peace-time: like a subwoofer being tested for a concert, or an orchestra calibrating their instruments for a performance. Then sudden silence. And again, sound of mortar and that heart pounding. And the smell…the smell of ammunition that irritates the nose cavity, causing the release of endorphins as a defense mechanism. It’s war here, in the buffer zone, despite the ceasefire forged after marathon negotiations.
A sob rises from the tiger, halfway between animal howl and human weeping. A rotting piece of meat next to her, but she is broken by the stress caused by gunshot, as are the bears in their own dark cage. The lion, the tigress, the bears: these are not fearless beasts forged in popular imagination. I am witnessing a crime developing, too insignificant to be considered.
March is also March here, in the Eastern Ukraine, light, gently curved hills, embroidered in the green of young wheat, the white of almond blossoms, the brown of fresh soil. Staff in the ‘Sartana Zoo’ are doing what they can, trying to feed all the animals - though no one visits here, no tourists, no families, no schoolchildren, no nature buffs. The souvenir shop also shut, like everything else here, even hearts. Just the tiger’s sob, like a spell of weeping. By the entrance, a 'Venus de Milo' replica. A goldern cloth draped across her. A concession to dignity in a place which has become painfully undignified. A sad reminder of the Ukranian prosperity bubble that has long burst.
In a territory where it is too painful to draw the line between victim and perpetrator, hours ago I left a makeshift camp with a bullet as a farewell present…my life among the ghosts. Sartana Zoo tells us something that, deep down, we already know: that our relationship to nature and the animal kingdom is profoundly out of joint.
It’s a familiar tale of war. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the soldiers ransacked the zoo and started using the animals for target practice. And when U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, the animals at the Kabul Zoo were in severe distress. In the 2006 war in Lebanon between Israel and the Hezbollah, the Beirut Zoo was abandoned and animals left to starve. The same in Tripoli Zoo, Lybia when Muammar Khadafy was being deposed.
Sartana, Southeastern Ukraine. March 2015
work in progress. Images: Dimitrios Bouras Text editor: Maria Georgaki