The war in Ukraine creates strange bedfellows. That’s what Spanish former porn actress and artist Amarna Miller might think when she finds out that a Ukrainian artist is going to use her 2015 book, Manual of Psychonautics, as inspiration for a project based on his experiences as a morgue volunteer. “She represents Eros; I represent Thanos,” says Aleksander Krolikovski as he eats some pizza while looking at his photos of mangled corpses and pools of blood. Krolikovski is striving to transcend the eternal tension between pleasure and pain as he works in the shadow of a war that threatens the very survival of his country. As he speaks about his wartime experiences, his words express tender feelings of solidarity and then switch unexpectedly to gory anecdotes. “Sometimes I had to step on bodies to move around the morgue, so I’d quietly apologize to them. It was terrible – there were so many of them…”, he said, lowering his voice to a whisper to demonstrate how he apologized to the dead.
Krolikovski was recovering from the lingering effects of a bout with Covid-19 when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Krolikovski has absolutely no military experience and describes himself as a “pacifist.” But he quickly agreed to lead a team of volunteers to help the war effort far from the front lines. But there are many fronts to this war. One day, help was needed at the morgue, but none of the volunteers was up to the task. So Krolikovski went to the morgue himself and stayed there for almost a month. “The worst part was showing the bodies to the families. I empathized a lot with the families and shared their pain. Sometimes I had to warn them, “There’s no head.”
We interview Krolikovski a few weeks after his experience in the morgue, with the Russian troops far from Kyiv. His creative streak emerges as he talks about the photos he took with an instant camera in the Vyshhorod Hospital morgue, north of Kyiv. He spreads the photos on the restaurant table and picks them up, one by one, as if they were playing cards. For him, the photos bridge the gap between modernism, postmodernism, and the obscurantism of his invaded country. He pauses to talk about one of the first pictures he took with his Instax – a pair of boots, the ones he would put on to go inside the refrigerated trailer used for the overflow from the morgue. These “boots of blood,” said Krolikovski, are the most recent manifestation of the boots painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1886, and the shoes photographed a century later by Andy Warhol with his Polaroid camera, the ancestor of the Instax.
A crash course alongside Ukrainian and French forensic teams gave him a working knowledge of the various types of wounds and weapons. “The bodies that came from a mass grave in Bucha had a huge impact on me. They showed signs of torture… their eyes had been gouged out by a red-hot metal tool. I could even understand being shot, but for the Russians to do that… I don’t understand it,” he says. “Even the doctors had never seen that kind of torture.”
Anyone who has been to a morgue in a war zone knows that Krolikovski could have taken even more gruesome photos. He talks about the carnage with a certain detachment, but he clearly tried to humanize the dead by treating them as if they were still alive. “I talked to the dead… it helped me cope. I felt ashamed to be among them–it was awful. I would say over and over, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’.” Krolikovski’s demonstrates how he walked through the piles of corpses trying to avoid stepping on them. “Sometimes I’d come in and say, ‘Guys, I have some news. I’m bringing you a gift – new body bags, white ones. I’m going to exchange them for your old, black ones.’ White is better, more fashionable.” As he says this, it sounds considerate and not at all offensive or frivolous.
Day in and day out, the dead kept coming into the morgue, and with them the task of identifying the bodies and investigating the deaths. Some ended up becoming part of Krolikovski’s morgue “family.” The police would come looking for a specific body, and Krolikovski would respond, “Number 173? Yes, the beautiful woman over there. 180? Sure, the athletic, healthy-looking man. We always tried to be respectful,” he said. He remembers when the victims began flooding in. “It’s very tough, physically. Carrying them, bringing them in… we had to leave them outside sometimes when there was no room in the morgue or the trailer.”
Krolikovski was born 39 years ago in Donbas, the eastern Ukraine region almost completely controlled by pro-Russian separatists, where hundreds of people are dying every day as the war rages on. He later moved to Crimea to take art classes. When Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Krolikovski moved to Kyiv just as pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from office in the Revolution of Dignity. “I rejected the Russian propaganda and fell in love with that movement in Kyiv,” he says.
He always tries to draw lessons from his experiences and remains optimistic. “I hope that all this will help us all realize that death is real, and that people shouldn’t be so cruel. There is a lot of evil in our lives. The Russians must have had hell inside their heads… to do all of this.” During our interview, Krolikovski never stops directing his team of volunteers. It seems that he has emerged unscathed from his intense experience in the morgue. But he hasn’t. Living so close to so much trauma and death will take a toll on anyone, especially someone who has never been exposed to those conditions. Krolikovski readily admits, “A part of me died in the war. I’m a totally different person now. It wasn’t just the morgue… it’s also the rapes and the tortures… I’m not the same.”
“We’ve observed that the currently available and already registered intranasal vaccine is demonstrating high efficiency in protecting against all strains [of the coronavirus], forming mucosal immunity to the pathogen,” Gintsburg said.The Russian Health Ministry registered the world’s first intranasal vaccine against COVID-19 in April.Gintsburg told Sputnik in March that the new vaccine was effective against the Omicron variant. He said that the new vaccine was going to be used as a booster, in addition to the Sputnik V shots, until there was enough evidence that this new intranasal method gives the same level of protection as an injection.In November of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to become a volunteer in the testing of the new vaccine and said that he felt no side effects after getting the procedure.Russia became the first country in the world to register a vaccine against COVID-19, dubbed Sputnik V, in August 2020. The Russian Health Ministry has also registered a new, Sputnik M, vaccine for adolescents aged 12-17. Clinical trials of Sputnik shots for children aged 6-11 are currently underway in Moscow, according to Gintsburg.
MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The new Russian nasal vaccine against COVID-19 has demonstrated effectiveness against all variants of the coronavirus, Alexander Gintsburg, the director of Russia’s Gamaleya Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology, which developed the vaccine, told Sputnik.
“We’ve observed that the currently available and already registered intranasal vaccine is demonstrating high efficiency in protecting against all strains [of the coronavirus], forming mucosal immunity to the pathogen,” Gintsburg said.
The Russian Health Ministry registered the world’s first intranasal vaccine against COVID-19 in April.
Gintsburg told Sputnik in March that the new vaccine was effective against the Omicron variant. He said that the new vaccine was going to be used as a booster, in addition to the Sputnik V shots, until there was enough evidence that this new intranasal method gives the same level of protection as an injection.
In November of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to become a volunteer in the testing of the new vaccine and said that he felt no side effects after getting the procedure.
Russia became the first country in the world to register a vaccine against COVID-19, dubbed Sputnik V, in August 2020. The Russian Health Ministry has also registered a new, Sputnik M, vaccine for adolescents aged 12-17. Clinical trials of Sputnik shots for children aged 6-11 are currently underway in Moscow, according to Gintsburg.
Nancy Pelosi’s brief and controversial visit to Taiwan could not have incited more contrasting reactions from the governments on either side of the Formosa Strait. President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration received the speaker of the United States House of Representatives with everything but a fireworks show, projecting flamboyant welcome messages on the island’s tallest building. Beijing, on the other hand, responded to what it considered a “blatant provocation” with a week of unprecedented military exercises. The superpower has also cut ties with Washington on key topics and recently published the first official report on Taiwan in two decades. Its aggressive reaction has brought to the forefront the debate about international recognition of the island, which functions as a state but is recognized by only 14 countries.
“My friends and I were very excited for a figure like this to come. It’s good to attract attention,” says Sun Hui’an by phone. “We are used to threats from China. We can’t let it dictate our lives,” adds the 29-year-old nurse.
Formosa was the place to which nationalist leaders and around a million people fled after the victory of the Communist Army in 1949 in the civil war. While in mainland China Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang (the formation that had presided over the country between 1927 and 1949), established a government in exile in Taiwan. Not until the 1970s did the United Nations and most Western countries began to recognize Beijing as the legitimate government of China, to the detriment of Taipei.
Taiwan is not a special administrative region of China like Hong Kong and Macau. It has a democratic government, a constitution and an army of 300,000 soldiers. It ranks as the 21st largest economy in the world, and it is the leading producer in the semiconductor industry. In 2019, it became the first place in Asia to legalize marriage between same-sex couples.
For the Chinese government, the island is a headache. The Asian giant considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory, whose “reunification” is, in the words of President Xi Jinping, “a historic mission of the Communist Party.” In recent years, especially since Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency in 2016, Chinese authorities have spoken with increasing assertiveness about a future unification, for which they have not ruled out the use of force. The rapport between the Tsai Administration and the United States, as evidenced by the recent visit of the American politician, has infuriated Beijing. On Wednesday, China published the first white paper on Taiwan in 22 years, drawing far more red lines than previous publications from 1993 and 2000.
Beijing’s discourse has never quite caught on across the strait. The two main Taiwanese parliamentary groups hold two radically opposed ideas about nationalism. While the Blue Coalition, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), aspires to an eventual unification with the People’s Republic, the Green Coalition, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), prefers to distance the island from Beijing.
Xulio Ríos, director of the Chinese Policy Observatory, points out that, however, that “the nuances are important”: “In the KMT there is everything from an intense blue –which defends unification and the idea of China – to a sky-blue, which understands that there are two different realities on both sides of the strait. The PDP advocated for independence, but today it does not defend it so aggressively and is committed to maintaining the status quo.”
Although historically opposed, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have sometimes found ways to collaborate and prevent secession. KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia is currently on a 17-day trip to the mainland to boost cross-border communication. “The cooperation between the KMT and the CCP really picked up momentum in 2008, with the victory of Ma Ying-jeou [KMT] in the elections. This made possible a rapprochement between the business and political elites of the mainland and Taiwan,” says Ríos.
Maintaining the status quo
That approach was cut short in 2014, when a group of protesters occupied parliament to denounce the approval, without bipartisan debate, of a controversial trade agreement with China. “The Sunflower Movement put the brakes on a whole process of rapprochement, which had generated the expectation of a possibility of peaceful unification through dialogue,” says Ríos. “After PDP’s victory with an absolute majority in 2016 is completely the opposite, a completely opposite path opened,” he adds.
Despite the two trends, the surveys carried out biannually by the Center for Electoral Studies of National Chengchi University (Taipei) since 1994 show that the vast majority of the 23 million Taiwanese are committed to maintaining the status quo. In its latest poll, from July, those in favor of unification are few (1.3%) and falling, while those in favor of declaring independence (5.1%) have also lost steam.
“My parents and I share the same opinion: we don’t care who rules Taiwan, but we don’t want to lose our freedoms. My grandparents and my parents had hopes for the principle of one country, two systems, but after what happened in Hong Kong we know that it is not viable,” says Wu, 32, who prefers to identify himself with a pseudonym.
Deng Xiaoping devised the one country, two systems model in the late 1980s. The goal was to ensure conformity to the idea that there is but one China, while ensuring that those areas that had developed their own economic systems could keep them under Chinese rule. The idea, originally conceived for Taiwan, has never been accepted by the island’s political parties.
Taiwanese fear that the idea’s acceptance will bring an erosion of democracy. China had agreed with the United Kingdom to guarantee Hong Kong’s system of freedoms until 2047. But after the 2019 protests, Beijing has become intransigent, with the approval of the draconian National Security Law and with an electoral reform that ended up placing Beijing-backed candidate John Lee as head of government in May.
“Once you visit the Chinese mainland, if you are green, you turn dark green. If you are blue, you go green,” Wu says, summarizing the Taiwanese’s misgivings. But given the obvious difference in opinion that has persisted in high political circles, the most intelligent response seems to be the one reflected by the polls. When asked what he would choose between preserving the status quo or moving towards complete autonomy from Beijing, Wu does not hesitate: “Independence does not deserve a war.”
The day the Taliban entered my city last August, I started to receive renewed threats from Taliban commanders who wanted to punish me for my work as a news journalist. I was forced to leave my home that day, amid the loud explosions of an ongoing battle, hiding under a burqa, and praying to survive the journey.
What I did not know then was that this journey would continue for the next year.
Every few weeks, I moved from province to province, sometimes living in the heart of cities, other times hiding out in remote villages. In the first few days, I stayed at my uncle’s house in Sari Pul province, but once the local Taliban learned he was harbouring a fugitive, we had to leave in the middle of the night.
I went to Mazar-i-Sharif city in Balkh, and then took the road to Kabul, passing through Samangan, Baghlan and Parwan provinces. We were stopped at checkpoints in every province, and every time my heart would pound inside my chest. Luckily, I was under a chadari [the full Afghan burqa] and passed through checkpoints undetected.
In Kabul, the very air had shifted; there was fear and dread, alongside celebrations, as Taliban fighters from all over the country gathered in the capital. With the help of some friends, I was moved to a safe house, where I spent the next three months attempting to find ways to leave the country, but seldom even leaving the compound I was hiding in. The Taliban would launch random raids in the neighbourhood, looking for fugitives like me.
Somehow, our compound evaded suspicion, but when the number of raids increased, I knew I would have to leave Kabul soon.
In December 2021, I heard the news that my cousin had been killed by the Taliban. He was a policeman and often clashed with the Taliban during the years of conflict. Like me, he had been hiding for months, looking for a way to leave the country, but was caught and killed. I broke down, not just in grief over his loss, but also in incredible pain over what my life had turned into.
I decided to go back to my province, but did not go home because I didn’t want to risk my family’s lives. I hid at the home of another relative, but being so close to my family again made me homesick. I yearned for my mother’s embrace; I hadn’t seen her in months.
One day, I met my mother in a crowded marketplace. We hugged each other tight, and I cried, but she gave me strength. I knew I couldn’t give up now.
Over the next few months, I started weaving carpets to help support myself and my family. Since the Taliban takeover, we had not only lost income but my life in exile was costing my parents, who had already sacrificed so much to raise me and now had to support me. It was hard labour, and I developed rashes and sores on my hands, but it helped my family and took my mind off the threats I was still receiving.
Then the threats from the Taliban changed. They no longer wanted to kill me. They wanted me to marry one of their commanders. They reached out to my parents and community elders, pressuring them to give me away in marriage.
I couldn’t believe it was now happening to me. In the past, I covered stories of the Taliban imposing forced marriages on young girls. Now I was one of the women I had reported about last year.
When I refused, they sent me photos of AK-47s and pistols, threatening to kidnap me, and kill my parents. I blocked their numbers and deleted WhatsApp but they still found ways to send me threats. Eventually, I took out my sim card and broke it into pieces. I was terrified of what they would do to me, or worse, to my family.
So in July, with the help of friends, I made one more attempt to leave the country. First, with the help of my father, I moved to Mazar-i-Sharif, and then we took the road to Kabul again. I carried medical certificates, and every time we were stopped, we would say I was going to Kabul for treatment. I was nervous throughout the journey because the Taliban were more brutal than before.
Eventually we made it to Kabul, where I met with other women like myself. Together, under the pretext of seeking medical help, we were able to get on a flight leaving for a neighbouring country.
I am somewhat safer now, but not out of danger. I barely sleep because I fear for my family, who are still in Afghanistan. They are already being shamed because I ran away. A young unmarried daughter leaving by herself is considered very dishonourable in Afghan culture.
But I am fortunate in the support I have received from my parents, at great personal risk. They always prioritised my passion, my happiness, and now my security and future. Contrary to popular belief, many Afghan fathers would, like mine, rather face societal dishonour and threats than deny their daughters opportunities for a better future.
I appeal to our international allies to empower such Afghan families, particularly the women. We worked so hard to attain values of equality and freedom and have lost the most in the last year. But we are still resisting, and we are seeking allies to support us and amplify our voices.
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