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After 2 years, war is still hell for this Ukrainian writer turned soldier

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Back in 2022, a few weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, I called a Ukrainian man named Artem Chapeye. He's a writer and had just become a soldier, a private fighting in the Ukrainian army. We caught him on a break, sitting under a tree. You could hear shelling behind him as we spoke. And I asked whether he was managing to get any writing done.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ARTEM CHAPEYE: Well, to be honest, today was a hard day. Like, I can't go into details. Like, you just are afraid, like, this - at this animal level where your stomach hurts. Like, you're just afraid for your own life, and you don't know if you'll survive. I tried writing something like war diaries, but I'm not sure. I basically stopped it.

KELLY: Since that interview two years ago, I have wondered about Artem Chapeye - how he was getting on. So today, we called him again.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

CHAPEYE: Hello.

KELLY: Hi. Artem, it's Mary Louise in Washington.

CHAPEYE: Hello, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hello. How are...

CHAPEYE: Nice talking to you again.

KELLY: And to you again. I can't believe it's been two years.

CHAPEYE: Yeah, me neither.

KELLY: Yeah. How are you doing?

CHAPEYE: At the moment, better than before, I would say.

KELLY: Yeah. Artem, I'm so glad to speak with you again. Where are you? Can you say?

CHAPEYE: Well, as usual, it's inadvisable to say the exact location, but I can say that, at the moment, I'm back from the front lines. So at the moment, I'm in a safe place.

KELLY: OK. And you're in Ukraine?

CHAPEYE: Sure. I have been in Ukraine all this time.

KELLY: Yeah.

CHAPEYE: I was able to get out several times, but generally I've been serving these two years.

KELLY: Have you seen combat? I mean, tell me what you've been doing.

CHAPEYE: I can now talk more or less freely about what I have been doing in a previous unit. I was in the military police, including in Donetsk region. So basically it's not fighting. It's patrolling. And it's very different. Like, as I'm trying to watch, like, Hollywood blockbusters now, I understand how different they are from the reality. Basically, what war was for me is it's, like, routine and sometimes even boring and then unexpected tragedy.

The worst thing that happened was when my best friend was killed by Russians in August. And I was, of course, pretty much depressed after that. And I can say that I have been working with a psychotherapist for a year now, and I have been on antidepressants for half a year - well, basically since my friend died. Yeah. There's nothing good about war.

KELLY: Nothing good about war, no. I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. Were you with him?

CHAPEYE: We were about half a kilometer apart at the moment. So I saw the first rocket, and I ran away to the shelter. And then I heard the second rocket. And at the moment, I didn't know about it, but he was killed by that second rocket. And what I feel sorry about is that, at the time, like, I didn't come up and hug him. Of course, I didn't know it would be his last mission. Yeah, I know it's irrational, but I feel pretty sorry that I didn't show my love for the last time.

KELLY: Yeah. As you say, how could you know?

CHAPEYE: Yeah, yeah. Of course I couldn't know. But still, it's in my mind all the time.

KELLY: Yeah. Have you managed to get any writing done at all since I spoke to you a couple of years ago?

CHAPEYE: Well, I tried several times because there are periods of time when you pretty much have a lot of leisure which is forced upon you. But fiction didn't work somehow. However, about a year ago, I took two or three weeks. I was then basically on checkpoints, and so between shifts I was able to write. And I wrote a short nonfiction book basically about this war, or rather about the motivations of people to fight and not to flee. And this book has been published in France now, and I believe it's being translated into English by Seven Stories Press.

KELLY: What's it titled?

CHAPEYE: In French, it's titled - if I translate it into English, it's titled something like, ordinary people don't carry machine guns, because it's about civilians who were forced to become soldiers.

KELLY: So it's autobiographical, on a certain level.

CHAPEYE: It's - I would say it's partly about me and my family and my motivation, but largely it's about my - well, we call ourselves brothers. There's a Ukrainian word, like, for not blood brothers, but more like bros.

KELLY: How closely, Artem, are you following news of the outside world? I keep reading reports of Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines scanning your phones for news on whether the U.S. Congress here in Washington is going to send more money, more weapons to the war.

CHAPEYE: Yeah, I have a feeling that Ukrainians follow this news from the United States more closely than Americans do because it's very important for us. Like, I wasn't in Avdiivka at the time when it happened, like, lately, but I still...

KELLY: This is the town - the city that Russia just took. Go on.

CHAPEYE: Yeah. So I was very close to Avdiivka until basically November 2023. And already at the time, I was surprised that we are still holding this. And I feel that partly it may be because of the lack of - or the delays in sending ammunition. So at the moment we were near Avdiivka, we were really hoping that at least - well, this may sound egotistical, but we were hoping that at least it will be held until we are redeployed to the rear because it was scary already, like, half a year ago or three months ago. So I'm actually rather surprised that we were able to hold it for so long. And this is great, what these guys were doing. And yeah, I was, like, maybe 20 kilometers to the rear, and we were scared.

KELLY: Do you still believe in your heart that Ukraine will win this war?

CHAPEYE: You know, as I'm trying to philosophize and think about history, I don't remember any other - any precedent when an empire lost its colony and then regained it back. I don't know, maybe this is wishful thinking, but I think the historical tide is on our side, something like this.

KELLY: Last question - when you and I spoke a couple of years ago, at the beginning of the war, we talked about how beautiful your country is. You'd written about Ukraine. You'd described it as unimaginably beautiful. Do you maintain hope your country will be beautiful again, that you'll be able to describe it that way in your writing, and it will be true?

CHAPEYE: For me personally, it has become even more beautiful after what happened, because I remember pretty well that when the war was just starting, a lot of people, including in Ukraine, thought that we would collapse in just a few weeks or months. And I must say that I was one of those. I thought that I would be, like, forced to become a guerrilla fighter. And the fact that hundreds of thousands - like, I think half a million people actually went in the first days and volunteered in the army - it makes it even more beautiful for me now. So I realize that not everybody, but there are a lot of real people among my people.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Ukrainian writer and soldier Artem Chapeye. Thank you, Artem. Be well.

CHAPEYE: Thank you for inviting me again. This is an honor for me. And thanks to most of the American people for all the support that they have given to us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.

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