Reflections on the War in Ukraine: A Moment of Silence.
I remember the tension in the air in our high-school halls in Kyiv, Ukraine. It was 2014 – the Maidan Revolution was ongoing. Months earlier, a peaceful student protest against the pro-Russian president had been violently struck down by the government. It had ignited a roaring nationwide revolution, a blazing protest against corruption, and a fight for civil rights. The Maidan Revolution, as it would be named, culminated in barricaded city centers and hand-to-hand combat against uproar police. Handmade molotov cocktails versus sharpshooting snipers.* Blood ran down the cobblestone streets of Kyiv in those days. Bullet holes marked the trees, light posts and charred walls, outlining the final resting places of citizens shot down cold by snipers. Kyiv itself had become a battle field. Its city center – hallowed ground, where over 100 Ukrainian citizens, the “Heavenly Hundred,” died in a struggle for a better Ukraine. The successful ousting of the president and the overthrowing of the government went hand in hand with mourning over the dead. Public funerals on the city center square were accompanied by the hauntingly moving song “Plyve Kacha,” which still gives me goosebumps today.
*(Note: the harrowing, yet inspiring documentary “Winter on Fire” (available on Netflix and Youtube) documents the Maidan revolution in 2014 that marked a turning point in Ukraine. Though it requires a strong stomach, I can’t recommend it enough. One cannot remain untouched having seen it. It inspires admiration through its display of Ukrainians’ bravery, humor, and unrivalled passion and faith in their country. But more importantly, it shows just how much Ukrainians have always had to fight for the right of their existence. And just how much they will give to fight for it. Guaranteed, it will change your perception on Ukraine, and put today’s events in a whole other perspective.)
The Revolution then caused tension in the air. Rumors rose. “The Russians are going to invade.” Over time, besides the usual fire drills, we began doing “bomb shelter” drills at school. Instead of heading outside, we’d head further inside, walking single file through dark corridors deeper into the unknown crevices of our school. We stood blinking, lined up along the old dimly lit walls we’d never seen before, taking in this new practice of reality. It seemed a bit exaggerated to me then – who would ever attack our school?…
There were talks back then. There had always been just talks. But no one thought it would ever get that far. No one thought Russia would launch a full-scale military invasion on Ukraine.
The 24th of February of this year, all hell broke loose. Our worst nightmare came true as Ukraine was brutally awakened with explosions and attacks, thrust into a full-scale war with one of the biggest military powers on earth. The world looked in shock as Russia was doing the unthinkable: bombing Ukrainian cities. Trespassing national borders. Driving their tanks like maniacs over innocent citizens in their cars. Many of us spent the day “doomscrolling” through Telegram feeds like zombies, glued to the news as the unbelievable unfolded. Once again, Ukraine was not granted its right to existence.
Shock gave way to panic.
Panic gave way to grief.
And grief gave way to raging determination.
Contrary to all expectations, Ukraine stood its ground. The same iron resolve documented in “Winter on Fire” emerged as the country scrambled up from the first shock, and struck back. With military force. With music. With humor and genius satire. With tractors. Through taboo-breaking historic decisions by Western leaders. And through the overwhelmingly warm international support in the innumerable charity events, peace protests, and the myriad of blue-and-yellow flags that now seem to adorn every street corner of Europe. A wave of optimism and collective bold resistance swept over Ukraine, epitomized in the defiant response of the Ukrainian Snake Island guards when told by Russian military to surrender:
“Russian warship….go f*** yourself.” It became a national and international slogan.
The victories won, however, do not cover up the losses suffered. Nor do they ease the pain from past injustices – injustices that are repeatedly connected to Ukrainian developments to break itself free from its Soviet stigma and Russian interference. Its path towards becoming a self-determining nation has often been thwarted before, as past revolutions and current invasion mark a pattern.
For, we’ve been here before. In the 1930’s, during Stalin’s man-made famine, Holodomor, when his regime punished Ukrainian peasants who refused collectivization by confiscating all their crops, livestock, and anything edible, causing over 3 – 4 million(!) Ukrainians to die from starvation. It was kept silent by the Soviet Union for decades. Today, it is internationally recognized as genocide.
We’ve been here before in 2004, during the Orange Revolution, when Ukrainians protested against rigged elections and Russian interference, taking to the streets to get their rightfully-elected, pro-European presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in power. Yushchenko had been nearly assassinated with dioxin poisoning during the elections, surviving the attack that left him strongly disfigured. While the perpetrators were never uncovered, many believe the Kremlin arranged the attack.
We’ve been here before in 2013 and 2014, during the before-mentioned Maidan Revolution, when the pro-Russian president Yanukovych refused to sign an EU Association agreement, despite the public support for it. Under pressure from the Kremlin, he instead sought closer ties to Russia, causing public outrage.
We’ve been here before in 2014, when Ukraine saw its territory of Crimea illegally get annexed by Russia, who soon instigated war in Eastern Ukraine thereafter – a war that has been ongoing since. It has caused the deaths and forced evacuation of thousands of Ukrainians. Russia planted unmarked soldiers to fight, provided unmarked weapons and military material to pro-Russian separatists, (notoriously shot down the infamous MH17 flight over Donetsk with its BUK rocket), all the while maintaining it has not been involved, washing its hands in innocence of these horrors.
We’ve been here before.
But the current destruction carried out on such a sickening level leaves one with no words. I’ve written and rewritten this piece about a thousand times, wanting to write about it, but not being able to get anything on paper. Every time I began writing, I didn’t know what the situation would be by the time it got published. And where do you find words? What do you write in times like these, when the cards have not all been dealt nor played, when the wavering future of the country where my childhood lies, hangs ever painfully in the balance?
What do you write when soldiers butcher the suburbs of Bucha, Irpin, like beasts, leaving hundreds corpses of Ukrainian villagers on the streets, massacred? What do you write when one of the bodies in the photos of Bucha was a dear friend of a friend, and all you can do is stare at the blurry photo of the dead man in shock? What do you write when you hear about women getting raped in front of their children, their husbands having been shot in front of their eyes? What do you write when a family friend tells about the dismembered bodies he saw in his own village? Bodies with no heads, no arms, no legs…
The disgust, the weariness, and grief battle with optimism and hope. And the anger flares in waves. What is this all for? For heaven’s sake, why? The knowledge that this war was never instigated nor provoked, but carelessly thrown into being merely by the lunacy of one man in power makes this all the more unbearable.
And all the while in Russia, dark history repeats itself. The lunacy of the war in Ukraine has plummeted Russia back into Stalinist, totalitarian times. Propaganda machines run full power. Soviet-like censorship seems back in place, as authorities increasingly encourage the ratting out of those with criticism on the government. Those who publicly dissent get the police on their doorstep, with fines, prison-sentencing or worse as result. Nationalistic and anti-Ukrainian propaganda drives wedges between families, friends, colleagues, as the truth has wavered far from being something everyone can agree on. The lies are apparently so convincing, that young twenty-something-year old soldiers feel justified to bomb hospitals sheltering children. Rape women for days on end. Shoot unarmed civilians through their heads like executioners. All the while causing such trauma to children that their hair turns grey.
At some point, one reaches a limit.
At some point, there are no words.
It is tempting to end this piece on a positive note. To move on from the heaviness, and bring it back around with a sturdy message of hope, of faith in the better future and peace for Ukraine. So that we can all breathe out again in relief. “Ah good, a happy ending.”
But I won’t.
Some moments call to not turn away from the heaviness right away. Sometimes it’s only fitting to linger and hold that breathe just a moment longer. To sit still while “Plyve Kacha” mournfully gets sung over Ukraine, yet again.