My taxi driver wants to know why the US isn’t helping Ukraine. He seems pretty convinced that everything would be fine if only the United States sent troops. It’s a depressing beginning to my trip.
“Slava Ukraina,” one man says to another in the train station. It’s clear he expects a response. I’m not sure he receives it. More volunteers with “Ukrop” or “Azov” patches on their uniform sleeves. Some look too young to fight, others too old. A rag-tag bunch who make you wonder what they have to offer but their own passion.
They’re giving the country away piecemeal, a friend notes. A village here, a town there. The government is not liked among my admittedly small circle of friends and acquaintances. And it’s not just “the conflict” (the news programs still refer to the fighting that way), they worry about other things too: the price of heating, medicine, pensions, and inflation (set to hit 46% this year, the International Monetary Fund predicts).
My own group of friends is mixed. One friend is Meskhetian Turk. Her family relocated to Crimea after the pogroms in the mid-1990s in Russia. Newly married, she and her husband have the option to leave for Turkey, but are not sure they’ll take it. We toss around other ideas: the United Arab Emirates, the Czech Republic. She just knows that they cannot stay, but she also must finish her university course and internship in Kyiv. “One more year,” she says, “and then we can make a decision.”
Another friend is Crimean Tatar. She and her husband now live in Kyiv, and they have no intention of leaving. Their families are both still in Crimea, and probably won’t leave there either. They’ve already done one big move in their lives: from Uzbekistan to Crimea. To do another and to start over yet again must seem overwhelming, if not impossible. My friend tries to make the discussion about leaving into some philosophical discussion about home and comfort. But the truth is probably more about lack of options. Where can they go really?
The scene on the streets of Kyiv is somewhat incongruous. On the one hand, life goes on. Students graduate, shopping must still be done, and children entertained at the park. On the other, clusters of men and women in camouflage pass by in the street. Others collect money for the volunteers. This is life under Poroshenko’s ATO [Anti-Terror Operation].
I witnessed a funeral ceremony on Maidan my first day in Kyiv. More volunteers wearing a hodgepodge of camouflage, huddled under umbrellas in the rain with family, together with members of the clergy, and a few onlookers like myself. I’d heard a story that the Moscow Patriarchate was not sanctioning the funerals of Ukrainian soldiers, so I know this is a Ukrainian ceremony.
Church is crowded on Sunday. Not just sightseers either, since I had made my way to St Michael’s, and it is a tourist site. The rules are less strict than I remember, with many women wearing slacks, and others wearing no head covering at all. Candles are purchased, lit, and prayers said. “Pray for Ukraine,” my Muslim friend tells me.
I get nabbed by two journalism students my second trip to Maidan. They want to know what I think of the exhibit of proposals to replace Lenin and commemorate the people who died during the protests. I tell them I cried when looking at some of the displays. More than a year later, I can still feel the emotions at the site.
I make my way out to the village in Chernigov. It’s a 3+ hour journey on bad roads in a minibus that has no AC, and the window nearest me is stuck closed. Misery. The end goal is to visit the place where I spent my first 3 months in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer nearly 9 years ago.
The bus drops me off at the town square. Much remains the same. But much has changed, too. Lenin is gone. Removed last year after Euro-Maidan, I’m told. He has been replaced by a digital clock marking time. The Ukrainian flag and trident are on the back. “It’s more cultured here now,” says my host-mom. It certainly seems less dead than before, but it is hard to judge. The park has more equipment for the children to play on. And the World War 2 memorial has been cleaned up, though the dates still read 1941-1945 (rather than the newly acknowledged 1939).
We watch the news together during supper. Four more boys died in the fighting yesterday, and many more injured. The war is far from here still, even if you are in Ukraine, and yet so close. The news is the same. The OSCE reports that more than 1 million people have already been displaced. And more coming. And the dreaded knowledge that the war may come here too. Our 70-year-old neighbor is ready. She has everything organised just in case. But I’m not sure if it is for invasion or evacuation. Perhaps both.
Even here in the village people have friends and relatives who live in Russia, whom they communicate with. The phrases are the same: “humanitarian convoys”, “conflict”. “What “humanitarian convoys”?” our neighbor questions.
“What will happen next?” The old women ask each other in the street. And the answer is always, “Who knows.”
In the meantime, there are vegetable gardens to work, and food to be preserved for winter, and all the other little things that are needed to survive. Because surviving is what people here do. Because, in spite of everything, life does go on, and you can only depend on yourself out here in the countryside.
On the journey back to Kyiv we drive by fields of people working. “Ukraine is not dead yet,” begins the Ukrainian national anthem. Confronted with a scene like this, it’s almost possible to believe it.
[EDIT: I’ve been informed that my poor translation of Ukraine’s national anthem is a common mistake. The words are: “ще не вмерла України ні слава ні воля” which means that the glory hasn’t died yet].