words Oksana Steele
It has been 33 long days since my homeland Ukraine was invaded by the Russian forces, who, just days before, had been massed on Russia and Ukraine’s shared border for ‘training exercises’. The events of those days have been a journey of trepidation, anguish and pain, which I would like to share with you, the reader, in hope you may come to know some small portion of what I feel.
Russian ‘occupants’ (in their words) came to Ukraine with the claim of liberation and ‘peacekeeping’, pretending to act in the interests of the ‘oppressed’ ethnic-Russians in the Ukrainian regions of Donbas and Luhansk. These people were supposedly the victims of ongoing genocide at the hands of the democratically elected Ukrainian government. Claims of neo-Nazism were made to justify the actions, with the troop movements requiring a pretence to support the actions. These stories of liberation and protection, while contrasting so strongly with the reality the free world sees, is the same Russian propaganda that has been fed to Russian citizens through the tightly controlled Russian media at the behest of President Putin.
This President, a modern dictator in all-but-name, has moved well beyond the bounds of reason in thinking that this tyranny can stand in the modern European world. Since the beginning of the invasion, Russia has called it a ‘special operation’ and insisted that troops were sent to de-Nazify Ukraine and enforce the Minsk accords. In reality, his misguided objective was to ride a surge of supposed pro-Russian sentiment, rapidly generate regime change in the Ukrainian government, and appoint a replacement governing body with pro-Russian views, taking one crucial step towards a reformed USSR and a resurgent Russian dominance in Eastern Europe. Rooted in the false historical belief of a sovereign ‘right’ to rule Ukraine, this plan called for a 3-day exercise, too fast and too clean to warrant significant Western response.
Ukrainian-Russian conflicts have deep roots in modern history. Even now, after so many years, a clear memory from my childhood surfaces in the turbid pool of emotions I feel each day. As a young girl, during one of my history lessons, we learned about the Ukrainian famine during the winter of 1932. I recall wondering at the time how the tyrant, Stalin (historical Russian dictator), could get away with his causative actions and still remain in power for so long afterwards. With comparison to the current situation, the pattern rings true and adds clarity to the simple question of a child. Repression of people, speech, information and simple freedoms have always been part of the Russian socialist tyranny, and hence between the choice of enforced silence, or significant punishment, the choice of silence is the choice of the masses. The little freedom that did exist to express a contrary opinion has been ruthlessly crushed in recent times, with laws hurriedly passed against military criticism of any kind, punishable with 15 years in prison. Russian propaganda was and is the only allowable message, dissenting thought squashed by approved messaging and the embedded fear of Russian citizens to say or do something wrong.
A few days into the conflict, my friend from Belarus called me and spent much of our conversation assuring me that there was no war in Ukraine and that Russian troops were there to protect Ukrainians. It made me sad that my good friend refused to acknowledge the reality of the situation, even after I told her about what has been happening for all the world to see. The whole world watched quietly as the Russian army bombarded civilians. My heart ached, as I watched the footage of multi-storey apartments being wilfully bombed. These apartments most likely held the most vulnerable—those unable to flee the conflict, caught in a disaster not of their own making. The brutality of Russian soldiers shocked the world when they bombarded maternity hospitals, or the much-publicised drama theatre, where approximately 1000 civilians took shelter, having taken the time to clearly identify the occupants with an enormous painted sign to the sky, ‘CHILDREN’ in Russian. The sign did not stop the attack; there was no verification, no pause, no concern over collateral damage. It was a building, it contained people, it was a target, as brutally simple as that.
When the maternity hospital was bombed, Putin claimed there was no patients or personnel present, that it was being used as cover for soldiers. True or not, there is no mistaking the pictures of pregnant women carried away by the rescue team. Putin claims he is saving Russian people from genocide, I see and feel the genocide being committed against the Ukrainian nation, against its people, its culture and its history. The troops deliberately bombarded our schools to prevent learning, as institutions of learning is where a culture is propagated and spread. Words cannot describe the daily fear for loved ones who are either defending their country or just trying to exist amongst the ‘frozen hellscape’ that some Ukrainian cities have become. In Ukraine, we value family, peace and harmony and even at a distance, it has been extremely difficult to witness the war and injustice happening in front of my eyes, in the country where I grew up, where my childhood memories exist and where so many of my family still live. I didn’t appreciate the depth of the love I have for my birthplace until it went to flames and ruins. I love my adopted home in Australia, but the thought that my homeland may never exist again, outside of my scattered memories, fills me with a bottomless sadness that I would not wish on anyone.
I want to praise all of Ukraine’s defenders, who just a month ago lived a peaceful life and who were forced to fight for their county and freedom. Ukraine’s president has united people around the globe in condemning the actions of Russia. Ukraine, however, is holding the shield for NATO, while begging for a sword to strike back. They are paying the ultimate price for their freedom, and I bow my head in respect! Wishing you all a peaceful sky!