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by Brian Stuhlman
When I first arrived in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2002, it was my first time overseas, and I was moving there to teach at an international school. I walked around on Ukrainian Independence Day and saw a country that was still in some ways recovering from a rough century of Soviets, two world wars, purges, religious persecutions and nuclear catastrophes.
Still, the Ukrainian people were open to change, and they embraced this Midwestern American kid with open arms. I started a stranger, but I became a brother.
The national feeling was different walking around in the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution. When my wife, Maryna (who I met at the school where I was teaching in Ukraine) and I left, there was a tentative but joyful budding hope for sunny days ahead.
But political promise went unfulfilled, and the country became split in some ways, with the western part of the country leaning politically and socially toward the West, and the southeastern part of the country leaning toward Russia and a return to the new federation, led by the old-school dictator.
The illegal annexation of Crimea ensued in 2014, and now Ukraine is engaged in war: it was predicted, it was warned, it was feared. And it has arrived.
Despite our increasingly urgent encouragement, our family in Ukraine decided to stay in Kyiv. It is home, their free and independent home. Our brother-in-law was called out of the reserves and back into active duty almost immediately for perhaps the third or fourth time in 10 years. He’s been able to call back a few times, confirming he is alive, and fighting in and for the city.
Our sister and her kids — an adult nephew and niece — and her husband came together at my mother-in-law’s (I call her Mamochka) apartment on the first floor of their huge apartment building in Kyiv, not far from the Dnieper River.
“Go bags” were packed well in advance. Medicines and money were stockpiled and hidden. Food was gathered and stored, and shelters were cleared and prepared. Unfortunately, it was not long before they were needed.
While many stayed to keep working or hide in the so-so-deep metro stations, some Ukrainians, as well as ex-pats from other countries living in Kyiv and in other cities and villages, began to leave. Former students and colleagues, dear friends all, have checked in with news of vague plans — driving to Lviv, heading for the border in what could be an eight- to 30-plus-hour journey, or staying put.
My students, my kids, are now posting pictures of themselves in camouflage with rifles or hugging their children on the border, exhausted.
The simple act of waking up has taken on new protocols. Air raid sirens are now doing the job for our family, hunkered in their once-quiet neighborhood. Mamochka reports being hypersensitive to sounds, mistaking a rattling tricycle for a machine gun or a garbage truck for artillery. She joins neighbors to check the basements for Russian-snuck bombs.
We are feeling it here as well; just a few weeks ago, I woke to wonders of weather. Now, my first thoughts are of my family. Did they survive the night? Are my friends safe? Are my former students still living?
Last week, Mamochka has described the situation where they live as anxious, but not panicked. They are in harm’s way, between the northern border and the city center. But active fighting has moved past them, though gunfire echoes up the river.
They can hear it on their quick trips to the grocery store, both for themselves and for the elderly pensioners left in their building. They help deliver supplies and news and are able to share some time and tears.
Mamochka says that people are not talking much on the streets of Kyiv at the moment. Everybody knows what’s going on, as they follow news on anything from Ukrainian Pravda to Reddit.
Desperation, desolation, frustration and downright hopelessness are setting in as the only movements of any kind seem to be those of Russian troops. The Ukrainian people, military and civilian, are warriors. They’ve been trained. They fight for rights. And unfortunately, they have had experience in the hard fights.
But the one concerted message coming from them all, including the heroic President Zelenskyy, is that they cannot continue to do this on their own.
Everyone I’ve been able to speak with is begging — or demanding — for a no-fly zone to be instituted and patrolled over Ukraine, and they’ve been turned down time and again. They ask for support, both of ammunition and supplies but also humanitarian needs.
Many countries and many people have answered the call. Eastern European nations seem to be leading the charge, offering aid to a refugee crisis that continues to unfold. Many other countries have been long on promise and short on delivery, not the least because of the threat of tripping a bigger war.
But it seems to me the war has already begun, and everybody else is late to the fight.
As a teacher, I see these signs as proof, positive that we have not yet learned from the mistakes of even our very recent past.
If a certain leader has gone rogue and speaks nothing but lies and threats, leading the country into a foreign war and land grab while “brainwashing” the populace into thinking that it’s a peace mission — as well as proven to have no honor as he promises from one side of his face that civilians have no reason to fear while also ordering they be slaughtered in their homes — then that leader must be compared to the most reviled killers of the past, the villains of every textbook.
And that leader must be stopped.
I’m thinking of the lives of my family and friends trapped in harm’s way. Let us do it right soon.
Brian Stuhlman, a resident of Columbia resident, is a native of Palmyra and is a PHS graduate.
Editor’s note: this story was originally published in the Columbia Missourian.
Brian Stuhlman continues to write about situation in the Ukraine at https://www.facebook.com/brian.stuhlman