A sunny August day in a village near Kharkiv in East Ukraine. A summer resort. A couple in their early 30s. Four children are playing in the surrounding wild green fields. A couple of teenagers are making their way for a swim in the nearby river. A toddler is sat on the floor keeping himself busy.
A pastoral moment. Almost romantic. Except that this family, along hundreds of other families, have just disembarked an old bus that made its way from the city of Luhansk in East Ukraine. A city which has been under heavy shelling over the past couple of weeks. A city which was caught in the fire line between the Ukrainian army, armed militias, allegedly supported by Russia, and groups of Ukrainian partisans that don’t necessary see eye to eye with the Ukrainian government. It’s a lawless zone whereby everyone just shoots at everyone else.
For most of the residents of Luhansk, around 420,000 individuals, it doesn’t really matter who shoots, when or why. The heavy shelling over the past couple of weeks resulted in unknown figure of casualties, unofficial figures state 10,000 men, women and children have lost their lives in the conflict in east Ukraine. It also caused extreme damage to buildings and infrastructure and destroyed three out of the four exits of the city. Armed forces bombarded the major high way and the bridge that used to be the main entrance to the city. They also annihilated the steam boat which was used as an alternative to connect that city via the river to the northern part of the country. Today it seems as if the only remaining way in and out of the city is an old, poorly paved, road. Using that road is not only a safety hazard, it is literally life threatening. None of the armed forces have so far agreed to negotiate the set up of a humanitarian corridor which will enable the residents of Luhansk an opportunity to leave the city thus save their lives. According to the International Red Cross the sides seem to keep an unwritten agreement whereby they avoid shooting at civilians between 10:00 to 14:00 daily. However, as this unofficial agreement has not been negotiated it can be revoked at any minute without warning. Nevertheless, thousands of individuals, literally running for their lives utilize that narrow window of opportunities. Most of them don’t really think about packing up, they take some food for the road and one or two supermarket plastic bags with a handful of personal items. Most of them don’t know where they are heading. They don’t know where they will end up, how long they will be away from home or when will they ever return.
Numerous individuals I met last week described how they queued up for three days to get a sit on the bus which took them 100km north. They shared stories with me of armed young men who roam the streets of Luhansk and arbitrarily take over houses and flats they fancy. They describe how their young neighbour have been kidnapped and forced to support an armed forces he has no affiliation with. They report on friends and acquaintances who have been imprisoned by unknown entities for arbitrarily periods of time without any charges being pressed against them, without seeing a judge or any other due process. They describe shortage of water supply and electricity; empty shops; banking and municipal systems that have not functioned for months and internet and phone lines that have been lost for weeks.
The young couple explained they decided to leave as their younger child have developed post traumatic physical and emotional reactions to the sounds of explosions. They added that as they were cut off from TV, radio, phone or internet for the past few weeks the new family game was identifying the different sound various weapons make and guess which armed forces is using it.
I asked “what about your parents? did they come along?” Her eyes watered. She explained they were unable to leave as they are too old and frail and had to stay behind to look after the 95 years old grandmother. As phone and internet connection are off she is unable to let them know that she and the kids are OK, nor can she contact them to ask how they are doing. “They must be worried sick” she whispered. She cried. I cried too.
I’ve been following the political and military crisis in Ukraine since November 2013. Over the past few months I’ve spent 30% of my life in that country, learning, supporting and managing 28 development programmes. I followed the events closely, spent hours listening to partners, rejoiced in their successful revolution, responded to stress and heightened levels of uncertainty, shared their concerns with regards to the future of the country and stood in awe in the face of extreme generosity of thousands of Ukrainians who open heartedly volunteered their time and resources to support complete strangers.
Over the past few months I’ve witnessed a great deal of hope as well as trauma and grief and above all an incredible level of uncertainty as events changed rapidly and unexpectedly. I must say that throughout the past few months I found in me a surprising level of emotional resilience. I kept being surprised by the capacity to stay equanimous amidst that chaos. Last week, however, for the first time, the magnitude of the conflict in Ukraine dawned on me. Witnessing hundreds of individuals disembarking buses that fled conflict zones with nothing but plastic bags in their hands, not knowing where they will sleep, how they will make a living or if they will have food tomorrow, left me mortified.
I cried for those who ran for their lives. I cried when listening to reports on the atrocities that take place in the shelled cities. I cried worrying about those who are home bound, frail or disabled who simply don’t have the opportunity or means to save their lives.
We do try to offer support. I personally lead on a response plan. Yet working for a small relief organisation, the support we offer will never suffice. Even worse, the reality in the acute crisis zones is so dangerous and lawless that staff members of most Ukrainian organisation have left in order to save their own lives the lives of their dear ones. Staff members of major international players, and me too, refrain from working in cities like Luhansk as it is simply too dangerous. And so I’m left witnessing a humanitarian crisis forming without being able to do much. Realizing how helpless I/ we are in the face of this catastrophe and how little we can do is painful. This is one of those moments in life when I realize that despite my best intentions I can only do so much. And for a precious moment I’m face to face with an incredible level of helplessness. I cannot fix this reality. I cannot influence it. Yet accepting it is damn hard. So what to do? how to be?
The next day on a long car journey, passing through miles and miles of sunflower fields and blue skies I listen to Jack Kornfleid quoting the Dau Te Ching:
“You think you can improve the world?
It can’t be done
There’s a time for being ahead
And a time for being behind
A time for being in motion
A time for being at rest
A time for being vigorous
A time for being exhausted
A time for being in danger
A time for being safe
The wise ones see things as they are without resisting or grasping
She lets them go their own way
And resides in the Dau, in the centre of the circle”
Can I be with things in that way? Am I wise enough? Kind enough? Do I love enough? Can I really live with an undefended heart? Always? Sometimes? for three consecutive breaths?