Herlinsky: Two Ukraines – New Jersey Globe
Last week’s drone strikes on the Ukrainian capital of kyiv can be interpreted in two very different ways: the war is not over and the war is ending. If you combine this latest attack with the recent missile strikes, while they clearly caused damage, they also clearly indicated that Russia resorted to terrorism from afar because the battlefield is not working for them.
In August, I traveled to Kyiv and surrounding towns on a humanitarian mission to help feed struggling civilians and show my support for Ukrainian soldiers. I found what I describe as “two Ukraines”.
The first, I did not expect, and it was in western Ukraine in Lviv and other nearby cities. Frankly, you wouldn’t know there was a war going on. After all that has happened and the ongoing Russian aggression, I believe many in the United States and much of the West do not have a clear picture of what is really going on in Ukraine. And before my trip, I would count myself among those.
The idea that the whole of Ukraine is on fire is simply not the case. When I crossed the border, I expected to immediately see corpses, bombed buildings, devastation; But I did not do it. In many parts of the country, the economy is still booming, you see people going in and out of restaurants, it’s relatively normal. Most of these scenes of normality, however, are in the west, near the Polish border. Further east, signs of the invasion are widespread.
Our group traveled north from kyiv to Belarus, and what we saw there was the devastation of cities like Bucha, Irpin, Moshchun and Borodyanka. These areas had not undergone any reconstruction, and the stories I heard from people there were horrific, one in particular.
I met a woman named Irina. We were in Bucha handing out care packages and she was coordinating it all, helping get supplies to those in her neighborhood who needed them most. When we were done, she took us to her house, part of which had been destroyed and rebuilt. She told us that she fled when the Russians arrived, but her husband and brother stayed behind to protect their property and their home. Both were killed.
After telling us that, Irina then did something I could never have expected. She took out her cell phone and showed us a photo of her brother who was lying dead in their garden. And then she showed me a picture of her husband. His eyes had been gouged out and the back of his head blown off. When the Ukrainians finally took over the town – and she had pictures of that too – there were bodies literally everywhere. Many were burned beyond recognition, and in one case three bodies lay in a field, their arms had been severed. You cannot ignore this.
This is the second Ukraine.
I am happy that President Biden used the term genocide to describe what is happening in parts of Ukraine. This is a serious charge, not to be taken lightly, but I hope that ultimately there will be a war crimes trial in The Hague. The crimes we were told about and shown to us in photographs were not random propaganda. Our information does not come from a second or third hand report. It was told to us directly, by a woman who lost her husband and brother; his family. But this same woman, who had experienced this horrific truth, moved past it and returned to her hometown to help those remaining there get food parcels and the care they need.
And she is still there today.
I am Ukrainian. My mother and father were born there; both immigrated to the West during the war. I considered it my duty to family and heritage to be involved in relief efforts during
this crisis. But it was only after contacting friends in the Sikh community that I discovered the you denied
Sikhs participated in these missions. United Sikhs is an organization dedicated to humanitarian relief, education and advocacy, with a particular focus on empowering disadvantaged and minority communities around the world. I was then put in contact with Natalie Pawlenko, who is the president of the
Ukrainian Women’s National League of Americaand I was able to connect these two groups with the offices of Senator Robert Menendez and Senator Cory Booker, with whom I worked closely for many years.
These new relationships have resulted in fundraising in association with the World Central Cuisine which raised over $250,000 for Ukrainian war relief. The trip to Ukraine followed soon after, but despite the influx of aid, it is important to note that many parts of the country are still under threat and even more struggling with the aftermath of brutal attacks.
Kharkiv, for example, is the second largest city in the country, but it fell from a population of five million to just five hundred thousand after the February invasion. Many were killed, but most fled. The city of Zhytomyr was bombed the night I was there. I heard the explosions. And in many villages outside kyiv, during the brief time the Russians were there, they loaded the forests with mines. Thus, the ongoing demining process also adds to the explosions that can still be heard frequently in these towns.
But in the areas I have traveled to, it is the determination and resilience of the Ukrainian people that have stood out to me the most. In the town of Makariv, for example, I saw a grandmother and her two grandchildren filling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with bricks trying to clear debris from where their house stood. It was just one of the many examples of courage that I witnessed firsthand, and the experience led me to believe that there is no futility in the Ukrainian defense. Even in some of the most affected areas, I saw a vibrant Ukraine filled with people determined to rebuild their homes and their lives. And as we drove through much of the country, I saw huge fields of sunflowers and wheat ready to be harvested. So while some people may wonder why Ukrainians would bother to defend themselves, I would say they have many reasons beyond just a desire to live free from the will of a tyrannical government.
Last month, Ukrainian troops recaptured much of Kharkiv on the northeastern border with Russia. The counter-offensive forced the overpowered Russian troops to flee, leaving behind weapons and tanks, some of which they themselves destroyed, and others which were fully operational and are now in the possession of Ukrainian forces in booming. So, perhaps before long, there will be only one Ukraine.
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Victor Herlinsky is a practicing New Jersey attorney and longtime political activist.