Tuesday, 27 November 2018

До Войны – before the war

Here, whenever you start having a conversation for more than twenty minutes with a local, you have a great chance of hearing the words “до войны – before the war ». Indeed, for every inhabitants originally from eastern Ukraine, there is a before and after March 2014. The war hit them all at different stages of their life, whether they were kids, teenagers, parents, or elderly people. Hence, they all reacted differently, each of them having their own priorities. But one thing is certain, they all had to adapt themselves to this unknown situation.

For six months, I have had the amazing opportunity of sharing some of their paths. No words can describe how interesting this experience is. Of course, the conflict itself, the geopolitical influences of the different stakeholders could already satisfy one’s curiosity. But to me, the real beauty lies where no words are printed down: in people’s personal stories, informal testimonies, facial expressions. I could try to share some of their stories with you, but my words would never equal the intensity of their stories. You would need to see their eyes.

The eyes of Tania, in her mid-thirties, when she told me that four years ago, her biggest fear was to drive a car. Indeed, her mom died in a car accident when she was 18 years old. But now that bombs and soldiers belong to her every day landscape, she has started learning. She wants to be ready to drive her sons anywhere, if another crisis was to strike her small town, if they had to flee once again. The eyes, of Sasha, three years old, when she was playing with clay, building those houses and on top of each of them putting a massive “snow ball”. Intrigued, I asked her what those balls were. “Bombs”, she replied. The eyes of Iana, when she told me about her two miscarriages. The first one happened right after the death of her sister, five years ago. The second, right after the war started. The eyes of Natacha, an IDP that is struggling to find a job in this new town she had to settle in. The eyes of Maxime, Ukrainian activist that got tortured for one night before we could live the non-governmental controlled area with his wife, daughter and mom. This eyes of Vladislav, 17 years-old, that cannot handle his anger since the war started, and keeps getting involved in violent fights with kids his age, sometimes older. The eyes of Nina, 76 years old, that lives alone in her home town, her kids having left for “the other side” for a while now. All the shops closed down and if it was not for the few vegetables she still grows in her garden, she would not be able to feed herself anymore.

War changed things for all of them.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Ukraine according to my grandmother

Years ago, when my grandmother was still alive, I had a terrible image of what life in Ukraine should be. Grandmother would use Ukraine as a synonym to a terrible place where you would not want to go, let alone live. In the months before my deployment in Ukraine I was making jokes about this, but when the departure date would come closer, I realized I might better not mock this. 

After arriving here in Severodonetsk I was relieved. It is true that in this grey Sovietic city the street scene is dominated by many sterotypes. The iconic Lada cars and the sweet buchanka's (a little van in the form of a square bread, in Russian called buchanka) aren't rare at all. The condition of the roads in general is terrible. Our driver and colleague André luckily is a professional in avoding the holes, but anyway needs to repair his car almost every week.  Someone told me that the level of corruption of a certain region can be measured by the condition of the roads. The more money is taken away, the less is left to maintain among other the roads. This theory does not promise any good for our region, but I try not to think to much about this. 

In the meantime everbody is awaiting the big day that the heater will be switched on. This is centrally organized and cannot be switched on by the inhabitants themselves. The fifteenth of October was appointed to be the day, but due to high gasprices and relatively high temperatures for October, two weeks later the heater stil isn't on. That makes home a bit cold, but thanks to the warm and friendly inhabitants of Severodonetsk, this city is still pleasent to live. 

It was last week that I got to see the Ukraine that my grandmother probably was referring to. Together with my colleagues we went to visit babushka Katya. There - like 6 kilometres from the frontline - it looks like time stood still. Old and decayed houses, no running water and a toilet in the backyard. Hunchbacked babushka Katya is suffering from thyroid cancer and her overcoat looks like a patchwork blanket. She tells us she is seventy five years old, but looks like she is ninety. Mentally she seems to have everything in order. She lives from her pension and what she grows in her kitchengarden. 

Even though her house is located close to the front line, her village was spared the fightings. Her poor living conditions are no result of the ongoing conflict. People like babushka Katya, that you will find in every Ukrainian village, were already forgotten long before the conflict started... 

And there you go with your humanitarian aid package with clothes and food. It feels like a drop in the ocean, but babushka Katya is very grateful and gives us her last melon of the season. Besides the fact that I do not feel comfortable to accept this gift, it even upsets me more that I am not able to make a real difference here. Although, my chance to make a difference might be there in the classroom when I teach and implement other activities. Then, the new Ukrainian generation is sitting in front of me and hopefully during these classes I can create some awareness. This thought eases me a bit. And it is surely is a pity that my grandmother is no longer among us. I would have loved to tell her about my own experience in Ukraine....