Sister Cities, Sister Countries

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice. He also knew that there are evil men in the world, who seek to thwart that benign curve and push us all back into darkness. Because of those men, there are moments in history when the great struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight, in one place, which is waged for all of humanity. In 1863, that place was Gettysburg. In 1940, it was the skies above Britain. Today, in 2022, it is Kyiv. — The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister of Canada

As I am watching, reading, and doomscrolling these past three weeks, what has surprised me most is the resurfacing of long-buried fears. A lifetime ago, when I was in high school, the marches were about nuclear disarmament, not the climate crisis. We had long class discussions about the chances of a nuclear holocaust wiping out the human species. The last gasp of the Cold War was a fearful time to be a teenager.

Same song, different century.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is reminiscent of another war waged in the last century, but recent enough to bring up familial memories for those of us who came to Canada from Europe. My mother was born in Nazi-occupied Holland. I often wonder what impact living through war the first five years of her life had on her psyche.

What memories of this war will Ukrainian children carry for the rest of their lives?

I have long known that my mother’s family had been forced out of their home by the Nazis for the last winter of World War II. But a month ago, I was shocked to learn that the neighbourhood where they spent that winter underwent an artillery bombardment by the Canadian army in its fight to liberate the city. Pamphlets were dropped from the sky to warn the residents of the upcoming shelling, which went on for hours. Nineteen people died. I was so floored by this revelation that I spent the next week wondering how it was I’d never heard about it.

Floored, because I had also long known that my thirteen-year-old uncle was killed the same day. A stray artillery shell had landed in the street and bits of shrapnel went flying. My mother remembers being thrown down the stairs into a cellar by an uncle after the explosion. But I was never told about a bombardment. How do you forget undergoing an hours-long artillery barrage?

Then I remembered the Sunday afternoon I spent with two cousins some months ago. As we looked through old family photographs, I came across a letter in which a relative of my mom’s described her memories of that day — the day my uncle died. She wrote how the extended family had been all together in one of their homes, but in the next town over. Several relatives were injured that day; the letter writer’s sister had a piece of shrapnel embedded in her leg for years afterwards. Perhaps my mother and her family were there not to celebrate their liberation (as my cousins had always been told), but to escape the shelling where they were living?

It still leaves unanswered questions. How did the family know when it was safe to return home? What was left of that home when they returned?

More than three million Ukrainians are wondering when it will be safe to return to their homes. Are wondering if they have homes to go back to.

When a girlfriend and I travelled around Europe in the mid-1980s, we spent a long, cold night on a Yugoslavian train filled with drunken conscripts on their way to boot camp. That’s how I learned that almost every European country had compulsory military service at the time. That’s when I realized only a simple accident of geography — and my gender — kept me from going through a similar rite of passage.

The NATO-aligned countries abandoned conscription after the end of the Cold War. Ukraine did too, in 2013, and then reinstated it in 2014. We’ve all heard how men aged 18 to 60 are not permitted to leave Ukraine right now. What isn’t getting anywhere near the same attention is that almost a quarter of Ukraine’s soldiers are women. Many of these women are bringing their children to the border, handing them over to distant relatives, and then going back to fight in a war they didn’t want, a war they didn’t ask for.

When you grow up on the Canadian prairies, you are deeply aware of the significance of the Ukrainian-Canadian community, so I was not surprised to learn that Canada has the second-largest diaspora of Ukrainians anywhere in the world. What I did not know is that Vancouver and Odesa have been sister cities since 1944. Like Vancouver, Odesa is a port city. Like Vancouver, it has beauty — its historic centre is a World Heritage site. But unlike Vancouver, it is piling sandbags in front of its monuments and lining its beaches with landmines in anticipation of a Russian attack. Half a million of Odesa’s residents have fled. What is remarkable is that the other half million have stayed.

As we watch the Ukrainian people suffer and die in real time, it is difficult to not feel despair. I fully expect the repercussions of this war to be as consequential as anything we have lived through in our lifetimes. As a teenager, I feared the outcome of a Cold War that had been going on for so long I never expected the Berlin Wall to ever come down. As a child, my mother fled her home and watched bombs rain down on her city right up until the day they danced in the streets to celebrate their liberation.

One day the people of Ukraine will rise up again to celebrate.

Because the alternative is unthinkable.

Vancouver City Hall

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