Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Lugansk Lament

Statue of poet Taras Shevchenko
on Lugansk university campus.
So I asked my friend Vovo, who lives and works in Lugansk, where he was, and why his facebook page was down.  It took a while to get a reply.  "I had to take it down because I am on the separatists' list of fascist supporters of Kyiv."

Vovo is the director of an important NGO in Lugansk. His only crime is fighting for local government transparency and citizen participation in accordance with Ukrainian law. A loyal Ukrainian professional, educated, informed and compassionate, Vovo is considered a "fascist."

"It is not safe.  It's the way it is now."  He is matter of fact.  He covers any fear with a touch of stoicism, so like a Ukrainian in the face of danger.  He shows no anger, only understanding of the situation he is in, that his country is in.   "It's the way it is now."

Vovo cannot do his work, cannot live openly, cannot meet with friends, can't be with his family and loved ones, because a bunch of pro-Russian terrorists, armed and violent, have taken over his city and designated him an enemy.  Many of his friends and colleagues have been hurt and jailed. Hundreds of people have disappeared, some of whom Vovo knew.

This is one of the more outrageous aspects of the terrorist takeover of Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts.  It's another reason I am glad to see the Ukrainian army on the offensive, fighting for their country's territorial integrity, and the terrorist thugs retreating.  I hope peace and stability return soon, without more death and destruction.

I want Vovo to be able to go home again.  I want ordinary people of  eastern Ukraine to be safe. I want my friends who are feeding and caring for the young Ukrainian soldiers to stop worrying about gunfire, tanks and death. "I weep for these young men, most only 19 years old.  They are still children, and they are under fire, looking death in the eye," wrote my friend Olga.

Once some stability returns, then I hope that good people are chosen to lead local transition governments that were occupied by the separatists, and I pray that president Petro Poroshenko will support them.

Ancient fertility goddesses from an archeological dig, in
a sculpture garden on the campus, a hidden treasure trove
I remember how Vovo helped me when I was a novice volunteer; he made me feel welcome, introduced me to people, helped me become part of the Starobelsk community and connect to the larger Lugansk region.  I remember going with my counterpart to workshops and training seminars for NGO leaders that Vovo and his colleagues organized.  I remember how he took time to take me on tours of Lugansk, shared his vast knowledge of the history of Ukraine and his hometown.  I remember the walks we took through the Taras Shevchenko National University, the lovely parks, the public library. And I remember and cherish the great times we shared over a beer at outdoor cafes with friends.  Those were the times our differences melted away, we found common ground, and we built bridges of understanding.

Happier times. Taking a seminar
break to enjoy spring on campus,
That's why I care about what's happening in Ukraine.  I was privileged to see its soul.  I came to feel its struggles and absorb its hope.  Vovo embodies what is good about his country, embodies the dreams of the many.  He's a fighter for social justice and civil society.  He won't give up, and I'll always cheer him on.   He might be in hiding now, but he'll be back in Lugansk one day, helping to build a strong self-determined country that rewards and reflects the spirit of its people.

The Starobelsk branch of the Lugansk Taras Shevshenko
National University. My friend Natalia teaches English there.

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