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Herlinsky: Two Ukraines

A Firsthand Account of the Struggle to Save and Restore a Country

By Victor Herlinsky, November 01 2022 12:06 pm

OPINION

Last week’s drone strikes on the Ukrainian capital of Kiev 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 has resorted to terrorism from a distance because the battlefield is not working for them.

Back in August, I traveled to Kiev and surrounding cities on a humanitarian mission to help feed struggling civilians and show support for Ukrainian soldiers. I found what I describe as “two Ukraines.”

The first one, I didn’t expect, and that was in Western Ukraine in Lviv and other towns close to that. Quite frankly you wouldn’t know there’s a war going on. After all that has happened and the ongoing Russian aggression, I believe that many in the U.S. and much of the West do not have a clear picture of what’s actually happening in Ukraine. And before my trip, I would count myself among those.

The idea that all of Ukraine is on fire is just not the case. When I crossed the border, I expected to immediately see bodies, buildings that had been bombed, devastation; but I didn’t. In many parts of the country, the economy is still thriving, you see people going in and out of restaurants, it’s relatively  normal. Most of these scenes of normalcy are in the West, near the Polish border, however. Further east, signs of the invasion are prevalent.

Our group traveled north of Kiev, towards Belarus, and what we saw there was the devastation of towns like Bucha, Irpin, Moshchun, and Borodyanka. These areas had undergone no reconstruction, and the stories that I heard from the people there were awful,one in particular.

I met a woman named Irina. We were in Bucha distributing care packages and she was coordinating all of it, helping to get the supplies to those in her neighborhood who needed them most. When we were done, she took us to her home, part of which had been destroyed and rebuilt. She told us that she had fled when the Russians were coming, but her husband and brother stayed behind to protect their possessions and their house. Both of them were killed.

After telling us this, Irina then did something I could never have expected. She pulled out her cell phone and showed us a picture of her brother who was lying dead in their garden. And then she showed me a picture of her husband. His eyes had been shot out and the back of his head blown away. When the Ukrainians finally took back the town—and she had pictures of this as well—there were bodies literally everywhere. Many were burned beyond recognition, and in one case, three bodies were lying in a field, their arms had been hacked off. You can’t unsee that.

This is the second Ukraine.

I’m glad that President Biden used the term genocide to describe what is happening in parts of Ukraine. It is a serious charge, not to be taken lightly, but my hope is that, ultimately, there will be a war crimes trial in the Hague. The crimes we were told about and shown in photographs were not random propaganda. Our information did not come from a second or third-hand report. It was told to us directly, by a woman who lost her husband and brother; her family. But that same woman, who had experienced this horrific truth, rose above it and returned to her hometown to help the people who remain there to get food packages and care that they need.

And she’s 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 become involved in efforts to provide aid during

this crisis. But it was only after reaching out to friends in the Sikh community that I discovered the U nited

 Sikhs were getting involved in these missions. The United Sikhs are an organization dedicated to humanitarian relief, education, and advocacy focused particularly on empowering disadvantaged and minority communities around the world. I was then connected with Natalie Pawlenko, who is the president of   the

 Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, and I was able to connect both of these groups with the offices of Senator Robert Menendez and Senator Cory Booker, with whom I have worked closely for many years.

These new relationships led to a fundraiser in association with the World Central Kitchen that raised over $250,000 for Ukrainian war relief. The trip to Ukraine followed soon after, buy despite the aid pouring in, it’s important to note that many areas of the country are still under threat and even more are dealing with the aftermath of brutal attacks.

Kharkiv, for instance, is the second largest city in the country but it went from a population of  five million to just five hundred thousand following the invasion back in February. Many were killed, but most fled. The city of Zhytomyr was bombed the night I was there. I heard the explosions. And in a lot of the villages outside of Kiev, in the brief time the Russians were there, they loaded up the forests with mines. So, the ongoing de-mining process also adds to the explosions that can still frequently be heard in these towns.

But in the areas where I traveled, it was the resolve and resiliency of the Ukrainian people that left the biggest impression. In the town of Makariv, for instance, I saw a grandmother and her two grandchildren filling up wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with bricks trying to clear the debris from where their house used to stand. This was just one of many examples of fortitude I witnessed directly, and the experience left me believing there is no futility in the Ukrainian defense. Even in some of the worst-hit areas, I saw a vibrant Ukraine filled with people determined to rebuild their homes and their lives. And as we drove across much of the country, I saw huge sunflower fields and wheat fields ready for harvest. So, while some people may wonder why Ukrainians would bother to defend themselves, I would argue that they have many reasons beyond simply wanting to live free from the will of a tyrannical government.

Last month, Ukrainian troops reclaimed a large area of Kharkiv on the northeast border with Russia. The counteroffensive forced overpowered Russian troops to flee, leaving behind weapons and tanks, some of which they destroyed themselves, and others that were fully operational and are now in possession of surging Ukrainian forces. So, perhaps before long, there will again be just one Ukraine.

To Donate to any of the following organizations, please click on the links.

 United Sikhs

 Ukrainian National Women’s League of America

 World Central Kitchen

Victor Herlinsky is a practicing attorney in New Jersey, and a lifelong political activist.

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