They Kill Simple People

2_1_Donbass“I don’t know. I don’t know what they want. But I do know they kill people. They kill simple people, many people; the bodies are lying in the streets; I saw it with my own eyes.”

We sit in a warm room in a cold house in a small village in the large country of Ukraine – home to 45 million people – where a war has ravaged the East. The clouds continue to hide the sun setting outside the room’s one window.

Nina’s short, gray hair is dyed red, the wrinkles on her face pay tribute to her many years, but her words are direct, a staccato enunciation of her emotions stress each word: simple people are being killed. We sit on the edge of her bed while Sasha, our guide for the day, sits on a hard, wooden chair. At the opposite end of a table Nina sits and tells us her story. Having taught British English in Pervomaysk, Ukraine for several decades, her English is clear, but she struggles to understand our North American accents. She tells us clips of her experience as she thinks of them, often interjecting a firm, “well,” as she considers what to say next.

“Well. Well, it is very hard. Very hard times. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do,” she repeats her words with a sharp emphasis. “I wanted to work yet, I liked my school, I liked my pupils, I liked my subject. I wanted to be helpful.”

After a moment she continues, “Well I’m not a politician, but I say I saw it with my own eyes. They shoot each other. They don’t fight, they don’t struggle in the fields or forest, but they sit in the towns. And they shoot each other. That’s all. And they are not killed. I don’t know why, all these terrorists are not killed. But peaceful people are killed,” she says again, emphasizing every word. “People are in their houses, and they don’t know when the bullet will fly into the house – at any time.”

“It is – well. I praise the Lord that this region [Western Ukraine] is not under the war and people live a peaceful, quiet life: as it should be!” she exclaims the last four words.

“What to say? What can I say?” her voice accentuates the incomprehensibility of it all.

Pro-Russian separatists took over Pervomaysk in April 2014, and regular fighting between the separatists and the Ukrainian military has brought continuous misery, tension and destruction to the city and its inhabitants. Nina tells us of the soldiers standing by her house, while she sits and trembles with fear. “Well, I was arguing with all these terrorist soldiers near my house. They even wanted to shoot me. They said ‘You, woman, go away, otherwise we will shoot you. Go to your Peroshenko [the current president of Ukraine] if you don’t want us here.’ I could not stand it anymore. My nervous system is spoiled. I buried my colleague just in the yard of our house under the tree. So, what to say?

Nina’s reflections slow and the room is silent taking in the absurd reality. Becca breaks the silence, asking, “What do you wish the outside world understood about this conflict?”

“WelI. I want all people to know we are killed, that we are being killed. Simple people are being killed – every day, every day!” she repeats with the familiar staccato. “This is the main and the most horrible: simple people – children – are killed. They have no possibility to live a normal life.

“Can you add anything?” she asks, turning to Sasha, who smiles sadly, silently.

“So this is the situation in that part of our country. It’s impossible. I want to cry. I want to cry loudly to everybody, everybody to hear us, and to help us.”

“Excuse me,” she says, wiping the tears from her eyes.

“Well, excuse me. My tears appear when I speak about it. Because… I can’t understand it. We don’t disturb anybody, we simply live. We bring up our children. We live. We like something or somebody, we dislike somebody or something. We simply lived. And now….” Her voice trails off.

Destruction in Pervomaysk. photo credit: Sasha Khomych

Destruction in Pervomaysk. photo credit: Sasha Khomych

“Well. Take something,” she tells us. “Take more tea. Well, I have a pension, as one humorist said: ‘a very little, but good.’ So I can buy tea,” she laughs. “Maybe it is cold already, this tea?”

No, it’s still hot,” I assure her. “So you’ve been here for three months,” I say. “Tell us about your time here.”

“Well, I was closed myself, I mean my soul was closed.”

When she arrived in this small village in Western Ukraine she went to the church regularly, but didn’t speak with anyone. She sat, listened to the service, and silently left. “But one pastor caught me, he saw the situation and said, ‘Who are you? Tell me what is going on.’ So I opened up to him and told him my story. And it was okay.”

“And now I have friends in the church. They are praying every day for peace in Ukraine. The service is every day at 6 o’clock in the morning. They pray every day for God to provide, to help us survive and live in peace. And I help pupils also, because some pupils want to know English better, and they ask me to help them, so I spend my time, not to sit and cry all the time, but I try to work and to help them.”

“Do you see the world differently as a result of all these events?” I ask her.

“Well. What to say? I try to be, I try to stay as I was and be as I was, but of course something has been wrong with me because of this situation. I could not stay at home. There was something wrong with my nervous system, I think. Sometimes I can be aggressive, but I try to keep myself together. I take medicine,” she laughs. “I take medicine not to be aggressive, and I pray for the Lord to help me.

Church in Pervomaysk - destroyed by the war. Photo credit: Sasha Khomych

Church in Pervomaysk – destroyed by the war. Photo credit: Sasha Khomych

“Now I am quiet, of course. But when I came I thought, why do all these people live in peace, and we live in the war? In all this horror?

“Did you feel like they did not understand?” Becca asks.

“Well to some extent they don’t understand, they don’t understand the situation,” she replies.

“But I think everything will be alright. We should hope that everything will be alright. That our government, the government of Russia and some European countries, will try to find some common views on this situation. And maybe they… they will do everything. As for me, I will wait for it, I will wait for it with great hope.”

“Sasha, did I tell anything wrong? No?”

“Has your understanding of God changed?” I ask.

“Well, it is God’s will. It is God’s will, I think. Well, maybe we are great sinners. We are great sinners maybe, I don’t know,” she surmises. “The world values only money now. Well, and many people try only to live and to do everything to be rich, to have much money or something of that kind. They forgot about God, well that our God created us, and we should follow him, yes, and we should live like he, and yes, maybe we are great sinners, and we should feel the influence of God. But I think only God will give us peace.

“Because God keeps the whole world in his hands, yes? And the fate of each person.

“I ask God to give me strength. And to hope that in everything, God will help us. We can’t do anything ourselves. We can’t do anything. We only hope in our Lord. But we are people, and sometimes we may be aggressive, we may cry, we may feel something unusual, and so on and so forth. Because we lost everything we had. Well, I live with it. And I suppose it will never be treated. Never. But I should live.”

Nina has no relatives in this village. She tells us of the loss of all she had known, her very way of living, the struggle of having all of that taken away and adjusting to a new life in a new region among strange people. “But all these strangers became friends,” she says. “They became friends and now they are friends. And I like my hostess very much,” she speaks of the woman who has opened her home for Nina to stay. “She is very good and very kind. She understands my feelings and tries to support me and help me.

With Nina and her host in Western Ukraine

With Nina and her host in Western Ukraine

“And many people in this village, many people are very friendly. They are very friendly. They are good people.

“Maybe you know the West and the East are opposite sides of Ukraine. Have you heard it?” she asks ironically. “There are the Banderas and the Moscovy.”

Banderas refers to Stepan Bandera, considered a hero by some in Western Ukraine, a nationalist who fought for an independent Ukraine before, during and after WWII. This meant, at times, aligning with Nazi Germany against the Soviets. His veneration by some in Ukraine plays into the narrative that the West of Ukraine is filled with fascists. Moscovy, likewise, is a disparaging term to describe those in the East of Ukraine who are under the influence (read: brainwashed by) Moscow, the Kremlin, and Russian media propaganda, longing for Soviet times.

“But it is not true,” she bluntly counters this otherizing. “People are people. They are people! Many people were afraid to be in West Ukraine, but they are good people.

“Sasha, will you eat one sweet please? One pastry more? No? Andrew. Andrew is thin, and he can eat. And Sasha, no,” she laughs, teasing us.

“Is there anything you haven’t told us, that you would like to?” we ask as the interview winds down.

“God is not the last hope. It is the only hope. Not the last, as we say sometimes, but the only hope for us.”

Silence overtakes the room again.

“Thank you for coming,” she tells us gently. “I’m very glad you came.

“You’re always welcome. Come again. But I want to tell you not such horrible things. I want to tell you something nice, something happy. Such is the situation. We try to survive. Yes. We try to survive.

She turns again to her memories from Pervomaysk, ending where we started.

“When the war began, we were in the cellars for three months without light, without water, without gas. We were cooking just in the yards, we put stones and wood and made fire. There were two weeks of rest, and then the violence began again. But to our happiness, we had the people’s mayor who tried to help, tried to rebuild in those two weeks and people had light and gas. And then the bombing started again and again they were destroyed. And again the people try to rebuild. Well, they are heroes! They are heroes, trying to take care of the people. But just two days ago this man, this people’s mayor was killed.

“There are always such people, such heroes. But I don’t know who they will be now.”

 

If Not Us, Then Who?

Alla sits behind a table, blond hair swept to the side, black jacket emblazoned with the Ukrainian symbol on the breast, the blue and yellow flag on the left arm, a blue and yellow[...]

 

If the Snipers Like You, They'll Let You Go

Two days prior, they had heard the news: the separatists had taken Sloviansk and Lysychansk, just ten kilometers away. But they continued living their lives. Like every day before,[...]