Pro-Ukrainian rally in Donetsk, March 2014
To be Ukrainian in the occupied territories means not only surviving, but also maintaining you own Ukrainian space.
Oles Honchar, Ukrainian writer and public figure: Man should be measured by his achievements.
When life breaks down and the world turns upside down, you are faced with a choice: either you try to create a new life in a new place or you stay and rebuild what was destroyed. This is a rhetorical dilemma – there is no wrong answer. But not for all, it seems.
Ukraine has been in a state of undeclared war for almost two years. For almost two years, people living in the occupied territories have been stigmatized…from such disgruntled statements as “there are just too many of them here…” to categorical accusations, such as “they’re all a bunch of separatists!”.
I’ve added some to my “collection” of name-calling: such statements as “that ungrateful and arrogant woman from Donetsk” and “Zakharchenko’s provider” have been complemented by such terms as “parasite” and “lying interview”… often without any explanation. Despite the angry comments following my recent interview and serious stigmatization, I remain in occupied Donetsk, and even (oh my God!) teach Ukrainian in schools and talk about the Ukrainian people there who are waiting to be liberated.
Well, apparently it’s very convenient to use the term “occupied territories”. One might think that there are no people living there, or they’re not our own, so why should we care? You can declare them guilty, label them and not bother about evidence. I’m a proud woman and do not accept these charges. But, I often hear things like this from Donetsk people who fled to the “Great Land” or stayed here – and I won’t let you offend them! Let’s try to understand the essence of the accusations.
Try to imagine that you must suddenly leave your town or village. You hastily gather your belongings, but you understand you can’t take everything along; you eliminate this and that, reassuring yourself that you won’t be away too long and you’re not going to a wild country… you’ll be able to find everything you need over there. Then, long lines at cash desks, overcrowded buses, long and difficult roads and unfamiliar bus stations. First, you stay with relatives or friends (that’s an ideal situation), but you eventually realize you won’t be using the keys you’ve been carrying around in your pocket, and will have to stay here indefinitely. You start looking for a place to live, but as soon as owners see an ID with Donetsk or Luhansk registration, they refuse and turn their backs.
However, there are good people in this world – you finally find a place to live, and then you see that you left everything you need back home. Then, another new and unpleasant discovery: your money will run out very soon … sooner than you intended, and you must look for work, but you left your employment card at home and employers here refuse politely … And anyway, you now know you’re here to stay. You’re a migrant, an internally displaced person… A person with an unclear present history and murky future, a broken family and no social ties, someone who’s not always very welcome in his new home. A man with no voice, a person from “a bad area”. How would you feel? What would you do? What would you think? Look at some of my countrymen…not only have they created new worlds for themselves, but they’ve also become activists in many NGOs and founders of strong volunteer groups. They may be the only ones who support, through words and deeds, the people who have stayed behind in the occupied territories.
And now, something about the parasitism of Ukrainians who remain in Donetsk and Luhansk for reasons unknown to “true patriots”. Living in an occupied city means forgetting about a peaceful normal life, future plans and daily convenience.
It means you must learn to explain to your child why we’re having lean porridge for dinner again (We had it for breakfast! She can’t stand the sight of noodles either! Well, maybe a small sausage if we can’t get decent meat? Her friend brought a mandarin to school and it smelled so nice! And so on…), and why she won’t get what she wants for New Year’s or her birthday.
It means not raising your head in the streets and suddenly seeing the faces of people who have ruined your life, and now, happily smiling from billboards, proclaim how wonderful it is to live in a “young republic” – and choking on that sensation of extreme hatred that you feel towards them and towards yourself because you know you’re helpless, because you understand that even if you destroy them, those “republics” may survive.
It means standing by and watching as your childhood and the countryside are destroyed and abandoned buildings and houses collapse… not only from loneliness and depression, but because they’re no longer homes for anyone. It means feeling pain and anguish in your chest…
It means limiting your world to close like-minded friends and breaking off all relations with acquaintances, even friends who’ve forgotten that they’re Ukrainian.
It means continuing to live under the boycott and fierce pressure of colleagues who are on the other side of the barricades, or even worse, being denounced and thrown into the dark cellars of the “Ministry of State Security”. It means listening to steps on the stairs…Are they coming for you as this morning you were trying once again to expose local “DNR and LNR” myths while waiting in line at the local store?
It means convincing and arguing with people who have lost faith (Ukraine will live on!), and most importantly not losing heart yourself.
It means waiting weeks for butter because you refuse to buy a Russian brand and local merchants couldn’t get Ukrainian products.
It means being accused of lying, even by people living in the occupied territories, because it’s all the same in different areas of Donetsk…
It means wearing blue and yellow bracelets and ribbons, embroidered shirts, teaching Ukrainian language and literature (and even reading Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko and Mykola Vorony with historical commentaries, encouraging children to study topical issues in this field, organizing recitation contests and academic conferences in the Ukrainian language!), sneaking out at night and painting blue and yellow flags on monuments and tearing down “DNR” symbols.
It means not only surviving, but maintaining your own Ukrainian space. My countrymen achieve this with great dignity! And even though we’re waiting for liberation, we’re not at all passive. We just realize that we’re in the minority here, and we desperately need the help of all the Ukrainian people to overcome both our external and internal enemy. This can be done only if we’re all together.
There are also the other parasites and separatists – “lost children” (as they are called by my friends, and I’ll accept this definition as it gives some hope for their future and because Ukraine needs ALL her children!), people who have forgotten they’re Ukrainian…as elsewhere in our country, unfortunately. But there are Ukrainians, beliefs, lifestyles and actions that correspond to a completely different concept, which for some reason or other is not used with respect to my countrymen. Perhaps because patriotism is a social and political phenomenon that, according to the dictionary, “has a different social meaning depending on the period of history”. Strange…
So, what does patriotism mean to you?