Revolution, War, and Personal Reflections

photo credit - Mstyslav Chernov/ UnFramev -https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SState_flag_of_Ukraine_carried_by_a_protester_to_the_heart_of_developing_clashes_in_Kyiv,_Ukraine._Events_of_February_18,_2014.jpg

Image by Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia Commons

This week we will remember Euromaidan, a revolution that began four years ago in Ukraine.

My post today is not a political commentary or history lesson. I’ll give you some background, but you can learn more about Euromaidan in a previous post.

Euromaidan continues to shape all our lives here in Ukraine, including the needs of the people we serve. I hope to honor those who have sacrificed so much and those who continue to lay down their lives for Ukraine.

I’m also sharing my personal experience; an American who grew up in Ukraine and was living Stateside when these events unfolded.

Missionaries come to identify with more than one country, one history, one culture. We become passionate for a land that was not ours at birth, eager to celebrate in her victories and grieving her losses.

A Little Background

Ukraine has wrestled over the years between ties with Russia and the western world. Tensions strike at the core of Ukrainian history and identity. While some parts of the country lean toward Russian ties, those leanings have often been grossly misrepresented by media and corrupt governments.

In 2013, Viktor Yanukovych was president of Ukraine and a favorite of Putin’s government. He aligned Ukraine closer to Russia and earned accusations of corruption and abuse of power. In late 2013, he abandoned a long planned association with the European Union, presumably bowing to Russian pressure.

Hundreds of thousands assembled in the streets of Kyiv to protest. They were peaceful, but demanded the president’s resignation, dissolution of Parliament, and dispersal of some presidential powers to other offices and the legislature.

At one point, an estimated 700,000 were gathered in the capital alone. Thousands more rallied in other cities throughout Ukraine. They set up tents and field kitchens, and lived on the streets through the cold winter months of November into the new year.

The movement was called Euromaidan.

Over those months, the president’s administration sent police, military, and mercenaries to stir up violence among the protesters. People were beaten without mercy. As tensions rose, protestors tore up the cobblestone streets to build barricades. They used molotov cocktails, burning tires, and even their own bodies to defend themselves against attack.

On February 21, 2014, government snipers gunned down over 70 people on their own city streets. The massacre would come to be known as Bloody Thursday.

The savage attack fueled Ukrainians’ outrage against dictator-like power. The government took a stand against Yanukovych to impeach him, and he fled to Russia.

Ukraine mourned her lost heroes. Public funerals were held for days afterwards; hundreds of thousands attended and watched via internet. At least 100 brave men and women had died in the months of conflict. We now remember them as Ukraine’s “Heavenly Hundred.”

Elections were held for an interim president. Parliament passed legislation to limit presidential powers and ensure more liberty for the Ukrainian people.

But amidst those positive changes, war arose. Russia seized and annexed Crimea and took over a number of cities in southeastern Ukraine. Ukraine launched a military  defense, and the U.S. and E.U. levied sanctions against Russia. Several ceasefires were brokered and violated.

Today, we remain at war here in Ukraine.

Personal Memories of Euromaidan

“You must be so relieved you’re in the States right now.”

I heard that phrase many times during Euromaidan. Friends smiled and assumed I shared their relief. My family and I were far from the conflict.

Josh and I were living in the States with our new baby, Nora. Yes, I was relieved our daughter was safe. But beyond that, I felt a mess of emotions: fear, pride, anger, homesickness…loneliness.

I felt very alone.

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Josh and I wished to be with our Ukrainian loved ones. We were so proud of their heroism and indignant at the cruelty and corruption they were facing. We proudly hung Ukrainian flags on our cars and wore ribbons on our bags and clothing.

We were furious at the media’s misrepresentation of the events. The first hand reports we got from Ukraine contrasted starkly with what we saw on TV or heard on the radio. Our hearts broke when friends told us about protestors who were found dead, after they’d been tortured grotesquely.

I watched live Ukrainian news via internet for days on end. I’ll never forget calling Josh at work, completely panicked when the first attack against the protesters was reported. On Bloody Thursday, I saw the horrific footage of snipers in the streets. I sat on our living room floor, holding Nora. Crying. Unable to believe this was reality.

We sat for a full day watching the public funerals; the soulful dirge still rings in my memory.

Through it all, we worried about friends who were taking part in the revolution or serving the protestors.

And we worried about our family.

My parents and three of my younger siblings were still missionaries in Ukraine at the time. I remember multiple conversations with my mom about their plans.

At one point of danger might they decide to leave? Or would they leave at all?

My entire family was spread out across three different countries. We stayed up to date on a Viber chat group. I felt more intimately connected to each of them than any other time in my life. Everyone waited by their phone at all hours of the day and night, praying for safety.

I remember one nightmarish conversation with my sister. She was in her early twenties at the time and working at a ministry close to Kyiv. Given the close proximity, we all knew it was possible they would end up in danger. She called me, trying to decide what to do.

From over 5,000 miles away, I told my baby sister, “The choice has to be yours. But you have to accept that if you stay, you may be in danger. You could be raped. You might die.” I knew she had to pray and make her own decisions. But how could I possibly be having this conversation?

When we got off the phone, Josh found me in a heap on the floor, crying uncontrollably. I had to pull myself together for a wedding on his side of the family that afternoon. On our drive there, we listened to radio reports of Russian tanks pressing further into Ukraine.

It was a surreal day. Trying to look happy at a family celebration when my thoughts were consumed with tanks, and burning streets, and my sister. And knowing that not a single person around me, other than my husband, had any idea of my emotional state.

As a missionary living back in the U.S., this was the loneliest time I’d ever known.

It was like going through 9/11 in Ukraine. Only it felt lonelier. When the twin towers collapsed, many Ukrainians reached out to my family and offered their sympathy. They commented on how hard it must be to grieve away from our people.

But now, few people seemed to really understand, or at least appreciate, how the distance was affecting me. After all, this was not happening in “my” country.

Only it was.

The exceptions were other former missionaries. I remember one woman in particular who had also served on the mission field. She approached me at church on a Sunday morning and gave me a hug. With a knowing expression on her face, she said something about how she could imagine what I was feeling.

When Josh and I got in the car to leave church, I broke down crying. Tears because of the storm of emotions we were living in every day. Tears because finally, someone actually understood how I felt.

In Conclusion

I started this post describing how a missionary identifies with a new home, a new country. I spent many childhood and early adult years in Ukraine, and have always felt part Ukrainian at heart. Euromaidan was a time when I felt that identity the strongest.

At the same time, I recognize that any grief or fear I have experienced cannot compare to the tragedy and terror so many Ukrainians have suffered. I don’t pretend to understand exactly how my Ukrainian friends feel. I’ve never been that woman dreading the notice that her husband or son has been called up to war. I’ve never lived on the soil of my own nation at war.

But as a missionary, my heart breaks and rejoices with them. I’m so proud of their heroism.

And for those of you with missionaries or former missionaries in your lives, I hope this post gives you a window into their hearts. In the good and the bad times, reach out to them and ask questions. Ask them how they feel about current events. Let them share their stories and hearts.

Do you know why Maidan survived? Because following the gunshots and the explosions, instead of running, the wounded were dragged back, and everyone made a step forward shouting: “Still standing, still standing!” Under the bullet fire and the grenade blasts, under Putin’s hate, “still standing, still standing!”

– Victoria Arbuzova – Powell, survivor of Euromaidan

 

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