Interviews of Valeria Biben, Alina Datsii, Maksym Kutsenko and Mirjam Schmitz collected by Dario De Quarti
Content warning: This article contains mentions of violence and suicide. Readers discretion is advised.
“Can we start the interview ?”
“Yes. But my parents are currently hiding in the kitchen because there are tanks close to their house, in the Kyiv Oblast.” That’s how Alina, a Ukrainian student in Geneva, started our meeting.
“When my parents used not to pick up the phone, I knew it meant nothing. Now, it could mean anything.” Valeria, History student from the Institute, like all Ukrainians, saw her life dramatically changing on February 24th.
“I was on the train when I learned about the invasion. My home country was being bombed. And yet on the outside, I was seeing people going to their jobs, laughing.” Maksym, who studies Economics at the Institute, is Ukrainian but also Swiss, where he has lived since his childhood. Being part of the Ukrainian diaspora forces you to deal with this dual reaction. On the one hand, an unbearable pain; on the other hand, the rest of the world goes on.
“An acquaintance of mine and I organised a protest in Geneva last Sunday. However, on 24th February, he killed himself, out of despair over the Russian invasion.”, shares Mirjam, a Swiss-German student who has lived in Russia for a year and in Ukraine for nine months. Her acquaintance had good friends in Ukraine. When, from Switzerland, he saw the attack, he could not bear the news.
If February 24th marked a shocking wake-up call for the world, it was the start of a new life for Ukrainians. Now, they experience the fragility of human existence in an unwanted manner, daily. Good sleep is an old memory, security seems light-years behind. In this piece, we attempt to give the floor to some members of the Ukrainian student community of our Institute as well as at UNIGE.
The current situation in Ukraine
“My parents were sleeping, it was 6 am. They heard an explosion, and then sirens. They did not understand what was happening, nobody was prepared. This intervention uses the same methods that were used by the worst leaders during World War II, including Hitler : attacking people while they are asleep. My parents are being shelled every day. Friends of my neighbour died. This is inhuman”. For Alina, it is extremely painful to witness the situation from her phone, without being able to change anything there. So, she started acting locally: “I am a student, I was not here to organise humanitarian aid, coordinate volunteers, attend meetings, offer accommodation to refugees. But now, my life has completely changed. This is my responsibility.”
Valeria is from Uzhhorod, in western Ukraine: “Right now, it is a “safe” place in Ukraine because it has not been bombed yet. Being close to Slovakia (which is part of the European Union), I don’t think Russia will bomb there.”
“The first days, my parents were just staying home. When my father finally left to do some groceries, he saw kilometres-long lines of cars at the border, mainly with children and women, since men aged 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country. To leave Ukraine, it takes time, it is not like in the Schengen area. The positive thing is that there are a lot of volunteers helping refugees right now. Ukrainians helping other Ukrainians. Different regions are occupied by different urges. Some cities are literally defending themselves physically, others are helping people to leave the country”.
“I have heard stories about racist selections of immigrants at the Ukrainian border. Yes, this can be true and sadly racism exists like in many other places. But this is not the majority of Ukrainians, that’s for sure. People also have to consider that Russia-state medias want to fuel hate towards Ukrainians. So whatever news they find that goes in this direction, they will amplify it to switch the narrative. Pro-Russian media is active outside of Russia, and their aim is to create hate. But sorry, we are an innocent country that is being invaded.”, says Alina.
Now, men aged between 18-60, like the fathers and uncles of most of our interviewees, cannot leave the country. Alina thinks that “this is probably a good approach, because in this way men can patrol the streets, and stay with the women and children that could not leave the country, or with all the people that were left without solutions, alone. Men who stay do not necessarily fight”.
The narrative behind this conflict
“Russia and Ukraine have a lot in common, at least historically. But Russia used to call us “Small Russia” while saying we are their brothers. How can we be their brothers if they use this name to emphasise that we are smaller ? The narrative that we are brothers is not right. Starting from when the Cossacks, who were independent warriors, were oppressed by the Russian Empire. […] During Maidan, one million people took the streets to protest against Yanukovych, a Russian marionette, and the answer to that was a brutal repression. At least 100 people died in the centre of Kyiv. And Yanukovych fled to find refuge in Russia ! And Russia thanked him for killing these “fascists”, meaning that the population was fascists. How can we be their brothers ?[…] Then, they took Crimea. The narrative is that it is their territory. How can you consider someone your brother and take their territory ? Thank you brother for doing this… […] There is no point with this war. The narrative that Russia has does not hold. People are joining the Russian army to “liberate Ukraine from fascists, nazi” as part of a “military intervention”, but then they come and see that this is not true. Russia is just attacking innocent people. There is no NATO or EU (expansion) narrative that holds. It is just the attack on an innocent population”, states Alina.
Her story is similar to the one shared by European leaders, for example Emmanuel Macron that claimed the Russian narrative is “an unbearable propaganda, […] an insult to those who fought against Nazism”.
For Mirjam, “there has been a humanitarian crisis in Eastern Ukraine since 2014. But after a while, it stopped making the headlines and it never affected the whole country. At the beginning of February, I realised there was a real threat of invasion. Travelling to Ukraine to conduct field research for my master’s thesis was no longer an option.“
Helping Ukraine is not only possible, it is essential.
“To the people who live abroad, please do NOT ignore this war. Don’t close your eyes. Don’t say that war is far, it is not. […] Putin will not stop in Ukraine. If Ukraine is invaded, the war will be global”, calls Alina.
As you might know, Valeria, Alina and Maksym began a podcast called “Unite for Ukraine” which is primarily made for the international community. “For us, it is very important that people listen to it. Immediately, we were contacted by several radio stations and newspapers. Actually, sharing our personal stories seems to be what interests people.”
Currently, social media also seems to play a crucial role in the war. “In the first days, I think people did not really understand how bad it was. Now, I see that American publications started posting more pictures and videos from Ukrainian towns, they are finally using the material that comes from Ukraine. People now understand everything better because the media could find better sources, get better translations. […] Ukraine and the European Union are really on the same narrative. But sometimes, I see videos by Russian bloggers followed by millions of people who say crazy things. It makes me furious, but also makes me laugh at the same time, because they call themselves ‘political bloggers’ and yet they report lies. There’s no other words, it is just lies.”, underlines Valeria.
When I asked all of them what was the most precious help they could get right now, their answers were all pointing in two directions. First, continuing to spread the gravity and the urgency of the situation, through social media and in our daily lives. “I am scared that people will soon forget how dramatic the situation is”, thinks Valeria. Mirjam witnessed during the protest last Sunday that “many people are still not aware of what is happening.”
Moreover, getting the right information can sometimes be tricky. “I have friends from Donbas that come and correct me when I share posts on social media. So people have to inform themselves, but quite ironically, I also have to inform myself, to get the correct information”, underlines Maksym.
To help Ukrainians, the second point is to refer to the list of resources that was shared by GISA. On this point, Mirjam said that “aid initiatives are now increasingly coordinated. Initially, the reaction was very spontaneous. Now, there are many group chats, centralised information. […] Donations are super important. A lot of aid is targeted towards refugees, but the large majority of Ukrainians are still in Ukraine. They need humanitarian aid right now”. According to Maksym, “what is mostly needed is also protective military equipment : helmets or anything similar.” Most civilians engaged in the fight without any equipment.
We also underline that you can follow Unite for Ukraine (@uniteforukraine) and Alina’s personal account on Instagram (@alina_datsii), which share resources. Another space for participation and engagement is the protest happening this Saturday in Place Neuve, Geneva, at 2:30pm. Please find the Facebook event here .
Is the World reacting ?
In Russia, protests were quickly stopped by the police. However, the population seem to have reacted through social media, even if it is difficult to quantify the size of the movement.
“I hope that more Russian will take the streets. Russians should be aware of the situation and do something about it. They are 144 million, if they all wake up for what they call their ‘little brother’, military forces will not be enough. I don’t care that they are scared, we are dying. They are at home, we are dying. We will never forget that Russians stayed silent. “ declared Alina.
The West started to take punitive sanctions towards Russia. Switzerland was initially shy and reacted through statements, but without sanctions. Later, they followed the European reaction : “I am not surprised by the Swiss reaction. It is part of their neutrality to behave like this. That’s the image they built themselves. I think that following what the European Union is doing is the right way to act for Switzerland. I don’t expect Switzerland to take stronger measures than the European Union, but to be on the same page”, commented Maksym.
“I think sanctions are helping Ukrainans, even if they are definitely making Russians angrier. But what Ukrainians need the most, right now, is military help. Ukrainians are fighting really well, but we should be more protected. Although I realise that if NATO does something, it could be dangerous. Ukrainians are signing petitions to ask NATO to intervene. But I am aware that Russia is ready to use the nuclear weapon, so it is tough”, thinks Valeria.
One day, stability will be found. A war can not last forever, peace will eventually prevail. The question is when, and how. But are Ukrainians ready for a hypothetical Russian control of their country ? “At this point, our people are not scared of anything. We will never want to be under Russian control. It feels like we’ve come this far and to give up now, it would just not make sense. We just fight for our lives, the rest doesn’t really matter. “ claims Valeria.
For Alina, “there is no way that we accept to give our territories to the aggressor that violates International Humanitarian Law, international conventions. We will never forget what Russia is doing.”
Once again, it seems that the “little brother” narrative does not find resonance outside of Russia.
“I don’t know if this wound will ever heal. And the Ukrainans would never accept a puppet regime installed by Russia”, confirms Mirjam.
“Alina, a final message ?“
“Messages are good, but we need to act. Protests are the message that we can send to the government. If governments see that we are all together, that this is not only a Ukraine problem, they will react. Слава Україні!”
LIST OF RESOURCES :
Ways to help collected by GISA : https://docs.google.com/document/d/1g9T1v3MRxGZn2ELomDXuyzQQ3bgRw-Rs/edit?usp=sharing&ouid=108851905883166371767&rtpof=true&sd=true
@UniteForUkraine : https://www.instagram.com/uniteforukraine/
@alina.datsii : https://www.instagram.com/alina_datsii/
@withukraine : https://www.instagram.com/withukraine/
PROTEST THIS SATURDAY :https://www.facebook.com/pages/Place-Neuve/108410725888820
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