Maria’s children, aged 13 and 15, were huddled in the back of a van stuffed with cushions, blankets, a huge dog and a tortoiseshell cat; their grandmother was in the front. We were in Zaporizhia, central Ukraine, in the cash-and-carry car park, now a receiving centre for caravans of bedraggled vehicles arriving from Mariupol, a Ukrainian city that has been all but destroyed by Russian bombardment. Most cars were hung with strips of white cloth to show Russian soldiers on checkpoints that the people inside were civilians, while many had signs with the word “Дети”, meaning “children”, pasted on to the window. Some windscreens had been shattered by shrapnel. Maria, her long hair whipping around her face in the icy wind, described how her children had been near the Mariupol theatre, which was serving as a bomb shelter, when it was hit by artillery on 16 March. “I saw nothing in the dust; I just heard screaming,” she said. She ran towards the theatre, desperately calling out their names: “Yegor! Eva-Elizaveta!” Through the grit in the air, she heard their voices. After that, she found a lift out with friends. Last I heard, they were on their way to the border with Poland, joining three million other Ukrainians who have become refugees in the past month.
Instinct for survival
Ukraine is festooned with yellow and blue flags, and people greet each other with “Slawa Ukraine!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”). In every town I’ve seen volunteers collecting food and other supplies for the displaced and for the troops defending the country. Most people I’ve met are full of talk about how everyone is pulling together to defeat Russia. Not Maria.
“In war you show your true face,” she said. “In Mariupol people were stealing and not sharing. The Russians are inside the city and some people are very happy about it. Even my neighbours.” While the invasion has fomented patriotic fervour, unity is hard to sustain when your town is being bombed, and water, electricity and food supplies are cut off. In such circumstances, most people will save their own skin and that of their family before helping others. War brings out the best and worst in people. And there are always collaborators.
The Queen and I
We’ve driven thousands of miles covering this war, and gone through scores of checkpoints manned by Ukrainian Territorial Defence Force volunteers. Most are polite and curious. At one, our local producer, Maksym, ran out of answers and turned to me.
“The guy wants to know how come your Queen has lived so long. What’s her secret?”
“She’s a vegetarian,” I responded, quick as a flash.
A dubious look and we were waved through. OK, the Queen isn’t a vegetarian. But I am. And sometimes you just say the first thing that comes into your head.
The war’s long shadow
Some people say the attention paid to this war is disproportionate compared to, say, Syria, or Israel and Palestine. So how do we judge the significance of a conflict? There should be no hierarchy of sympathy: suffering is indivisible. An injured Ukrainian child is no different to an injured Palestinian child. But journalists have to consider the geostrategic and historical implications of a conflict as well as the human cost. This war will have unintended and terrible consequences – like 9/11, which led to the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which in turn spawned further conflicts. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not just an unprovoked attack on a sovereign country; it pits Russia, a nuclear power, against Nato, the most heavily armed alliance in history. Putin may not have succeeded in conquering Ukraine as quickly as he desired, but the potential for a wider and even more devastating war remains alarming.
Tears of a tyrant
I always read poetry when on the road – it centres me, especially in extreme situations like this. WH Auden’s “Epitaph on a Tyrant” has seemed particularly apt these past few weeks, especially the final two lines: “When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,/And when he cried the little children died in the streets.” That’s Putin surrounded by sycophants, claiming he is so upset about the plight of Ukrainians that he must save them from themselves. I will never forget Violetta, a girl I met in the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv. Before the war, in an act of teenage rebellion, she had dyed her hair blue, pink and purple; now she was weeping outside her house, which had been hit by a rocket. “Does this look like salvation to you?” she asked.
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain