Dear Canada: here in Ukraine, we’ve suffered losses and we’re enduring burdens, but life goes on and we expect to win the war

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LVIV—I’m sitting in one of my favourite cafés in a beautiful historic city, just a stone’s throw from Poland. I look around and see a young couple holding hands and kissing, a stern middle-aged man typing frenetically on his laptop, a group of teenage girls tapping their feet to music playing into their headphones. This could be Prague, Krakow, or any other European city. But suddenly, the air raid sirens blare across the market square, Ploshcha Rynok; loudspeakers warn people to head for the nearest shelters; the cafés and shops close their doors … and we are reminded that no place is safe in Ukraine.

On Jan. 29, 2022 I wrote, “If Russia pushes further into Ukraine, there will be a bloodbath here: most Ukrainians will stand and fight. Others, though, will run and will soon be hammering at Europe’s doors, causing a devastating humanitarian crisis in the heart of the continent.” Over six months of war have passed. All this has come true, unfortunately.

During the first weeks of the full-scale invasion, general chaos and panic reigned in the towns and cities and throughout the whole country. The government was in disarray; Ukrainians were in shock, as most of them could not believe that their neighbour would ever launch an openly declared destruction of their country and people.

Personally, I was convinced that Russia would push further into Ukraine, as Vladimir Putin had declared his intentions many years ago. My friends in both Kyiv and Lviv, however, dismissed the idea as preposterous, saying the Russians were only interested in eastern Ukraine. Authorities here were not ready, either — they were more intent on building new roads than financing the much-depleted arms industry. Russia’s rapid advance toward Kyiv and Kharkiv and its capture of Kherson and the southern regions show that the attention of the Ukrainian government was elsewhere.

And when Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv, Sumy and Chernihiv regions, the world learned of the horrors, torture and destruction perpetrated by the Russians in the now-infamous towns of Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and Hostomel, to name just a few. Shock turned into anger, frustration and a burning desire for revenge as Ukrainians — men and women, young and old — continued to storm the recruitment offices of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. (Four young men in my extended Ukrainian family are currently serving somewhere in the war zone. Two left promising jobs; the other two enlisted in 2014; all four have families.)

The West suddenly realized that Ukraine was not going down without a fight and that certain values, so heartily professed by the European Union, the United States and Canada, were actually worth fighting for. Weapons from western partners began arriving as the Russian army regrouped and directed all their forces against the Donbas — the embattled regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, parts of which, together with Crimea, had been grabbed illegally by Moscow in 2014. I remember a bright, cold day in March; I was passing by the railroad tracks that run through Lviv. Suddenly, the train whistle blew loudly and a long convoy of tanks mounted on railway wagons rumbled by me, probably heading to eastern Ukraine. Another day, I heard a loud roar above me; I lifted my eyes and saw a huge military plane flying low above the city. Daily signs of war …

From the relative safety of Lviv, I watched as Putin threw soldiers from his depressed “colonies” (Buryatia, Tuva, etc.) as cannon fodder against the Ukrainian army. The destruction and humanitarian crisis that followed were overwhelming. Entire cities, including Mariupol, Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and many others were obliterated by the Russians, who advanced inch by inch using scorched-earth tactics.

Today, Ukrainians are still fleeing en masse from Russian-occupied territories; some have settled in western Ukraine, others have moved on to neighbouring countries, and so the humanitarian crisis is acutely felt, both in Europe and in Ukraine. Many Ukrainian experts wonder what the country will look like after our victory (there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind, here, that Ukraine will be victorious).

Many Ukrainians have returned, but millions are still abroad and have nothing to return to. Lviv, like many other cities in western Ukraine, is oversaturated with internally displaced persons (IDPs), entire families with children and pets. The city has turned into a beehive as humanitarian hubs have opened in all districts and hundreds of volunteers prepare meals, collect clothing and help with documents. The IDPs are housed in schools, recreation centres, gyms, etc. All available space is occupied, as is the case in most of the villages and towns in western Ukraine. My schoolteacher friend does not know whether her kids will be able to attend regular lessons in September, as the school is largely occupied by IDPs.

Meanwhile, I find I have attended too many funerals — for friends’ sons who were killed fighting the invaders. There is no more space for their graves in the section reserved for fallen Ukrainian soldiers in historic Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv. Burials now take place on the Field of Mars adjoining the cemetery.

On top of the humanitarian issue and Russia’s war crimes, there is also the forced deportation of Ukrainian citizens from the recently occupied areas to Russia. Over two million Ukrainian citizens, including children, have been forcibly removed. Ukrainian orphans have been kidnapped and transported to Russia. Ukrainians leaving the occupied territories must pass through so-called “filtration camps,” where, they report, they get interrogated, sometimes beaten and tortured, with their bodies examined for “nationalist” tattoos. Many have disappeared without a trace.

Lviv itself was hit several times by Russian missiles — a fuel depot on March 26-27, a tire store on April 3 (six people including a child killed, 11 injured), and two power substations on May 3, when I remember hearing a deafening roar and seeing a huge plume of black smoke billowing above the roofs, as some parts of the city went into a blackout. Another time, I actually caught a glimpse of a missile hurtling through the air. The broader Lviv Region has been bombed several times, most notably the Yavoriv military base on March 13, a few kilometres from the Polish border, and more recently an anti-aircraft missile complex in Chervonohrad District on Aug. 2. No place in Ukraine is really safe.

There are obvious signs everywhere — almost daily air raid alerts, Territorial Defence units patrolling the streets, curfews, monuments and buildings protected against aerial bombardment, windows taped in criss-cross patterns, museum doors and windows shielded or sandbagged, metal “hedgehog” anti-tank barriers tidily stacked near important buildings. However, the atmosphere in the city is calm; shops and cafés are open and crowded; families stroll through the main square and city parks. Theatres and the opera schedule plays, concerts and ballet performances. Life continues.

On July 20, the U.S. announced the delivery of 12 HIMARS to Ukraine, and more are on the way. American high-mobility rocket systems, French CAESAR self-propelled howitzers, German PzH 2000 howitzers, British M270 rocket launchers, Polish Krab self-propelled artillery and much more have made a huge difference on the battlefield: the Ukrainian military can now strike and destroy Russian weapons depots, air defence systems and strategic bases deep behind enemy lines. Thank you, world! But we need more — especially more long-range missile systems, more ammunition, tanks and fighter jets. Yes, that’s asking a lot, but the world must know that if Russia is not stopped today, the little Kremlin despot will move further into Central Europe and the Baltic States.

And Canada? Canada has sent humanitarian aid and some military assistance, and announced several major loans to Ukraine. I am thankful, but more can and should be done.

In the meantime, Aug. 10 was a euphoric day. That was when some 15 explosions were reported at the Saky airbase on the west coast of occupied Crimea, which Russia has used as a launch pad for its missiles. At such a difficult time, humorous memes and satire have become a popular way of letting off steam, and so there was no official Ukrainian confirmation of an attack, just a tongue-in-cheek statement from the Ministry of Defence, translated thusly:

“Regarding the blasts and fire on the Saky airfield near Novofedorivka in temporarily occupied Crimea

“The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence cannot establish the actual cause, but once again reminds locals of basic fire safety rules and that smoking is prohibited in certain areas …

“Keep calm and believe in the Armed Forces of Ukraine!”

I even treated myself to two glasses of nice Ukrainian wine.

Recently, the world heaved a sigh of relief when the first vessels laden with Ukrainian grains, cereals and corn left the port of Odesa. It’s no secret that the Ukrainian chornozem (black earth) steppe lands feed Africa and Asia, so the much-touted grains export deal signed by Ukraine and Russia and brokered by the United Nations and Turkey finally opened a safe travel route for the ships. It should be noted, though, that Russian forces have shelled wheat fields with incendiary bombs and launched missile strikes against silos and farms across several regions.

The war has also brought another international problem to the forefront — the ineffectiveness and impotence of such major, well-known organizations as the UN, the Red Cross, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the UN Security Council, and Amnesty International. My friends are angry and don’t understand why so little is being done. We discuss this regularly. After the war, all these bureaucratic institutions need to be rethought and redesigned so that massacres like Olenivka and failure to assist the Azovstal POWs will never be repeated. In fact, the whole world order needs a reset!

That’s a matter for when this is over, which brings me to the ultimate question that everyone here asks themselves — when and how will this savage war in the middle of Europe finally end? Of course, no one knows, not even Putin himself, though in Ukraine, we say the war will end when Russia is totally defeated — militarily, economically and politically.

But as for concessions or negotiations, which some do-gooders in Europe and elsewhere are proposing … forget it! How do you negotiate with a country that refuses to halt the bombing and shelling of civilians? How can you trust any agreement signed by Putin and his cohorts? Why should Ukraine, an independent European state, be forced to give up a chunk of its territory?

Ukraine will not surrender. Ukraine will be victorious. No one doubts it in Ukraine. That’s the only way that this brutal war can end.

As we say around here: Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine!)

Christine Eliashevsky Chraibi is a volunteer editor/translator from Toronto, living in Ukraine.

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