Dispatch from Ukraine: Who Do You Feel Safe With?
At 4:30 this morning, I read an essay from my friend Michael Totten. On the Fault Line Between East and West delved into Ukraine’s precarious and unique position of being pulled between Western self-determination and whatever conquerers from the East have imposed: being overrun by Mongols in the 1300s, having a brief independence quashed by the Red Army in 1921, and in the early 1930s, as Michael wrote, “Josef Stalin, in an attempt to extinguish Ukrainian nationalism and identity once and for all, devis[ing] one of the most notorious peacetime genocides in history by using famine to murder millions."
Michael traveled with a friend through Ukraine in 2012 and in his book Where the West Ends, wrote the following of the landscape:
We drove through remote settlements at midnight without any electricity. If not for the pedestrians appearing wraith-like at the edges of our headlights, the landscape would have looked like a scene from the History Channel’s documentary series Life After People.
I was driven through a not dissimilar Ukrainian landscape four days ago. It was 5:30am. Ruslan, who five days earlier had picked me out at 1am from amid thousands at the Lviv train, got the car warmed up as his wife Oksana gave me hot tea and a bag of food.
“Believe me, it is very rare I pack this food,” she said, meaning not these particular items but the packing. As she had previously told me, when I, a stranger introduced via text in the middle of the night by someone 5500 miles away, landed on her doorstep: “I do not cook.”
Which was true; which led to Oksana’s mother one day bringing over homemade borscht, which led to many hours at Oksana’s kitchen table nibbling the cake and chocolate there at all times for sustenance. But this morning, she packed salami and cheese sandwiches and tangerines and a whole chocolate bar, saying I could give it away if I did not need to eat it.
Oksana walked me to the vestibule. It is true that in times of crisis people bond faster and harder, and we both felt this, yes, but this bond can evaporate once you are out of danger. I did not want it to evaporate and there in the vestibule told myself it would not; that we both would keep spinning the threads that bound us, and that we would because we found in each other what for me is the most important quality, and in its truest form unspoken: we made each other feel safe. This is something I have always valued most and have tried to deliver on: Can I call you from anywhere in the world at 3am and say, “Come get me, I need help…” and know that you will come or otherwise help? I know I will do this for you. It is also the paramount quality I need in a mate, that he makes me feel safe, and I can tell you the story of being on the subway at 2am with a boyfriend who was a delightful guy but who I knew, were some shit to go down, I would have to handle it, and I can tell you of my daughter’s late father, who was as financially useful as a wet paper towel but who I knew, I knew I knew I knew, would destroy the world if someone touched a hair on my head, and that when I went to Ukraine, I deliberately wore his belt because I felt it offered me some measure of protection.
Oksana and I hugged goodbye and then Ruslan (which means “lion”) and I were in the car and driving. There were no lights on the road; the populace having been ordered to keep the blinds closed during the night. We passed one road block; two. Ruslan showed ID and spoke easily with the citizens manning the roadblocks, men who presumably had been here all night in the cold, but who seemed cheerful, or as cheerful as can be expected, which is definitely more cheerful and more cooperative that many people might be in 20-degree weather at 5:30 in the morning. As I have written (and as what can be seen as a useful consequence of what Michael Totten wrote about above), Ukrainians have until recently lived collectively, and the day after the Russians invaded, and maybe the day of, they had organized themselves to fight back, to build road blocks, to build weapons, to abandon (or, as is useful, to maintain) their usual posts in order to do what is necessary, the beer brewer switches to making Molotov cocktails, the engineer devises coded social media messages to discredit Russian propaganda, the hosiery salesmen drives American women through the night.
It was still very dark when we reached a small strip of town, with hand-painted shop signs not easy to see in the dark. Ruslan drove slowly, looking for an address, U-turning three times. We passed a couple walking with two very small children and I wondered where they could be going. We passed several cars parked with their lights on and I wondered whether they were working as look-outs. Finally Ruslan parked and indicated I should stay in the car; that he was getting out to smoke. It only occurs to me now that I never for one second felt any hesitation about whom Ruslan might be passing me off to, which turned out to be a woman who works at the border.
“This is all she has?” the woman asked, or some version of it, when I put only my small knapsack into the back of her car. Two men also getting in loaded on their rolling suitcases. The woman I had seen and the two small children had only the tiny backpacks each wore. I hugged Ruslan and thanked him; he nodded, neither time nor much need for more, yes?
“Can my baby sit on you?” Yulia asked, when she, the children and one of the men and I were in the backseat. Her boy shook his head; he would stay with her. He is five and she is three? I asked. Yes, said Yulia, and we were on our way west, the children drawing with their fingers on the fog of the passenger window, the men, who were Italian and spoke neither English nor Ukrainian, saying little, Yulia and I speaking if stiltedly, she was going to Portugal to be with family there; her husband would stay in Ukraine to fight.
We were driven by H for one hour, the landscape brightening, and maybe 15 minutes from the Polish border, H started to talk, a fast stream of animated words — it is my experience that all Ukrainians speak quickly and with animation, I am not yet sure what it is about the language, which I am trying now to learn, that allows them to do so, but it is so - which I thought might be a warning about getting across the border, but no.
“She wants to tell you,” Yulia said, translating: that Ukraine was so so happy with the United States, so grateful for all it had done and was doing. That the weapons America had sent and were sending were so needed and that all the Ukrainian people are sending their gratitude, and that I should let the government know that, but also, that they need more, that their country is in such terrible peril; that everybody, everybody in Ukraine is fighting and will be grateful for more help from the United States and also, that H wanted to thank me personally for letting the world know what was happening. Which was both nuts - here H was, driving six strangers to the border, which incidentally was not without risk for her - and also made the only sense it can make: we were all thankful, we all wanted to help, sandwiches, rides, translation, and speaking of…
“You can maybe take bus across border?” said Yulia, instead of what had been my plan, to walk across and make my way the 14km into Przemysl. Yes, I said, and I can help with the children. And so that is what we did; H spoke to the bus driver and, I am guessing, essentially asked, you will let these people on your bus?
“Tak,” he said, then sat Yulia, the children and me in the seats right behind him and, just because, gave us some candy. I gave the tangerines to the children, and then, when we were across the first checkpoint, donated the Oksana-made sandwiches to the food table being manned by World Central Kitchen, which I have seen feeding people in Lviv, Przemysl, the Polish-Ukrainian border, and in Warsaw. Support their efforts if you can.
I can tell you how funny Yulia’s little girl, in her pink-fur hood, was at the passport control, handing her stuffed panda to her mother so she could, first, cross her arms and pout, and then hit her brother. I can tell you about the three teens who lackadaisically checked our passports. I can tell you how Yulia let me know, the bus was going all the way Warsaw, and how we hugged when she and the children got off near Przemysl; they had so far to go and I wished her what I wish every Ukrainian I take leave from: safety. I can tell you how, safe and sound in Warsaw, I continued to text both with Oksana and my new favorite friend Antonia Hitchens, whom I have never met but who I’d arranged to stay with Oksana, another of the, “Here, I trust you, you can take her from here?” moments, and how later that night, Antonia sent me a photo of Oksana and her daughter Viktoria playing “tennis” in their living room, as Viktoria and I had played the night before. I can tell you how the next morning, I almost got out of the line boarding the plane for New York because both Oksana and Antonia were texting me, sweetly, “Come back!” and how I will go back. I can tell you all these things because we keep each other safe.