I spoke on the phone today with Ana in Ukraine’s fourth largest city, Dnipro, as she was preparing to hide with her four-year-old son in the basement when the nightly Russian shelling began.
“I’m afraid of the anger living in my heart since I’ve had to hide my child in the basement,” Ana admits, then adds optimistically, “but we have a good basement in my building. I brought my mother here to be with us because it’s safer.”
Sirens roar in the background as we speak. Two days ago, Ana tells me, a missile crashed just 20 meters from her building.
They survived. For now…
“We are lucky,” Ana continues, as though in the hell landscape that Russia has engineered in Ukraine, a small country the size of Texas with a population of 44 million, there can even be such a concept as luck. “So far, our city has not been shelled heavily like Kherson and Mariupol.”
Located in Eastern Ukraine, on the Dnieper River, Dnipro is strategically placed on Russia’s path of destruction between the Donbas and Crimea. It is an hour and a half drive from the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Station held since last week by the Russian army.
Any moment our call may be cut off, so I hasten to ask Ana as much as I can in the short time we have to talk.
“What would you ask for from the West?”
“Open your eyes and close the skies,” Ana says firmly.
She explains: “Europe, the United States, Canada, and all the other Western countries are still afraid of Putin and nuclear war. But they don’t realize that they are already at war with Putin. It is happening right now. The West is living with a false feeling of safety. But they are not safe. If the West does not act now, you will find yourselves in the middle of World War III. What are you waiting for?”
I ask her to clarify.
“On July 17, 2014, the Russians shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine. There were no consequences for Russia for that act of terrorism. That emboldened Putin. He understood then that he could do as he liked, and the world would not punish him, and that feeling of impunity has led us to this war.”
I asked about the relationship between Ukrainians and ethnic Russians inside Ukraine under conditions of war.
“Bombs do not differentiate by nationality, so Russians here are also at risk. But there is bitterness. Just to give you an example of how Russia’s war against Ukraine has broken families apart my husband’s brother lives in Moscow and serves in the Russian military. The last time they spoke was two years ago. My husband asked his brother if he would drop bombs in Ukraine, even if it meant killing his own brother. His brother responded, ‘Yes, because you are all Nazis.’ That is how powerful Russian propaganda is. It is stronger than family bonds.”
Ana explains that since Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union thirty years ago, Russia refuses to accept that Ukraine is an independent democracy.
“I don’t think Russians can ever change. Russians have always told Ukrainians that we have no right to be independent. They consider us their slaves. Russians view themselves as a great nation.”
“What are your feelings about President Zelenskyy?”
“President Zelenskyy is our legitimate leader. We elected him. We believe in him. The entire nation is behind him. He has the support of the military.”
“But does Ukraine stand a chance?”
“We are a small country compared to Russia, but we know how to beat them. Russia is trying to empty all of Ukraine with bombings, but they will not win this war.”
“Are you afraid of radiation leaks from the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plants now under Russian control.”
“We have a shortage of potassium iodide tablets here. I am less worried about one of the nuclear power plants being blown up from the outside than human error on the inside caused by exhausted and stressed workers held at gunpoint inside the plant.”
“I was reading President Joe Biden’s Tweets today,” Ana continued. “So many Americans are writing things like: ‘It’s not our war’ and ‘why are you causing gas prices to rise?’ I thought to myself: No one will understand us until a bomb falls on their house.”