LEOPOLIS, Ukraine – Nothing like a war to learn geography, history and how fragile we are.
I’ve spent the past few days watching thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the brutal Russian invasion. But it is the children who literally broke my heart. They are so disoriented and surprised amid this absurd war between adults.
At the Przemysl train station in Poland, where thousands of Ukrainian refugees arrive every day, there’s a room turned into a campground, with folding beds and sleeping bags. And there, through a window, I saw a boy, three or four years old, dressed all in yellow and playing with a toy car. Chaos surrounded him. But he didn’t seem to notice, or it did not bother him. He was totally engrossed. Running that little car up and down the bed was his only, fundamental job.
He played like that for several minutes, until I had to leave. I will never know if he was doing this as a distraction, to deny reality, or simply because he wanted to play. But his world had fallen apart. He had lost home and country in an instant. And perhaps a father as well.
Suddenly, from one day to another, these children have lost their fathers and their elder brothers. And they have to follow their mothers to an unknown country where they speak a language they don’t speak. They are the children of families separated by war. The law here in Ukraine bars men 18 to 60 years old from leaving the country. They are required to sign up for the war against Russia.
Taras, who is 36 years old and did not allow me to use his surname, lives in Leopolis. He is not a soldier, but has been receiving military training for several days. He knows how to make a Molotov cocktail and how to build a barricade to stop Russian tanks. And no matter the news, he is convinced Ukraine will win the war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said recently that there’s a Hollywood version of reality in which Russia is the bad guy and Ukraine the good one. So what do you call the violent and deadly invasion of a democratic country? Russia can censure its national news media and repeat a thousand times that Ukraine is not an independent country, just part of its own territory. But that is as absurd as taking the home of your neighbor and then telling police that you went in because it’s yours.
This is a war by only one man – Vladimir Putin – and a small group of military officers and oligarchs who have become wealthy around him, and who are terrified of saying no to their egocentric leader. This absurd Putin obsession of turning Russia into a post-Soviet empire has changed the lives of millions of children.
At a mall in Przemysl, turned into a dormitory for families just arrived from Ukraine, I saw children run as if they were on school break, cry without reason and then freeze, staring at the floor, not understanding what had hit them. Their desperate mothers tried to take care of them, holding a cell phone to get the latest family news while offering them food, but the truth is they also didn’t know what to do. The freezing temperatures and gray days didn’t help. Their souls were frozen.
That’s also where I saw a boy, about 13 years old, on a mattress on the floor. Unlike teenagers in other parts of the world, he didn’t have a cell phone or a tablet. He had nothing. Judging from where I saw him, I believed his Ukrainian family had just arrived in Poland – like half a million other refugees – and still didn’t know where he was going to sleep that night. The teenager’s eyes screamed with anguish.
Several years ago I read a 1932 exchange of letters about war between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. They were published in a marvelous little book titled Why War? And they concluded that war is the result of failure. Our failure. War means that everything else – diplomacy, negotiations, talks, the capacity to listen and seek solutions together – failed. The responsibility, in this case, falls squarely on Putin. But the failure by the rest of the world to control his messianic and bellicose appetites led to the handover of Ukraine. And its children.
I understand that we cannot risk a nuclear exchange with Russia or start World War III. But we have done very badly as a group if our only options are a huge massacre or allowing a global bully to get away with it. The word “disheartened” perfectly describes how I have felt these last few days in Ukraine and the border with Poland. When these Ukrainian children grow up, what will they remember and recount? Perhaps that the world watched them lose everything – family, house, country – and did nothing.