Summer 2023 – Day Two: And We Find Normal

Day two finds us crossing the Polish Ukrainian border. As we cross I see two boys, likely twelve, on their bicycles with fishing polls. So ordinary, so touching yet unexpected. Why?

We know nations, like we know individuals, by their stereotype. No country owns their stereotype. It is anointed by the media, by speculation, and by the ill informed, pretending to be informed. What is Ukraine’s stereotype – a country devastated by war. Parts are, most of it is not. Boys on bicycles are normal in most of the country. Ukraine’s stereotype should be formed by its values: courage, perseverance, compassion, and gratitude; all in unimaginable quantities.

Today is a travel day, driving some 11 hours from Rzeszow, Poland to Zhytomyr, Ukraine. During 1942-1949 the Zhytomyr region was the territory of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought for the independence of Ukraine against Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, Zhytomyrska oblast has hosted about 112,000 internally displaced persons.

If I didn’t know better I would think this was a drive across Iowa – freshly tilled fields, winter wheat and lots of green. Normal.

– Highways and freeways – yes
– Pick up trucks – no
– Cell phones and cell service everywhere – yes
– Fast food places – no
– Well tended yards and large gardens – yes
– Wild flowers – yes
– Billboards – no
– Convenience stores selling junk food – yes
– Litter along the roads – no, not even a gum wrapper!

We pull in to Zhytomyr and to our hotel around 8:00 PM. There is a wedding going on with lots of good looking, well dressed young people having a great time. Normal.

The wedding party invites us foreigners to join them. Well wishes, toasting the bride and groom, lots of pictures. Normal.
The bridal party finds out that we are Americans here to help with refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs). Hugs, tears and gratitude replace the bonhomie.

The next thing I know a young man is kneeling in front of me head bowed in a profound gesture of thanks – over and over again he says “thank you” in a heavy Ukrainian accent. I pull him to his feet and we hug. Everybody is hugging. It’s a universal language. “We would be slaves of the Russians without America’s help” a young lady explains. We Americans take our liberty for granted. These young Ukrainians know their history. Trying to fight off the Bolshevik’s in 1920 and the Soviets in 1944 is not forgotten even though it was their grandparents and great grandparents generation. They don’t forget the Soviet manufactured famine of 1932/33, the Holodomor, that killed millions. They retell the stories their parents told of the secret police and the Gulag.

And, they are thankful that we are here experiencing their struggle and listening to their stories.

Now the vodka toasts begin: to our team, to generous Americans and then us to them for their courage and bravery, to the the bride and groom for showing hope in the future. We dance and we sing, two more universal languages. More hugging and it’s back to normal. But not for long.

It’s 1:00 AM and the air raid sirens are going off. All of us on the team are familiar enough with Ukraine to know this is to be expected but not to be taken lightly. The hotel basement is five floors down. The wedding party joins us. Great way to start your honeymoon! There’s a certain stoic acceptance.

Around 4:00 AM there’s a big boom and the building shakes. A few minutes later three more explosions shake the hotel. Around 6:00 the all-clear sounds and we go outside. People are walking their dogs in the park. The bride and groom join us. Note he is wearing some of his military gear. Word is he has to report back to his unit today.