© Mark Kitchell
Mark Kitchell currently accompanies the NGO LUKraine on a two-week humanitarian trip to Ukraine, sharing observations from his journey on RTL Today.
In this article, I am taking you to the central part of Ukraine, the land of authentic Ukrainian culture and spirit, the homeland of one of Ukraine's greatest writers and rebels of all time, Taras Shevchenko - to a Ukrainian village in Cherkasy region.
On August 17, the first phase of the LUkraine humanitarian mission, aimed at providing medical and other services to newly liberated territories of Ukraine, has finished for now, but the Mission has just begun. We have turned over all our rescue vehicles to our local partners, and they are already actively transporting patients. The team met with various local volunteer groups in towns such as Novomoskovsk, Apostolove, Kramatorsk, and Mykolaivka, locations well within the range of Russian forces' ability to shell and bomb. Fortunately, there were no attacks during our visits, as Russian rockets had greeted us during our first night in Dnipro.
Before I leave the Mission and move on to my trip to Kyiv and rural Ukraine, a note about the official ceremony where we turned over the rescue vehicles to our partners. This happened at the memorial to the victims of Holodomor in Dnipro. The location was not a coincidence but a reminder of what Ukraine is facing: the second attempt by Russia at the genocide of the Ukrainian nation, to wipe out their culture and language.
The first attempt was the Holodomor, also known as the Great Ukrainian Famine, which, due to Soviet actions, claimed the lives of 3.5 to 5 million Ukrainians (even this wide range is disputed) in 1932-1933. Many countries around the world, including Luxembourg, have recognized Holodomor as genocide.
The fact that it has been 100 years, and Ukraine is still fighting for its survival against the same aggressor both sad and thought-provoking. The most severe Holodomor affected the central parts of rural areas in Ukraine, including Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsya, Cherkasy, Poltava, Odesa, and Dnipro regions. We saw many smaller memorials in during the Mission, at almost every village we went to.
Following the official part of our Mission, I was warmly welcomed by my Ukrainian friend to explore the true Ukrainian culture and history in a village in the heart of Cherkasy region, which is located 30 km from the fairly large city of Uman. She took me to their village cemetery and showed me the abandoned section of it with crosses scattered about. There was no identification, as people exhausted by the famine were buried there. When buried, no one knew the names. Among the graves, there were large crosses for adults surrounded by small crosses marking the graves of children.
I suppose everyone knows how hospitable Ukrainians are and how much food they serve to their guests. It's something of a tradition. However, this time I wondered if it was somehow connected to the historical memory of the famine. Our dinner table was overflowing with food. Even though my friend's mom cooked deliciously, there was way more food than any person could eat. In their family basement, there were jars of homemade pickles and jams, some made this year and others from last year, as well as piles of potatoes, apples and homemade wine.
"Well, I used to make jokes when my grandma (born in 1934) made all these pickles and practically planted fields of fruits and vegetables. But when we fled the war here and were sitting in the basement, having no idea about the future of Ukraine, I understood her point," my friend answered.
My friend's great-grandparents had ten children, including her grandmother. Three died in childhood, but none to Holodomor. I asked Anna, my friend's mom, how they survived. She replied, "My grandpa was a brilliant fisherman. He fished at night, and afterward, my grandma would take the catch to the neighbouring region to exchange it with Jewish salesmen for grain. Many Jewish people helped Ukrainians survive during that time."
"The road was about 15 km one way, through the forest with wild animals and starving people who might attacked you at any moment because they had lost their minds due to hunger. By the way, during the Second World War, my great-grandparents also helped Jewish people survive the Holocaust by hiding them in their basement."
That tiny village, with a population of just 300, may not be wealthy, but Ukrainian hard work has made it a fine place to live. They have everything they need for a good life: cars, well-repaired houses, internet access, computers, smartphones, concrete roads, and street lights. Surrounded by forests and farmland, they plant corn, sunflowers, and wheat every year to make a living. Unfortunately, due to the war and Russia's violation of the grain agreement, farmers can't sell their crops, as companies can't export them. This has left many families with no income for this season.
As I observed all of this, I couldn't help but remember all those stories from Russian occupants who were shocked at how well-developed the Ukrainian countryside is. They destroyed people's homes and cities out of jealousy. Having compared it to a typical village in Russia (a country I visited first in 1983 and most recently 2017), it's no wonder Ukrainian villages look like Las Vegas to them.
After my countryside weekend, I left to explore Kyiv and meet its citizens. Some things were unexpected, in a certain way I was disappointed (surprised), and there were aspects I had to reconsider. I arrived in Kyiv during the biggest holiday for Ukrainians, Independence Day, which was accompanied by the sound of air raid sirens. But that's a story for my last article.