I have watched the relentless Russian assault on the city of Mariupol and its more than 400,000 residents with horror. I was in Sarajevo in 1996, after the terrible Bosnian war, and I saw what a city looks like when it has been devastated by mortars and rockets and artillery fire. I will never forget that sight as we drove into Sarajevo to begin our work observing the election. It is etched in my mind forever.
I have not been posting here as often as normal because I have been spending a lot of time online, trying to keep track of what is happening in Ukraine. I observed a number of elections there, in Zaporizhia, Cherkasy, Odesa and Crimea. Like so many others, I am shocked and appalled by how the echoes of World War Two have appeared in front of our eyes. Because it is to that war, mostly, that people refer in their online postings, although there have been other devastating, but smaller, wars since.
Yet, at the same time, social media has made it possible for all of us, if we choose, to do something about what we see – even if it is something that seems small. And that is different from World War Two.
Whether it is donating to help Ukraine, packing first aid kits, sending supplies, holding bake sales, waving the Ukrainian flag, or welcoming the women and children flooding out of the beleaguered country, we are showing that we did learn something from WWII. “It could be us,” so many people say.
I had tears in my eyes as I watched the crowds of German citizens flocking to the train stations to offer accommodation and help. The Polish neighbours welcoming their neighbours with hot tea, hot meals, blankets and kindness. The Moldovans doing the same. Such blessed kindness; such shared humanity.
I was so moved by this reporting in the Guardian:
“Thousands of volunteers, mainly students, are working day and night to distribute food, water, blankets, tents, toys and medicines to up to 80,000 people crossing the 300-mile border between Ukraine and Poland every day. In Warsaw alone, more than 4,000 locals have volunteered to take refugees into their homes.
“I have been alive for some years now, and I have never seen anything like this, such public mobilisation,” said 57-year-old Roman Pogorzelski from Warsaw. “Everyone is united; the only thing we’re asking is what more can we do – what other sanctions can we put on Russia, what aid can we send.” Everyone he knows, he says, is engaged in helping somehow, hosting refugees in their home or raising donations. On LinkedIn, he has seen colleagues organising trucks to carry medical aid into Ukraine.
When Pogorzelski’s daughter called last weekend to ask if he would take into his home four young women – international students from Kenya, fleeing Ukraine – he and his wife did not hesitate. “In a situation like this, there is only one thing you can do,” he said. “We Poles understand the meaning of war.”
Traditionally, citizens have thought of war as the business of governments. But social media has changed that. Now, all of us can see what is happening (unless our media has been blocked), and we can see something we can do individually.
On the Karunavirus site these days, you can see so many stories of human kindness and compassion, from tiny children emptying their piggy banks to convoys of trucks from Ireland ferrying supplies. It is an outpouring of the compassion of ordinary citizens. It is saying to governments that yes, you may buy and use the artillery and the bombs, but we the citizens will do our best to repair the damage – human and structural – they cause. And many of us would like to go further, and find ways to work on ending war as a way to solve disputes between nations.
People working in international development talk a lot about ‘agency’ – about the engaged action of ordinary people. But now we are seeing it in action, from the grassroots up. Because, as they say, it could be us.
Bless my Ukrainian friends and keep them safe in these perilous times. And thank you, citizens of the world, for opening your arms and hearts to them.