We landed in Kyiv Ukraine on Friday afternoon after twenty or so hours of traveling. Brandt had never been to this part of the world before and didn't know what to expect. In a way, I didn't either. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we had been obsessively checking the news every day for updates on the unsettling situation in Ukraine, wondering whether going was really a good idea.
A few months ago I wrote about what has been going on in Ukraine this year. We've seen it on the news, day-in and day-out, since the beginning of 2014. The turmoil started when a few peaceful protesters in Kyiv's center square were brutally attacked at the orders of one of the world's most corrupt presidents. The response to those attacks was swift, and in the coming days, thousands, and at some points hundreds of thousands, stormed the streets.
The fighting between the protesters in Kyiv and the group hired to put an end to things turned the center of Kyiv into a horrific war zone, so dramatic that the photos we saw online looked like something out of a sensationalized Hollywood movie. Then, finally, just a couple of months ago, the president was forced to flee Ukraine or stay and answer for his crimes against humanity. He fled.
Some of the folks in the very eastern part of the country (Kyiv is right in the middle) began to stage their own protests at that time, arguing that the new government in Kyiv couldn't possibly represent their interests and the interests of those who fought to put the new government in place, considering that there is a strong cultural and political divide between the eastern and western portions of Ukraine.
Russia stealthily began to move in, providing secret support to the eastern rioters and promoting chaos in Ukraine in hopes of toppling an already vulnerable system.
It is under these volatile circumstances that Brandt and I are now wandering Ukraine, despite the words of warning from our well-meaning friends and family who don't think that entering a war zone is what anyone should call "vacation."
Brandt and I stopped by the home of some friends of mine, Max and Natalia, who are kind enough to let us stay with them. Then we hopped onto the metro and rode it into center square.
You have to understand that this ride into center was a very strange experience for me. I have some of the fondest memories of my time in Kyiv, wandering the streets with friends and family, and enjoying the beauties of this incredible city. I have seen a lot of the world and Kyiv is truly one of the most gorgeous places I've ever come across.
I had seen so many pictures and videos of the destruction of center square during the course of the fighting this year. And I wondered, as we rode, to what extent there would still be signs that such a dramatic conflict had taken place in what is typically a peaceful, clean, and beautiful place.
The metro stop was directly below center square. Brandt and I came up the long escalators, walked through the tunnels, and then approached the final steps leading to outside.
We both gasped as we emerged. There we stood in the middle of what looked like a total war zone. All around us were large piles of tires, furniture stacked hundreds of feet across and a few stories high to block roads, makeshift military tents, open fires for cooking food, war-torn Ukrainian flags graffitied with words like "liberty or death," and hundreds of Ukrainians, some dressed in camouflage, quietly walking through it.
Within seconds I realized that this was one of the most incredible sites I had ever seen in my life. The stones from the street and sidewalk were torn from the ground and left in piles, used during the riots both as a sword and shield. Windows were shattered. One of the large center square buildings was totally burned out because an intentional fire was started at the demand of the prior government after it determined that this place housed sustenance and refuge for many of the protesters whose bodies were later found charred within the building.
Brandt and I walked through the rubble. The contrast of the dramatically-beautiful monuments representing prior Ukrainian victories over oppression poking through the ugly devastation and smoke-stained grounds was surreal.
But more haunting, the people walked through the scene reverently in such a way that I couldn't help but feel that this wasn't a dangerous or oppressive place. This was a sacred place. One where courageous people stood for good and sacrificed all in doing so. One where selfless folk who saw injustice gave everything they had to provide an example to the world about what it means to practice what you preach and, hopefully, to create a safer place for their children and their neighbors.
It was inspiring. I can't use big enough words to describe the feelings I had walking those streets. We walked them for a long time, pausing at different points and watching people interact. There was a respect with the way people treated one another. A new unity had been forged. The kind of respect and unity that can probably only come at the hands of shared tragedy.
We noticed a group of women singing and playing an accordion, so we approached them, in the center of the square, and watched them dance and sing. And it was beautiful. And happy. And so so strange.
It was a small group in a large city caught in the middle of a world-renowned conflict. They danced and sang on top of the ash-stained streets and among piles of reminders of the horrors that have recently scarred their home. They faced our small group of spectators that had walked through the holes in the blocked-off roads to find this little piece of sunshine, whose music echoed on the eerily quiet center buildings. We listened as they sang tributes to their country and promises to find happiness and peace together, and for one another.
~It Just Gets Stranger