The Horror of War in Ukraine
What Witnesses Cannot Forget
Wars are often brutal, lengthy, and chaotic. The war in Ukraine, in its 37th day of the invasion, is no exception. And while images of destructions as well as celebrations of Ukrainians’ bravery against the odds of beating an enormous Russian war machine are still common in U.S. and worldwide media, witnessing the actual horrors of this war is sporadic. For instance, there’s the New York Times photo of a Ukrainian family gunned down when they tried to flee Irpin, or the images of a pregnant woman being carried out on the stretcher after the Russian military attacked the maternity ward in Mariupol.
Even Ukrainians couldn’t ascertain the full-scale brutality of this “special operation” to “denazify” Ukraine, terms that Putin and his government continue to use in their justifications of war against Ukraine. And now, as Ukrainians defeat the occupying army, the images and information emerging from the war zones is one of stunning inhumanity and violence.
The descriptions coming from journalists covering towns liberated from the Russians are graphic and horrendous. But as numerous others who’ve survived wars and genocides remind us, seeing and not forgetting are imperative. The war crimes and the genocide against Ukrainians should not be forgotten.
Journalists and governmental authorities are now describing towns liberated from Russians around Kyiv: “Russian troops have left the Kyiv region. But what they left behind are burnt out towns and villages — and dozens of dead bodies, bodies of innocent civilians, left laying right on the roads.” How many are dead, we don’t yet know. In Bucha, which Russians attempted to take over for over for a month, many of the dead are found executed with their hands tied behind their back. Bucha’s mayor stated that his city is “covered with corpses.” Citizens, in his words, were killed with a shot to the back of their head. “Photojournalists have reported seeing bodies of naked women left by the side of the highways, their bodies burned in an attempt to dispose of them.”
In these post-Russian occupation towns, Ukrainian military and international observers are finding bodies of civilians — children and adults — who were tortured, raped, and killed execution style. Russians executed people’s dogs, slaughtered farm animals, and left behind burnt forests and orchards. Ukrainian authorities have warned that Russians have booby trapped with explosives cars, homes, and even dead bodies. It has also been reported that Russian troops routinely stole anything they could carry out, including TVs, washing machines, microwave ovens, toilets, and wall coverings. The extent of their terrorizing occupation seems stunning to comprehend. Even when leaving the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and its official buildings designed for workers and visitors, Russians stole not only all of the computers and radiation readers but also linens and silverware.
Statements from world leaders slowly begin to appear in reaction to the emerging images of Russian barbarism. Liz Truss, the U.K. Secretary of Foreign Affairs, tweeted today: “Appalled by atrocities in Bucha and other towns in Ukraine. Reports of Russian forces targeting innocent civilians are abhorrent. The UK is working with others to collect evidence and support #IntCrimCourt war crimes investigation. Those responsible will be held accountable.”
Just as terrifying are stories of people evacuated from the besieged city of Mariupol. For over a month, the Russian military bombed, shelled, and attacked the city they encircled. Any attempts to create “green corridors” to evacuate civilians or deliver humanitarian aid and food were prevented by the Russian military, who fired on civilians and humanitarian groups. Very few people could leave; very few supplies could make it into the city. The people of Mariupol have been hiding in bomb shelters without water, food, electricity, or medical supplies for over a month. And in addition to being denied safety or humane treatment, Russian troops have been forcibly gathering some of Mariupol’s civilians and, after removing their phones and documents, deporting them to unknown Russian destinations.
The following entries were made in a diary by Katya, a 16-year-old girl who was recently evacuated from Mariupol. Portions of her graphic descriptions of the war experience were just published by Insider Ukraine: “We went to the bathroom, slept, and ate the remains of whatever food was left in our basement. Uncle Kolya somehow managed to catch a pigeon. It was then something like the fifth or sixth day [in the basement]. We roasted and ate it. But then all of us got violently ill.
“When our neighbor died, we couldn’t move her body out, and she started to smell. But then it got quiet outside and uncle Kolya carried her out but was hit by a hand grenade. My mom cried very hard. After dad’s death, uncle Kolya was the closest person to us … Corpses have such a stench. They are everywhere. I’d close my little brother’s eyes with my mom’s scarf so that he wouldn’t have to see.
“Mom tried to make it until the end, but three days before our evacuation, she died. I told my little brother that she is sleeping deeply and that we shouldn’t try to wake her. But I think he knows.
“Do you know that feeling when it hurts? Once I was in love with a boy, but he didn’t love me back, and I remember thinking then about how hurt I felt. But really, what hurts is watching your mom die in front of your eyes. And seeing my little brother try talking to her over and over: ‘Mommy, don’t sleep, you’ll freeze.’ And we can’t ever go to her grave. They are all still there in that dank and dark basement.
“I hate russia.” [Ukrainians today do not capitalized russia or putin] “My own uncle is there. You know what he told me today, by phone? ‘Katya? What Katya? Girl, I’ve no idea who you are. What war? What Katya?’ But then he texted me from some other number ‘Katenka, please don’t try to reach me. It’s dangerous for my family and me. And regardless you can’t get your mother back.’ I hate them! She was his own sister?! How can people do this?
“… you know, I think I’ll go back to Mariupol. And will live in the same place I lived. And then every day I’ll go down to the basement of my new home and leave flowers there.”
In his book The Night, Eli Wiesel insisted that we should never forget the horrors of the Holocaust: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky … Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
In these days while the war still rages in Ukraine, no matter what “victories” Ukrainians and the world supporting them achieve, this terror unleashed on Ukraine should not be forgotten, should not be pushed away with distancing comparisons to others’ suffering. Instead our witnessing this war should increase our determination as a global community to stand together with Ukraine against this unjust war and brutal invasion.