The other day I was sitting at a campfire someplace in West Bohemia with a bunch of Czechs and Bulgarians, as well as a German and a smattering of Ukrainians thrown in for variety. One Ukrainian guy, Dima, was regaling me with stories about his difficult neighbors in Prague.
"These city people," he said. "They never want to know their neighbors."
Before I thought, it slipped out. "I know. But we did have some wonderful neighbors when we lived in Prague. They lived just around the corner. Ukrainians actually. Like you. From Kharkov."
I'm a little rusty when it comes to Eastern European war zones. Kids and a few years of placid suburban homesteading will do that to you.
Not Ukrainians like him, well not anymore apparently. My good, dear neighbors were actually Ukrainian Russians and better folks could not be found anywhere. They ran an underground safe house for refugees out of everywhere from Nepal to Belarus. (They will be honored in Book Three of The Kyrennei Series with a fictional version of their quiet generosity and courage.)
One of them is dead now, killed in a fire in Belgium more than ten years ago. The other disappeared into the immigrant underworld of Dublin before the days of Facebook and is now lost to me as well. Damn any war that would prohibit me from speaking of good friends!
But I do know why Dima and the others are upset by my mention of Kharkov. The West is quick to judge and most Americans would not really understand their situation. So, I sit down next to Dima and tell him - in detail - that I do really get it. It takes until midnight, but we're friends again.
"It hurts," he says. "We could almost get on our feet. The Russians have always wanted to control us."
Damn! What it must be like to be a child growing up in the Eastern Ukraine these days. Bleak enough before there was war. The children in one village ran out to the road when we walked up with our heavy packs and our expensive journalistic equipment. "Potatoes!" they cried with joyous, sooty faces. "We're going to have potatoes!" They were so thin. Their bluish, pale skin was almost translucent.
"And do you have any lard to put on them?"
"Ah, no, but we'll bake them in the coals." Hungry eyes.
They sent these children down into the defunct coal mines - nine, ten, eleven years old - to carry sacks of coal that weighed almost as much as they did out through the treacherous half-collapsed shafts. This was not the Middle Ages. And this was not the Third World. This was 2002 in Europe. Technically Europe at least but it might as well have been the setting for a post-apocalyptic Hollywood thriller.
In the nearby town a mafia boss had threatened to kill my photographer and me. Just like that, in a friendly tone, in a cafe. The woman we were with, the daughter of another boss, fended him off and smuggled us out of town hidden in the back of a car driven by a maniac local journalist.
These are the things real people do for truth. I can't count the times people risked their lives to help me get a story of desperation out to the world when I worked as a journalist. People on the brink want the world to at least notice.
We walked through the mist outside town into a stand of endless straight aspens. Finally, we came to the village near the mines. An old man took us in. He had potatoes too. He even had a bit of lard. He fried them up and fed them to us. Possibly the last food around for a long time, but he wouldn't hear of our refusal and by then our stomachs were gnawing at our backbones.
He showed us the mines, guided us for a day and a night through his devastated world. And he showed us the picture of Josef Stalin that he had hung in his cabinet. "Stalin was our hero. He saved my father from starvation," he said. "My pa came from the far north. There was nothing there. Stalin sent him here to work in the mines. We had food. We had life. Now everything is gone. People can't even have children anymore. My granddaughter is the only child left in this village."
These are the Ukrainian Russians. Yes, Dima was right. They were interlopers. They came to the Ukraine and they took Ukrainian land. Stalin sent them. First, Stalin cleared the land by killing a third of the Ukrainian nation through starvation. That's why my host's father could settle that land. That's why it was empty. But he didn't know that. He had never read a foreign newspaper, rarely - if ever - spoken to a Ukrainian from the western part of the country, never spoken to a foreigner before me.
At five o'clock in the morning, he shook me awake, his eyes filled with fear. "Get up. You have to run!" His hands trembled.
Brilliant sunlight streamed through the windows of the tiny house. We jumped up, threw on our packs and raced up a wooded slope behind the house.
The old man turned to look at me with ghostly eyes. "I don't know exactly. Mafia, police... It doesn't really matter. Same thing mostly. They said, if you are here when they come, it will go badly with all of us. They don't want anyone to know the truth about the mines, the conditions, the children..."
A short run with our hearts in our throats, the creak of our packs and the rattle of Kurt's camera equipment the only sound in the silent morning forest. Then a narrow, potholed road. A bus came along shortly.
"Get on. Good luck. Don't come back."
We waved as he scurried back into the trees.
"Dima, I know how hard it is. Hard and not fair and hopeless. And yet, I've always loved the Ukrainians and the Russians too. Ukrainian food is fantastic. You can do things with milk that most of the world can't possibly imagine. And the stamina of such people. The kindness... But the Russian Ukrainians too. Believe me on that please. I'm not saying there aren't some idiots with guns out there causing a war and maybe some of them think Josef Stalin was a hero. But that maniac journalist who smuggled us out of town a step ahead of the mob, his name was Dima too."
And when Igor and Natasha had the safe house on Na Spojce street in Prague, there were Russians and Ukrainians and Belorussians. They were all artists... musicians, painters, night-pub cooks with a creative streak, whatever. Such good people, always ready to share whatever they had. They were usually running from one tyrannical regime or another.
The authorities out there haven't been good in generations, if they ever were. You can admit that, can't you? I wouldn't trust either side with a long-range missile, especially if vodka is involved. But give me a fire and a few Ukrainians or Russians or both any evening.
Our American wars are no better. No war is. No reason good enough. May you find shelter and peace.