“For Us this War is a Civilizational Breaking Point”
On the 24th of August Ukraine celebrates its Independence Day. An independence for which the country pays a high price. In his commentary, Vitaly Sych, editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian media house NV, explains why it will still be a day of hope.
For the last 30 years many people, both within and outside Ukraine, believed independence was granted to Ukraine free of charge when the Soviet Union dissolved. Though Ukrainians fought for their identity and statehood for centuries, the emergence of independent Ukraine in 1991 went smoothly and without the cost of human life.
However, most other countries, including those from the former USSR, had to go through fierce fighting or brutal wars to acquire independence.
The price of independence is high
That is no longer the case. Nobody will ever again say that Ukraine acquired independence for free. The country and all its citizens are now going through the 18th month of brutal war, Europe’s largest since WWII, where the price is high and tangible.
Though Kyiv doesn’t reveal the number of casualties, Western diplomats believe the Ukrainian army has suffered about 150,000 dead or wounded soldiers. The death toll among civilians is estimated to be in the dozens of thousands and rising. Even these figures may turn out to be an understatement as the exact number of victims in occupied territories is simply unknown. International organizations have no access to Mariupol, for example, a port city of half a million before the war, where more than 20,000 people may have been killed by Russian bombings.
“For us, the number of victims is not just statistics”
For all of us, it is not just statistics or a shocking story on TV. During the first days of war, I drove my family for four consecutive days on congested highways – with almost no food or sleep – so they could reach the Western border. At that point we didn’t even know whether we would ever return home to Kyiv. I will never forget the despair at the overcrowded Lviv railway station where mothers almost threw their children into train wagons, often even leaving their luggage on the platform. They were all trying to flee to the safety of Poland. My wife, my mother and my eight-year-old twins, Peter and Anna, moved to Ireland where they had to find out what life as a refugee is like.
They returned a few weeks ago and are starting school in Kyiv on the 1st of September. It was quite an awakening when I realized my children will have to immediately start running every time they hear an air raid siren, to then spend hours in a basement with only basic necessities hoping a Russian missile will be shot down.
“Our children now know the difference between normal and ballistic missiles”
The school director told me he changed the protocol for the evacuation of children. Once the Russians started using hypersonic missiles, the kids had to be down in the basement within three minutes, unlike the prior protocol’s four and a half minutes. Our children now know the difference between regular and ballistic missiles and that is the price of independence.
“We don’t just report on the war – we also have to take part in it”
In the media house NV, which I am the head of, we don’t just report on the war. We must take part in it. Fifteen staff members, including three women, have joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Some of them volunteered, some of them were drafted. An art director, an IT reporter, three anchors from the radio and so on. Our financial journalist became head of a mortar unit on the front line in the Donetsk region.
“If we stop fighting, we will disappear as a state”
Those who stayed have learnt to work without electricity, sometimes without water and heating, and under Russian missile attacks and air raid sirens. We are exhausted but we all understand that it is our existential war – a fight for independence. If we stop fighting, we will disappear as a state.
“...Or we can simply be free people”
For us this war is also a civilizational breaking point. You may become part of the “Russian world” – a country with a one-party political system, a dictatorship, censorship in media, incredible propaganda, and opposition leaders in jail with 20-year terms.
Or you may simply become a free man. With rights. In a democracy. And a possibility to sack your leaders and speak your own language.
For the Russian elite it is painful to admit that the “Russian world” has nothing to offer except a journey in a time machine back to the dark past when human lives did not matter. During 18 months of war more than 300,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded in Ukraine, according to most estimates. Shockingly, nobody seems to care.
“Independence Day is also a day of hope”
At the same time, Ukraine is also fighting for NATO and EU membership. NATO is about security and survival. The EU is about prosperity.
In a few days we will be celebrating our Independence Day. It won’t be just another day off. It will be a day of pride and a day of memory of the price that we paid. But it will also be a day of hope — for a better life for us and our children. And for the opportunity for our children to never again experience what we are going through now.
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