The Impossibility of a Simple Morning

Kyev – taken by me in … 1989? 1990? During a 10 day, 4 city trip – I led to what was then USSR.

Last night was cold enough for my furnace to kick on. I woke to a warm house and made my way downstairs. I switched a lamp on in the living room. In the kitchen, I filled the electric kettle from the faucet and then washed the glass and plate I’d left in the sink last night. The feeling of my hands in the hot water was soothing. Kettle ready, I filled the teapot and then added half a cup of boiling water into my mug to warm it up. After a few seconds, I emptied that water into the sink. I took the milk from the refrigerator and poured in a splash then filled the rest of the cup with steaming tea. Hot mug in hand, I paused at the window and looked out at dawn cracking red on the horizon. I returned to my still-warm bed to indulge in the luxury of a Saturday morning. At every step of these simple tasks and throughout the day, I am newly conscious of just how damn fortunate I am.

One of countless destroyed villages I traveled through in Croatia and Bosnia.

Dawn broke hours ago in Ukraine and brought no relief from the nightmare the rest of us watch from afar. I think of a woman in one of the places under attack and imagine what her morning is like. If she is still in her home, if she managed to sleep at all, it is cold enough inside for her breath to be visible. There is no water coming out of the tap – never mind, hot. Maybe she had the time and forethought to collect water in the bath and buckets but that won’t be good for drinking when there is no way to boil it because there is no electricity, no gas. If she is lucky, she will have bottles of water to use sparingly because who knows how long this will go on for. The collected water will be for washing – cold sponge baths at the sink, washing dishes, clothing. Maybe this already feels like an indulgence. The refrigerator is dark and functions only as a cupboard. And anyway, there’s not much in it. Food is getting scarce and fresh produce near impossible at this time of year with roads and supplies being blocked by the Russians.

More ruined homes – Bosnia – I think around Mostar? From Neil’s photos.

She is not having a Saturday like mine or probably, yours. No lolling about, no anticipation for the day, only dread. She has already learned how to identify proximity and risks for all the terrifying new sounds around her – shells whistling through the sky until they land in horrible explosions, endless gunfire. How close? What got hit? Who lives there? Have they gone?

I imagine this based on flashes of my life in Croatia and Bosnia during the war. These memories surface easily as I watch the news or check my phone to see reports and images – with deja vu, my stomach in knots. But it is Ukraine being bombarded. Hospitals, homes destroyed in minutes. (What Geneva Convention?) Women and children are being targeted. Familiar scenes and familiar tactics of terrifying bullies. Tyrants who murder and lie without flinching. I’ve seen this horror, these actions, before. But never, never at this level and before, there were no iphones, no social media with almost minute to minute updates. And so we watch. What else can we do?

On the streets of Sarajevo.

During my 4 years in former Yugoslavia, I was incredibly privileged as a well-paid international staff member with a diplomatic passport. I could and I did – leave when it became too much. My life and my perspective was not comparable to anyone from there. When it became too much for me, it was because the picturesque village outside of Sarajevo where I was based began to ‘clean’ the surrounding area and village right before our eyes. That’s the language shamelessly used to describe murderous ethnic cleansing. Can you imagine? It wasn’t because of a lack of basic services or the danger that got to me, it was the sadness and the shame and frustration of how ineffectual I was – that’s what broke me.

On the road to Pale. This is one of the guns that Serbs use to bombarded Sarajevo for 3 years.

What could I do to stop the madness, provide assistance or at least some kind of relief to the suffering? I never found that answer and so thoughts and feelings about myself in that time are complicated. And now, these questions are front and center again as is the question of how can I go about living my life so normally while this insanity is going on in Ukraine?

Sarajevo. From Neil’s photos from when he was with the ICRC.

Hell if I know anymore than I did 30 years ago. But here’s what I do know: send money (not your expired medicines or children’s old toys!) to organizations on the ground that you think are reputable and that spend most of their money on action, not bureaucracy. When I was in the field, a NGO (non-governmental organization) that was always the first to get into a troubled area, and the last to leave, capable, able to pivot and good people – is MSF (Medecine San Frontiers – Doctors Without Borders). I also support the vision and speedy action of Chef Jose Andres and his World Central Kitchen (click on either link to get to site). What’s your go to?

Sarajevo. From Neil’s photos.

Certainly we need to make sure our representatives are doing whatever is necessary to support Ukraine in meaningful ways. And if you believe in prayer, say one for all the brave journalists and photographers bearing witness, and for the relief workers and most of all, to the incredible Ukrainian people — so many ordinary folk-turned soldiers and my lord — their incredible leader. And then – with all you can muster – send every hex and curse to the horrible, hideous man in the Kremlin.


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