Angels of Mercy

Julia*, a beautiful young woman in her 30s, is raising three children — two girls ages 10 and 12, and a baby boy of 18 months. Twice each week, she and her best friend, Larisa, drive from her home in occupied Ukraine through rebel lines to a place where she fills her car with food for hungry people. Then, she drives into some of the most dangerous areas of eastern Ukraine to deliver it to those who can no longer buy their own.

Every week, Julia makes this dangerous journey and loads her little car to the top with flour, rice and bread. Then, she risks her life going into lawless regions to save the hungry. In addition to feeding them, she and her friend have escorted hundreds of men and women, boys and girls, out of the occupied zone in their own version of the Underground Railroad.

These people once led normal lives just like you and me. Mostly middle-class, they worked 40 hours per week until the conflict brought life in their villages to a grinding halt. Without any regular economy, the people couldn’t buy food even if they could afford it; the shelves in their local grocery stores have been emptied out months ago by hoarders and panic shopping.

And that’s what makes Julia and Larisa, and hundreds of others like them, so special.

These angels of mercy are risking everything to save the lives of strangers, mainly refugees and the newly destitute. Julia knows what can happen to her if she is confronted by the separatists. She would be beaten, gang raped and left to die by the side of the road. But she makes these hazardous journeys every week anyway.

When I heard Julia’s story, I realized what a critical role we play by enabling her weekly mission. She, and the people she is saving, are the reason for Save Ukraine Now.

* Name changed to protect Julia and her children.

I am a Ukrainian!

On a gray, rainy morning, two Islamic radicals wearing ski masks stormed into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and mercilessly gunned down 12 people. The world joined the French in mourning, and more than 1.5 million people marched in solidarity the following Sunday, including scores of world leaders.

It was a powerful demonstration of liberty and bravery.

A few days later, a crowded mini-bus stopped at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine, miles from the battle front. As the mini-bus sat there, dozens of Grad rockets rained down on it. Shrapnel tore through the bus and through bodies, killing ten people instantly — one, a 14-year-old girl. Two more died later of wounds.

Yet only their families and close friends mourned for them.

This gruesome incident fueled no international outrage, no marches for the murdered innocents, no banner headlines. One would think these victims didn’t matter, not in the West, and definitely not in Moscow, where they are pawns in Vladimir Putin’s cynical game for restoring the glory of the Soviet Union.

In Paris, thousands of people carried signs declaring, “Je suis Charlie,” to condemn the violence. When I saw them, I remembered a similar declaration, half a century ago, as President John F. Kennedy stood before hundreds of thousands of Berliners and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

That expression of solidarity energized a generation of Berliners whose freedom was threatened by Putin’s Soviet forbearers, whose sons and daughters, brothers and sisters were gunned down by Soviet guards as they fled East Berlin seeking freedom. President Kennedy’s act of solidarity told beleaguered Berliners that someone cared, that the United States of America was standing with them. It gave them hope until one day, 26 years later, they tore down that wall.

Ukraine needs that same encouragement today, and as people of conscience, compassion and concern, we must stand with them. Is it not time for us to say, “I am a Ukrainian?”

Ivan’s Christmas

Christmas will never be the same for Ivan.

While the family slept, an artillery shell crashed through the roof of his home in eastern Ukraine. The blast killed Ivan’s parents instantly. Ivan would have died also, except he was spending the night with a friend.

This Christmas, ten-year-old Ivan became an orphan.

Children are generally kept safe and sheltered from harmful environments, so they suffer the most when war shatters their protected worlds. The joys of childhood are smashed like a china doll in one shell burst.

In one horrific moment, Ivan’s world became a pile of rubble, like the one where a home once stood. His parents gone. His home gone. Ivan’s 10-year-old brain cannot begin to fathom why.

When his entire family was taken out by a Russian artillery shell, the little things Ivan had relied upon – like Mommy and Daddy’s comforting hugs –were replaced by assignment to a mass shelter in a state facility. And Ivan is one of the lucky ones.

The statistics paint a chilling picture. UNICEF estimates 1.7 million children have been affected by the upheaval in eastern Ukraine, and OCHA (the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) has tracked a humanitarian crisis with the number of refugees exploding from 190,000 in late August to nearly 640,000 today. One-third of the people displaced are children like Ivan. Young girls and boys alike are stalked and enslaved by sex traffickers.

If they somehow escape that dismal fate, the children are placed in refugee camps and shelters where rampant disease, fostered by poor hygiene, thins out their ranks. About 10,000 have already been consigned to State care and are condemned to a loveless, hollow existence. Hunger and cold plague the rest and quickly snuff out the spark in their eyes. The psychological damage will last for decades.

In the United States, many of us use happy memories of our childhood as a wellspring of strength for the rest of our lives. The children of war-torn Ukraine need someone to find other sources of inspiration. That’s why we gave Christmas presents to more than 1,000 child refugees last month, and that’s why the children are a major focus of what we do through Save Ukraine Now.

The Silent Crisis

Rachel Carson wrote a groundbreaking book about the threat to public health posed by the pesticide DDT called The Silent Crisis. This potent moniker also fits the tragedy in Ukraine. The upheaval caused by Putin and his thugs in eastern Ukraine, described by some observers as a “frozen conflict,” is driving an exploding refugee crisis. Moreover, millions of Ukrainians are losing access to the basic necessities of survival, namely food and heat.

Three months ago, our sources estimated 100,000 displaced individuals within Ukraine, the UN now estimates the number to exceed 640,000—with 105,000 new refugees registered in one week alone. UNICEF estimates 1.7 million children are affected. And at least five million people now need humanitarian assistance, more than half of whom are elderly and most vulnerable to the cold.

UN staff report that people are going to die without immediate assistance.

Yet, this skyrocketing refugee crisis has hardly been mentioned in the American media who are fixated on the Russian “incursion” and the geopolitical issues. The “silent crisis” of hundreds of thousands of people without adequate food or water has been ignored and probably will be until people die by the thousands. The silence of the media is becoming a guilty silence.

Save Ukraine Now has played a prominent role in alerting government leaders and media to the silent crisis. We issued an emergency plea during the Christmas season and are making every effort to provide desperately needed relief. Our medical team is supplying medicines and related necessities; we are flooding refugee centers with food and heating supplies; and we provided Christmas gifts to more than 1,000 orphans and refugee children.

But we, and other organizations, are getting overwhelmed by a tsunami of suffering, and the mushrooming cloud of death is frightening even the most seasoned relief organizations. We must find a way to break through this silent crisis and get the public involved – just like we did after the earthquake in Haiti – if we hope to alleviate this situation. America’s generosity and compassion are legendary, but we must become fully aware of a tragedy in order to mitigate it.

Boxing Putin into a Corner

The dramatic decline in oil prices, combined with modest sanctions by the U.S. and the European community, appear to have boxed Vladimir Putin into a corner. The ruble has fallen nearly 50 percent in the last six months, and the rickety Russian economy is headed into a double-digit recession at least through 2016. Western observers wonder whether these circumstances will change the behavior of the Russian leader.

The quick answer is, probably not.

Putin’s approval rating remains indisputably high, somewhere in the 80s, even as the Russian economy is in freefall.

Flying in the face of such universally depressing data causes Western leaders and pundits to brand Putin as “living in another world,” calling his behavior “erratic and unpredictable.” It is, if you measure him against Western norms; but understood on his own terms and within the context of Russian history, Vladimir Putin is remarkably consistent.

Vladimir Putin is a Russian nationalist through and through. He believes Russia has the right, indeed the obligation, to rule all Slavic peoples, despite their desires. His view of history sees Ukraine as malorussiya, “Little Russia,” a subset of the great Russian people.

Thus, the modern Ukrainian state can be nothing other than a temporary aberration. Hence, Putin calls the fall of the Soviet Union the “greatest tragedy of the 20th century” — not the World Wars with nearly 100 million deaths globally, nor the Holocaust with the murder of six million Jews, nor even the demise of a totalitarian state responsible for killing 20 million of its own people.

Perhaps most critically, Vladimir Putin is KGB. It is said of the former KGB, “Once and agent, always an agent.” Typically, we think of work as something people do rather than who they are. But working for the KGB requires a certain mentality, a way of being. Putin never left the KGB; he just got promoted. Without understanding this, you can’t understand Putin.

So, will the implosion of the Russian economy or other setbacks change Vladimir Putin’s behavior?