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?


Christmas on the Khreshchatyk

I’ve spent many Christmas seasons in Ukraine.

Kiev at Christmas is a special place. Blue and white lights enfold the tree on Independence Square. Holiday revelers of all ages crowd the sidewalks and pose for photos with Father Frost, the Slavic version of Santa Claus. Snow softly blankets the dozens of villages surrounding the city in scenes reminiscent of Currier and Ives.

Last year, Christmas in Kiev was transformed into a grotesque dystopian nightmare, the scene framed by makeshift barricades. The hulks of burned out cars dotted the streets. The acrid smoke of burning tires hung in the air.

The lights of the great tree were gone. Posters of the jailed Yulia Tymoshenko plastered the tree, along with photos of the slain from the Maidan uprising. Father Frost was nowhere to be seen, replaced by young men and women in camouflage huddled around fires in oil drums. The only blue to be seen was the blue camo of Berkut, the despised riot police of the Yanukovich regime. The joy of Christmas had been replaced by the grim determination of the Maidan.

This season, the clownish Yanukovich is gone, fleeing to Russia in the middle of the night, with his dogs and his billions.

But joy has not returned to Kiev.

The lights are still out on the Khreshchatyk, many of the stores still closed. None of the stores are crowded. Shoppers aren’t buying. Everyone talks about the war and wonders whether the Russians will unleash the tanks poised on the border of Ukraine. They speak of their sons, lovers and fathers at the front. They worry about friends and families on the other side of the ragged line that slashes across eastern Ukraine.

Old women sit at little wooden tables and ask for donations to buy winter uniforms for the soldiers at the front.

The children sense the shift in the atmosphere and seem to smile less, laugh less, play less and cling to their parents more. The joy of Christmas has become the latest casualty of war.

Christmas has a more sinister aspect in the occupied East, where the thugs and criminals of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic have given their special Christmas gift to the citizens of occupied Ukraine: they have re-imposed the Soviet Criminal Code. The goons who call themselves police stop people on the streets and root through their bags. Any protester gets punched in the face or a kicked in the stomach. Christmas cheer—Donetsk style.

Christmas is even more painful for the refugees from the conflict. More than 640,000 of them have lost everything. Many of them huddle in camps and refugee centers, clinging to an uncertain future. They are not looking for holiday cheer this season. They have no hope of festive family events, no thoughts of gift-buying. They just want…another Christmas.

They are the reason for Save Ukraine Now.

We want to give them a gift, the gift of another Christmas. With your help, we can.

War crimes and the problem of false equivalency

Supporters of the territorial unity of Ukraine in the face of an unprovoked Russian onslaught may have been saddened to read accusations about the Ukraine national army of using cluster bombs against the Russian thugs who have tried to usurp government rule. Missile attacks, supposedly coming from the general vicinity of the Ukraine Army, were said to have contained shrapnel designed to spray indiscriminately over the rebel soldiers.

The American public should understand the concept of false equivalency in comparing a national army struggling to defend its own territory against Russian thugs who halted international efforts to investigate a plane crash, impose their will by force of arms and claim to want to separate huge sections of the eastern half of the nation and join with mother Russia.

One is reminded of the efforts of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to claim his chemical attacks against his own people were perpetrated by rebel forces instead. The war crimes in the Ukraine conflict are predominately coming from the Russian side, not Ukrainians. And there is no way for the Ukraine government to investigate the matter and serve justice on the perpetrators.

Trying to turn the tables on the accuser has been used as a propaganda technique in many other conflicts as well when the usurper is accused of unconscionable actions. Observers of the international community should keep this in mind when evaluating recent accusations.

It was the kind of day when the gray seeps into your soul

A Boy and a Bandage

Last Friday I had one of those experiences that put a face on the current conflict in Ukraine.

Our SUN team traveled to a refugee center outside of Kyiv run by a courageous, young Orthodox priest—Father Nicolay. It was a cold, gray day, the first real day of fall in Ukraine, a day that reminds you that the damp cold will soon give way to the bone-chilling cold of winter. It was the kind of day when the gray seeps into your soul.

Father Nicolay took us through what had been a rehabilitation center for drug addicts and alcoholics, a facility that comfortably housed 35 men and women but now provided a home to more than 150 men, women and children.

We walked into a room filled with squealing, laughing children. Oddly, most of them were playing under the tables, pretending that they were being bombed— imitating their real-life experiences in eastern Ukraine.

Being an over-grown child myself, I waded into the group and joined the game.

After a few minutes, one little boy, maybe five or six years old came to me and inspected my right arm. He began to pat it and shook his head. He told me I was going to be alright and not to cry.

He then took a roll of surgical gauze out of his pocket and wrapped it around my wrist, tying it off as best as a five-year old can. He looked up and smiled.

I thanked him and started to take off the bandage, but he patted my arm again and told me I had to wear it until it was better.

I fought back the tears.

Here was a little boy who should be playing with trucks and instead he was playing a game that he had learned when his housed was bombed.

And I realized why Save Ukraine Now is important.

We are not trying to save a geo-political unit; we are saving the future of children like that little boy and the other boys and girls who are in that shelter and in scores of other shelters across Ukraine.

I have been carrying that gauze with me every day since that visit and I will carry it to remind me that the face of war is the face of a little boy in a refugee center.

Ukraine: A Warfront Perspective

I am asked everyday why Save Ukraine Now is important. There are so many good organizations. Is one more really necessary?

Today we received this email from a woman who has directed a home for troubled youth for more than 15 years. She describes the situation as it is today. It will only get worse when the weather turns cold in a few weeks. This is why Save Ukraine Now is important.

 Gary Kellner
Save Ukraine Now

Guest Post

By Liz Milliken, NGO director for aged out orphan projects in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians are living in harm’s way, sleeping in basements at night and trying to survive without getting bombed (yes, in the middle of a ceasefire).

A friend of ours has taken in a family, three kids and their dad. The mom was at the open market and was killed in bombings along with her unborn child. Civilians and Ukrainian soldiers are dying every day. There are elderly and disabled people (who were unable to evacuate) who are now dying of starvation, especially in big cities where they are without access to garden plots. There is little to buy in the few stores that are open and no way for folks to get money to buy anything.

I wish things like this would make it to the news in the States.

As winter gets closer, the refugee crisis is getting more complicated. Many refugees have been living at government and non-government summer camps where there is no heat and they are being moved to new locations.

The refugees in my village were “lucky” to be moved to a sport campground that at least has some form of heat and where they are fed. The Zhytomyr ministry of sports and youth has been feeding these 60 people, but now they are out of money and are going into debt with every place they purchase food from, and their days are numbered for racking up debt with no way to pay it back.

I imagine it’s the same everywhere, nobody is sure how all the refugees are going to be taken care of. My friends from the sport campground are so grateful that they are not being bombed here in Zhytomyr like they were at home. They have peace that God can work things out, even though we don’t see a way through the darkness.

A Call to Action

The situation in eastern Ukraine is dire.

According to the UN, more than 1,000,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, leaving everything they had behind. Many more are without water and electricity. Food and medical supplies are running low and in a few weeks the weather will become bitter and the suffering will become deadly.

Without such assistance, thousands of individuals will get sick and many — especially the old and infirm—will die.

Because of the many years I have worked in Ukraine on charitable, educational and political projects, I believe that a synergy of government, NGOs and faith-based organizations offers the best hope for relieving the suffering of the population in the present crisis. I am hopeful of success because every sector of society has committed itself to cooperation, beginning with the Office of the President and including business leaders, charitable organizations and churches.

Responding to the humanitarian crisis alone is not sufficient.

It is time to tell the world the truth about Vladimir Putin and the threat he represents not only to Ukraine, but also to Europe and the US. The response of the Western democracies to Russian aggression in Ukraine makes it obvious that many of the leaders of these governments do not possess the historical perspective or an understanding of what is at stake. We need to help them understand that the place to stop Putin is the Donbas, not the Vistula.

A tragic and under-reported dimension of the crisis in Ukraine is the war being waged against the religion by the separatists.Bishops and pastors have been abducted, tortured and beaten. The murder of five pastors and deacons has been confirmed. Hundreds of churches have been closed, with many churches either destroyed or taken over by terrorists, leaving whole congregations without places to worship.

Persecution has not been experienced to so great a scale since the days of Communism.

This is the situation that gives rise to Save Ukraine Now, an organization that will provide direct aid to the Ukrainian people in the recently liberated areas of eastern Ukraine and will be a strong and aggressive advocate for Ukraine to the Western governments, the media, NGOs and wider public.

Dr. Gary Kellner
Save Ukraine Now