ast night I listened to historian Timothy Snyder talk about the invasion of Ukraine with American author and social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates. We learned that Prof Snyder has traveled to the Ukraine for 25 years and speaks the language. Naturally, he joined the world-wide chorus condemning Putin’s invasion. The actual purpose of his conversation with Coates was to celebrate a famous historian (ahem, I hadn’t heard of him) who has passed, named Tony Judt, well known for his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. But Ukraine seemed more pressing.
Professor Snyder said he could not really begin the conversation without mentioning Ukraine. He described the Ukrainians as people like you and me, unlike us in this conversation, who are doing something different tonight, he said. Driving refugees, becoming refugees themselves, taking up arms. And I thought the same thing, that among the myriad subjects, arcane and otherwise that have to do with France, I think we have to start with Ukraine.
The news is not good. but the response to the invasion is heroic. The president of Ukraine himself, when the offer to be evacuated came, said, “I don’t need a ride, I need more ammunition.” Switzerland, criticized for being neutral in WWII, has frozen Russian assets. China, Russia’s ally, refused to call Russia’s invasion an invasion, but did say this about China’s great trading partner, the Ukraine, “The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded. Ukraine is no exception.” (Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi) Turkey’s strongman Erdogan is calling for a strong NATO response to the invasion. NATO has sent forces by unanimous vote for the first time to be ready to defend NATO countries covered in the NATO alliance. Refugees are being helped by Poland, by Germany. My point is that while it may be human nature to put good over on one side and bad on the other, as Coates said in his conversation with Professor Snyder, it doesn’t work that way, at least not most of the time.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
It is a challenge to be aware of this terrible disturbance in Eastern Europe. To be informed is a power. And to breathe is also a power. When we focus on the breath we sit with the travesty, and we also sit with the courage and the help. We can also respond to the amazing luck that has shone on the Ukraine. The ominous 40-mile Russian convoy has gotten bogged down; the solders without food and water. A Russian ship turned around in a Ukraine harbor to go back to Russia. And the suffering. We can also respond to the suffering.
MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERS
A little history of MSF before we get back to how to help Ukraine.
Médecins Sans Frontiers, (Doctors Without Borders), is a humanitarian non-government organization, founded by French doctors as a result of their experience in the Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970. Biafra, in fact, was besieged, and MSF did not feel the Red Cross was doing what was necessary, so these doctors decided a new organization was needed, one that was exempt from politics. Some of the regions where doctors and other medical personnel went to help were risky.
Yay, France. So, due to these risks. France decided that those medical personnel would not have to pay French taxes. I know a French person who complained about this. You must know that French taxes are quite high for a reasonable person to complain that by default she was paying the taxes of these MSF people.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE
The world, as it happened, agreed with France’s support of this organization. In1999, when yours truly was living in France, the greatest award an NGO could receive, (or anybody else for that matter), was given to Médecins Sans Frontiers: yes, it was the Nobel Peace Prize. Let me quote Wikipedia who quotes the acceptance speech of the then-President, James Orbinski, speaking of Rwanda. “A Rwandan woman he was attending to in particular had been brutalized. Orbinski says, “We were completely overwhelmed, and she knew that there were so many others. She said to me in the clearest voice I have ever heard, ‘Allez, allez…ummera, ummerasha’—’Go, go…my friend, find and let live your courage.’” — James Orbinski, Nobel acceptance speech for MSF
BACK TO HELPING UKRAINE
I include a recent appeal here from Médecins Sans Frontiers.
“As hundreds of thousands of people are forced to escape the conflict in Ukraine, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is working to set up emergency response activities in the country and dispatching teams to Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. Teams are also ready to respond in Russia and Belarus.
“In the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, MSF teams have distributed medical kits to treat war-wounded people. We have also provided a telemedicine training for trauma care for 30 surgeons from eastern Ukraine.
MAP OF UKRAINE AND THE REGION
“Our emergency teams have arrived at the Polish-Ukrainian border and are currently trying to get essential staff and supplies into Ukraine and set up emergency response activities across both sides of the border. Teams will also carry out assessments along Ukraine’s border with Russia and Belarus.
“With active fighting ongoing, determining the true extent of medical needs in Ukraine remains challenging. MSF is preparing for a range of scenarios that will allow us to step up our response.
“Our teams at the Ukraine-Poland border checkpoints are seeing people cross over on foot, in cars, and on buses—many of them tired and exhausted, and some with children as young as 25 days old.
“Many of those crossing the Polish border told us they spent long hours waiting in lines in freezing temperatures. Some were dehydrated and others suffered from hypothermia. We have donated basic shelter items to a reception shelter in Poland and are working to step up our response.”
Here is a link to donate, if you are so moved.
Beckett’s play, while it is amusing, also holds on to despair. A rope hangs from a tree as a reminder of that despair. The vagabonds talk about the possibility of hanging themselves, and one of them quickly imagines the robust erection that would come about, to the great amusement of both in an irreverent absurdist moment. Humor and despair rest on the same blade of the knife. It is true that Beckett’s play is not about doing. It’s a play about waiting. I find that the ups and downs of the waiting in the play is a microcosm of all that we wait for outside of the play. We wait for the love to call, for that new job, for the other shoe to drop. If we are doomed (or choose) to wait in all its many forms from cradle to the grave, I think we can wait with a big heart, and despair if we must, but temporarily and not without hope, for the seemingly dead tree in the play does produce leaves, after all. As we wait, if we are able, we can extend a hand to those in the global audience who are suffering.
Georgian singers on behalf of Ukraine.