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With prospects of victory looking slim, Ukrainians are waiting – in hope rather than in confidence.

With prospects of victory looking slim, Ukrainians are waiting – in hope rather than in confidence.

 It was a strange but almost comical scene.

A dog was running towards me across Kyiv’s central landmark, Independence Square.  And trying with some difficulty to restrain the animal, on a long lead, was the dog’s new master, 26-year-old Sviatoslav Yurash, Ukraine’s youngest member of parliament.

He had been driven from Kyiv to Bucha just after the Russian troops had pulled out, and saw bodies on the street and other evidence of atrocities.   Special forces had broken in to a locked house to find the owner dead on the floor, and his dog alongside.  Miserable and half-starved, the dog started yelping.  

Soldiers, who had house-to-house searches and booby-trap clearance to prioritise, suggested the animal should be eliminated.  Instead, Sviatoslav persuaded them to let him bundle the dog into his vehicle. In Kyiv,the dog was given its new name.  The two have become closely bonded.

Sviatoslav has another claim to fame: eight years ago, he returned from a scholarship in India, aged 18, to take part in a huge popular uprising in this same square, against a Ukrainian president who was little more than a Russian puppet.

Brave and fluent in English, Sviatoslav became the revolution’s unofficial foreign press spokesman. More than 100 protesters died in months of unrest in that uprising, now also commemorated in the road in front of the Square, called The Alley of the Hundred Heroes. Sviatoslav showed me the cartoons that now adorn the square and large signs, telling the revolutionaries’ story in graphic detail.

The Russian puppet regime was toppled in early 2014. That triggered a series of events that led that year to the Russians occupying two key parts of the Ukrainian territory: the Crimean peninsula, and parts of Dombas in the east.

Yurash belongs to President Zelensky’s ruling party, Servant of the People – incidentally, the same name as the popular television show about a comedian who becomes Ukraine’s president. (Life imitated art — the star of that show was Zelensky).

Today, Yurash is livid. He’s been reading reports that the French and the Germans, and even some American voices, reflected in the New York Times, are suggesting Ukraine should offer to cede territory in the east and south in return for peace.

“Those who suggest this are nothing more than useful idiots,” he snaps. “Useful, that is, to Putin, subversive of our chances of success.”  He argues that Ukrainians, if given Western support that includes full economic and military pressure, can and will eventually regain all the territories Ukraine has lost so far in this war, and even much, if not all, of the land occupied in 2014.  And in any case, that even if Russia accepted ‘land for peace’, it would just lead to Russia launching new aggression within months or years.

I had first met Yurash and dog in early April just after a very memorable Shabbat. After a food-deprived night train journey from the Polish border through Lviv (Lvov), I had arrived at a city that was close to shut-down. The station was considered a military target – no photos allowed of an old steam train – as people wondered if the Russian forces had really withdrawn from their spearhead 30 kilometres north. One boy, about five, was calling for his mother and father; no-one had told him they were both dead.

I eventually found a small place serving coffee, no cake.

On that trip it was noticeable that fear was turning to exultation as the Russian failure to reach Kyiv became clearer and the extent of Putin’s losses were revealed.  There was also shock and horror at the reports of its atrocities in Bucha and other just-liberated cities.

Now I was back for a third time.  Even though the city itself was very seldom being struck by missiles (one or two sirens a day, ignored by most people) the mood was feeling grim again.  The situation in the east was precarious.  And the brave resistance at the destroyed southern port of Mariupul had finally collapsed.

Getting an interview with President Zelensky was proving impossible – “he is rather busy,” said the young MP with considerable under-statement.  But I felt getting the capital city’s mayor Vitali Klitschko was an equally big scoop. 

Last week he agreed.  Inside a high-security sandbagged building – Klitschko like Zelensky is thought to be a prime target for Russian assassination efforts — the famous former world heavyweight boxing champion explained why despite some setbacks he is confident of ultimate victory.

“Firstly, no-one would launch this kind of war in 21st century Europe unless he’s suffering from a very sick mind,” he told me. “And secondly, our people fighting for our homes and our lives.  I ask Russian soldiers: is it worth it to die here in a foreign land far from your homes?”

The mayor adds: “I have Russian blood in my veins.  My mother is Russian, and speaks no Ukrainian, by the way.  I cannot hate my mother.  How can I hate Russians? I just hate what they do.”

Klitschko, whose daily energies are devoted to bringing in and supplying food and electricity and shore up military defences, has become so disillusioned with the Russians that he ordered “with great reluctance” the dismantling of a famous landmark in his city.  Underneath the Friendship Arch lay a huge statue of two men facing each other, arms held aloft — the Soviet-era Statue of Friendship between the Ukrainian and Russian Peoples.

“When Russians have killed tens of thousands of my people, including so many civilians, and when they want to destroy my entire country, this is not the time to have statues about our so-called friendship,” he tells me. 

Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko
Former world heavyweight champions, the mayor and his brother sign boxing gloves. Copyright: Paul Martin

He and his younger brother Wladimir — they never boxed against each other because, they told me, their mother ordered them not to — together dominated world heavyweight boxing for more than a decade.  

Boxing has taught lessons in persistence and tactical nous that have proved useful in combating the Russian invasion, the mayor tells me. “And I’ve learned not to judge from appearances – some macho people crumbled, and some mild and meek people turned into lions here.”

Ukrainian brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko inside their ‘bunker’ in Kyiv
Knuckling down to combating the invaders. Copyright: Paul Martin

Like most Ukrainians, the Klitschkos are contemptuous of Germany and France for continuing to pay billions for Russian gas and oil, feeding its war machine.  But, says Vitali, “I love Boris”.  He pens a message, on a set of Klitschko official-tribute postage stamps, writing: “To Boris”.  He dates it and draws a heart.

 In the streets there similar determination but somewhat less confidence. A taxi driver tells me you can avoid conscription into the army if you have the right connections or the right large sum of money. “I love my country, but I don’t want to die,” the taxi-driver says.

A well-connected couple tells me: “We know things are being kept from the public, and it’s good they think we’re going to win.  But the truth will start to filter through to them within a month.”  They left the country by train a few days later.  

Reports of troop movements around the Belarus border suggest a new Russian attempt will be made to drive south and, this time, penetrate into Kyiv.   Social media is abuzz with these reports, urging people to retreat to their underground shelters again.  The army counters that it’s false propaganda spread by Russian psy-ops. Who knows?

“Of course, as the capital city, we remain a top Russian target,” says Wladimir Klitschko. The idea of another thrust fills many people with justified dread.

I make my second trip to Bucha and Irpin, satellite towns about twenty miles north of Kyiv.  The famous bridge near Irpin over the Dnepr River was destroyed by Ukrainian explosives, not by the Russians, to prevent the invaders thrusting further towards Kyiv.  Already a new temporary bridge is carrying traffic across into the satellite towns.

 In Bucha, the railway station has been reopened, and, nearby, where destroyed Russian tanks have now been removed, I buy a few frozen pastries from a bakery that’s going to open its doors to customers within days.  Not much else is working, apart from a gym.  But electricity is running again – supplied now Mayor Klitschko has erected cables from Kyiv.  

In a nearby village I walk through ruined apartment buildings, and despite the Russians having laid it waste more than two months ago, the smell of burning and charred remains still lingers. An enterprising builder has put up a notice on cardboard saying: “Windows replaced: cheap prices.”  Despite a trickle of people driving past to inspect their ruined apartments there’s no sign that the builder will be doing much trade soon.

I’m in the company of Viktor Synytsky, aged 43, who shows me where he escaped death because his Russian jailers fled during a Ukrainian bombardment.  In a cellar nearby I can see and film blood and bullet-holes – Ukrainian police had found the bodies of five men held prisoner there by the occupation forces.  

I later visited a local blogger who has taken in two boys whose mother was allegedly killed in her apartment by Russians.  At her temporary graveside, alongside their apartment block, the distraught confused child had brought his mother some food. The five-year-old refused to talk at all for a month. Now, he chatted and laughed as we sang Happy Birthday over a small cake, as his brother turned eleven. 

I also met a Ukrainian officer, Matvey Dykhanvovskyi, who had gone into Russian-held Irpin on a reconnaissance mission and when challenged had shot three Russians at close range.  He showed me the knife he said he’d taken from one of them.  Matvey suffered from severe symptoms of shock for days afterwards.

If things remain gloomy in these shattered towns, the sense of foreboding is even worse in villages and towns in the east.  Russian forces are making sporadic but steady progress in their blunt tactics of concentrating huge bombardments and slow moves of infantry.  And in the south, after the fall of Mariupul, the Russians have a major supply line to the east, and have shut off all the Black Sea ports to the west of Crimea, ensuring a disaster for the export of grain.

Kyiv itself is sunny and astonishingly well-kept – no rubbish whatsoever in the streets or gutters, for example.  Cafes, supermarkets, phone-shops and even barbers and hairdressers have reopened.  Things though, are not normal.   Sandbags are stacked at restaurant doors and at places of worship, and many ‘hedgehogs’ (X-shaped metal barriers) restrict passage in many places.  There’s an 11 pm strict curfew.  Posters and electronic signs proclaim the heroism of the soldiers and declare: Glory to Ukraine – the same statement that ends many conversations.

Most statues remain literally under wraps – protected as far as possible against shrapnel from any future rocket or missile attacks. (Nothing can protect them from a direct hit.)

Kyiv had a population of 4 million and though the main train station is bustling with returning refugees, well over a million are not back.  Millions have been displaced, and millions have left the war-torn country altogether – including the majority of the Jewish community.            

On the wall of the Chabad synagogue run by the city’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch and his wife Inna was a photograph of its football team.    I asked Rabbi Jonathan – who served twelve years in the Israeli air force — how many of the football team players were now in Kyiv.  None, was the answer.

 “They’re shooting at me with my own rockets,” exclaims an elderly gentleman in a smart Kyiv apartment.  Boris Prister, 87, shows me photos of his various international trips – something not allowed in Soviet times for most people.  He had become the deputy chief of a secret Soviet production facility for missiles, based in Moscow, and had designed a key part. 

He is offered a food parcel, which he and his wife say they don’t really need — and the opportunity to put on tefillin for the first time in his life. His wife scowls and he says: “Perhaps next time”.

Two days before the Russian attack, the leadership in the army and in politics were assuring everone that there would be no invasion. Then, amid the shock of the first few days of the war, the Ukrainian intelligence service heard that, in particular, rabbis would be attacked by Russian agents provocateurs

“They told us once we rabbis and their families were attacked the Russians would claim the Ukrainians were killing Jews – to back their propaganda that labelled Ukraine as a Nazi-led state,” Kiev’s chief rabbi Jonathan Markovitch told me.

 Special agents gave them ten minutes to pack their documents and grab some frozen bread, recalled the rabbi.  The rabbinic families were then spirited out of the country on a long hair-raising high-speed convoy, overtaking thousands of fleeing Ukrainian vehicles.  “It was like the exodus from Egypt,” the Rabbi says. “Except we were not fleeing from a Ukrainian pharaoh, just a Russian one!”  

As the Russian advance stalled the Rabbi and his wife returned.

“The courage needed here is different to the kind I had to develop in the Israeli air force,” Rabbi Jonathan concluded. “To help other people is not just something I can do, it’s something I must do, at all costs.”

But much of his community has fled. Next morning the once bustling Shabbat service was one short of a minyan.

The ebullient Post Office chief Igor Smelyanksy is not as upbeat as before.

He’s done a poll to see if the next stamp he issues should show Putin in chains.  Instead the public voted to display a dog called ‘Bullet’ that has become a sensation because he’s trained to sniff out hidden bombs and booby-traps. “I expected the anti-Putin stamp would get the most votes, but no. So it shows the nation’s not dwelling on hate, it’s looking for some form of hope and positivity,” Smelyansky says.

That positivity is hard to find though.  Most businesses are shut or struggling to survive.  I hear that a top legal firm has just laid off two senior staff, and a woman lawyer working there tells me she’s relieved to still be working, though her salary has been cut from 5 thousand dollars a month to one thousand.   Despite their plight, people are friendly and kind.

The city is making efforts to bolster morale.  Some of the ruined Russian tanks I first encountered on the road to Bucha and Irpin have been deposited in a square right opposite St Michael’s golden-domed church, along with samples of the casings of Russian rockets and missiles. On weekends, the public is out in force here — to exult.  Posters on the relics appeal for volunteer foreign soldiers to sign up for the fighting.

One foreign fighter on the eastern front-lines sends me graphic WhatsApps, including a video of a captured Russian soldier being interrogated.  That soldier “did not live much longer,” the foreign fighter says, without being more specific.

Less dramatic, domestic soldiery makes the biggest impression on me.

Alex Flolov is just 20, and each early morning patrols his square mile of apartment blocks, alongside Kyiv’s no-longer-working zoo — looking, he says, for spies.  The Russians, he says, are infiltrating people to seek out where next to attack.   He shows me a crater from a missile strike.  Part of it struck a children’s playground, and holes are gauged in the wooden slides. No children died here – it was hit at 6 a.m.

“They will never crush our spirit,” says Alex. “But we’re ready for worse.”

Analysis Insight Latest News

Racism in reverse?

Analysis Covid and Corona Insight

With these sorts of restrictions, it may be better for university students to go home and study remotely, say many experts.

Analysis Covid and Corona

The row over exam results — another entirely unnecessary result of misunderstanding the covid virus situation.

The brouhaha around Britain about the difficulties of assessing high school students’ exam results is an entirely unnecessary and could have been avoided – by a more proactive approach.

There was no reason not to allow the pupils to write the exams in a socially distanced way.

As for venues where they could have written exams, most of the schools were either empty or were catering to only a minority of pupils. In all schools there was also a huge amount of non-use of buildings, and public libraries were also devoid of users so they could have been accessed for exams.

Pupils writing these important entrance exams in any case had a couple of months when they did not need to go into school and could have prepared for exams by studying at home – or, for those pupils whose home environment was not conducive, special large rooms at schools could have been prepared.

Analysis Covid and Corona Insight

What could go wrong? The significance of unexpected events in history.

Analysis Covid and Corona Eyewitness Insight

A breath of fresh air. A top child infectious diseases consultant says children do not pass Covid-19 to their parents or grandparents. So why are they not back at school in full force right now?

By Dr Karyn Moshal, Paediatric infectious Diseases Consultant, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

Let’s bring you some good news. 

Analysis Covid and Corona Insight Latest News

Social distancing for young children at school. It’s being enforced in Britain – but the Netherlands is taking a much closer route.

By Paul Martin.

In Dutch schools, there is no government requirement for social distancing between the children. In Britain, where Reception Classes and Year Six Classes began this week (June 11), there is.

Have the Dutch have got it right, and the British got it wrong?

Because the evidence is starkly clear: children under the age of ten have never been shown in any scientific study to have passed on coronavirus to any adult. And therefore the risk that little children catch the virus, then show no symptoms, then go home and infect their parents or older siblings, is extremely remote.

Against this tiny risk, there is the need for decent and proper schooling for small children. My granddaughter went back to school yesterday. How on earth is it educative for her to sit two metres from all her friends? Does this not amount to a form of abuse or at least an unnecessary restriction of the younger children? It certainly creates, literally, a barrier to interaction and the kind of learning that younger children in particular need.

Does it not, as an educational psychotherapist told, tend to make them, in essence, afraid of being – children?

Our granddaughter is, after all, 5.

Dutch schools reopened to all pupils on 11 May. (That country’s proportional rate and and its timing of Covid-19 infection and its Covid-19 virus rate of death per size of population are not much different from those in the UK.)

Linda van Druijten leads De Boomhut and OBS De Klaproos, a primary school and special educational needs school in Arnhem. She explains:

Schools have been “open” here in the Netherlands since 11 May. We are allowed half groups – our classes have between 28 and 32 pupils, so on a given day we can have groups of 15 children in each class.

Unlike in the UK, the Dutch government told us that the children do not have to socially distance from each other, as we can see the rates of infections for under-12s are so low – there is such a small risk in them being in contact with each other.

So the children can play and touch each other; they can have normal friendships. We have a Group A and a Group B – half our pupils are in school and the other half continue remote learning, and they rotate across the week, one day on, one day off.

But the children do have to be 1.5 metres from the adults when in school, and the adults have to be 1.5 metres from each other. This is not always easy.

Those over 7 years old understand it all, and are pretty good at it. And we have very little reason to break that distance. But with the younger children? It’s not always possible.

At the beginning, my teachers said to me, if a child fell down and cuts [his or her] knee, we would have to call an ambulance so people in proper protective equipment could assist that child. But we thought about it very long and hard, and we agreed we would pick up the child, and break the social distance.

And if a child cries, you can’t explain why you cannot comfort them – we decided we would comfort that child.

The risks in both instances are so very low that we felt as a staff group that this was something we were willing to do.

It was the same with masks. At first, many staff members wanted to wear masks. But we discussed it over three or four weeks and we decided that we actually didn’t want to do that. If we wear masks, the children cannot see our expressions and none of us wanted to teach like that.

For all these things, we have a word for it in Dutch that means “safe but not safe”. Yes, the precautions are advisable, but they do not really keep us fully safe.

We have had no substantial absence problems. Less than 1 per cent of the children did not come in, so almost all our parents brought their children back into school.

We did have some teachers who were anxious. They were worried about their vulnerable relatives, for example. For some of our anxious staff who had vulnerable family members, we reduced their pupil groups – we explained to parents that this was better than no teacher at all. We did this in our special education school.

As for the life of the school, learning is happening and the children are adapting. We started with very thorough routines. Handwashing, disinfectant, constant cleaning of door handles and toilets. After the first week, though, we relaxed. It is important that we are aware, but not to get too paralysed by the anxiety. We take it seriously, we remain watchful of symptoms, but we get on with our job; we are teachers and we want to teach!

The Dutch government has now said that all children will be able to come back on 8 June. There is some anxiety again about this, but we will get through that the way we did before, by talking it through and agreeing on how to manage it as a staff.

What is clear is that all the teachers are happy to be back. They say that they don’t feel like teachers unless they are in the classroom with their pupils. That we can now do that is the most important thing – like the bubbles, it helps us to focus and gets our mind away from the fact that things are still not quite normal.”

Analysis Covid and Corona

Essays on a Pandemic

It’s fascinating to see thinking from all over the world and how the pandemic is affecting our moral and physical status.

Here’s an essay by an Egyptian who stood alongside his country’s president as he launched a war in 1973. Gohar was then a young cameraman and went on to become the main television conduit through which the world saw the dramatic changes in Egypt by Anwar Sadat from 1977 to 1981, when the Egyptian president was assassinated.

He’s been living with a Latin American tribe for the last few years… so has changed many of his life patterns.

Mohamed Gohar very rarely writes, but this these are his reflections now.

Dear Virus,
With my camera in hand, I’ve covered the most viciously destructive fourteen wars, yet I haven’t seen anything in them that compares to the fighting I see now in the world. Our enemy hides death in layers of its kisses. It conceals itself like a snake in the grass, rattling and startling history to stop in its path.

Everyone is targeted. After people become separated and isolated, the enemy showers them with drops of pain and loss of the ones we love. The aggression of the storm is destroying the years of culture we have harvested. Sports, arts, social gatherings and more are no longer.

In its first battle, the enemy conquered globalization and opened the door to death, assassinating elements of the lifestyle that we had chosen. 

Dear virus, I come bearing news. A single heartbeat radiating from a loving human can easily destroy and kill you, on the condition that this heart carries an overwhelming desire to win, and refuses to lose hope.

Every battle must come to an end, but for now we must put in place the plans that will implement peace in the future. The first of these plans is Faith. A loving heart has to know that victory is not a choice, it is essential, and the one to bring the victory must be you, must be us.

Soldiers in white, the scientists leading us, are the ones to have faith in, and not the words of somebody else, not even governments that isolated themselves with extreme uses of authority, while disregarding community in their scramble. 

The enemy is active in the polluted air, which we created ourselves. The first steps of our march towards healing must be taken to clean the air around us. Look at yourself. Look at how you withdraw from your own land, leaving it clear for the enemy’s overtaking.

Look how the whole planet is suffering over our consumer needs. The virus is not new; it has existed for thousands of years. What has changed is its ability to overpower us. By us not respecting the ecological and natural forces of the world, we create an instability that grows the strength of the virus and its ability to kill us. Look and see how to improve the pollution in the air around you. Imagine an environment where you substitute your car for a walk or a bike ride.

Picture how much more greenery we’d surround ourselves with if each one of us planted a tree, or even a flower in the window. When I was younger, we’d sew together bags to bring to the market, that we entrust to carryout our daily chores with. Why not bring back these sorts of practices, and leave plastic bags in the past?

No act of cleansing resistance is too small. We must stop instilling values that favor expanding our hyper consumerist-focused economy at the expense of our individual and planet’s wellbeing, asking us to sacrifice personal happiness for capital gain. 

The enemy forces us into isolation. A few days ago, a friend of mine wrote to me that the most painful experience of her life was when her grandchildren were stopped from hugging her. Some of us are called out to and told to not approach our loved ones, especially when they get sick.

They even ask some not to bury them after they die, in fear of getting too close to a body they believe to be contagious. In the battlefield, when a soldier falls down, his colleagues accept nothing but to carry his body, no matter how high the flames, or how much shellings pierce the air around them. Though temporarily social distancing is beneficial, the separation of the human spirit is not the answer. Why do we continue instilling concepts such as race as a force that divides us?

This one is rich, and that one is poor, this one is young and that one is elderly, here is a Muslim and there is a Jew. He eats what we don’t eat, and we do what he doesn’t do.

We keep living a false social life, judging one another instead of caring for each other. Meanwhile, the enemy aligns us all on the same line, not differentiating on whom it will target next time. The enemy keeps the distance between death and us all the same, assuming that we always fear death, regardless of the social categories defining us.

How much can we fear death before we no longer carry the real power in our souls? This immortal power is carried in a temporary vessel, the body, a structure collapsing from the moment of its birth that can cry high just from a mosquito bite.

How much fear is required until it takes from humans all their will and capabilities, locking them between four walls, leaving them with nothing? The enemy paved the road for death so that when death begins to walk, there is no one in its way.

But let me remind you, that faith is stronger than death. Accepting death is much more honorable than releasing your faith and giving yourself to the evils caused by the sickness. Victory relies on our capacity to train ourselves and know how to properly use our weapons.

This time, our weapons are hope and patience, which we must reassemble. Everybody is in a hurry to return to their old way of life, everyone wonders when we will return to how it was before. But we must admit that we cannot return to what was before, as it is what led us to where we are now. Would it not be a better idea to make the compromises we need that will create a better future for us?

There are too many other weapons we misuse, which if used correctly, would be able to force the enemy to withdraw. Weapons such as unity, friendship, community, knowledge, music and love to the people widespread, regardless of socially instilled divisions.

Some voices we’ve been hearing today have not been telling us the truth, and have stopped us from enjoying the sunrays. It is up to us to stand up and say ‘Thank you, but I don’t want to go backwards to how it was before’. It is undeniable that each and every one of us is part of nature, and therefore part of its ecosystem. When given the opportunity to sit down under the nurturing shade of a tree on a clear day, you realize it is much better than owning and running the whole farm.

In this, we must realize that the greed rooting itself in extreme consumerism needs to be expelled, and we must focus on what we need instead of what we want. Ecosystems would flourish if each of us took the time to realign our consumer needs so that it does not disrupt nature, which would also take down our entire system with her if she collapses seeing as we rely on her resources. The tragedy here is that to find our enemy, we must look in a mirror.

The disease manifests itself in our consumerist nature, making our insatiable wanting the root of destruction. The tunnel is long, and when we reach the end, our goal is to celebrate life and find love. Love yourself and love the beauty you see around you, the beauty of our planet, which breathes and lets us breathe with her.

The challenge before us is huge. We have to discover new capabilities, agree to disagree, and choose our path wisely so that we may break our enemy’s narcissism and conquer him.


Analysis Covid and Corona Rhymes Going Viral

See How the Children Don’t Play: another Poem for a Pandemic

By Ian Bloom, who lives in London.

Two weeks ago, I watched from the statutory distance as two of my little grandchildren gazed sadly in the local park at their favourite but currently locked up playground.

Analysis Covid and Corona Rhymes Going Viral

More and more Rhymes Going Viral: Two more Poems for a Pandemic.

‘’Nature’s last laugh!’’ is a poem by Jeff Cohen, who sees the Covid-19 pandemic as teaching us a lesson: not to abuse nature.