For many people the events of September 11 2001 seem to have occurred just yesterday. I like many others who are old enough to remember can in their mind’s eye picture exactly where they were during that brutal attacks on the World Trade Center on that beautiful Tuesday morning.
At that time I was living in Kyiv and after leaving my place of employment located near the train station, I walked along Saksahanskoho Street over to Lva Tolostoho Street and then down to what was then known as Eric’s Bierstube to catch up with some friends and acquaintances. It was a sunny and bright afternoon and the leave on the trees at the University Botanical Garden were starting to show their colours. While I went up the hill, little did I know that within an hour, the world I had grown up in was about to change quite dramatically. I found a spot at one of the wooden tables Eric had set up outside in the tented outdoor area. I ordered a beer. A very short time later, I with all of the other patrons sat in utter shock while watching the events which had transpired in New York just a few minutes before.
It was really like one very bad movie! My brain had a hard time processing the magnitude of this horrific event. The lives of 2,996 people were lost and there were over six-thousand people injured as a result. The lives lost and those injured would affect colleagues, family, friends, and anyone who could show a little empathy. A short while later I started to analyze just how such an event would change the United States of America, the freedom loving countries of the world and Ukraine, where I was living at the time. Even though it all seemed so distant and surreal, I have never been accused of being someone who lacks empathy. I personally had experienced many losses over the years all starting with the sudden loss of my father when he was just fifty-two and I was sixteen. A year later it was uncle, my closest adult friend at the time, who was thirty-nine and who had suffered for six months of stomach cancer.
In the early 1980s I lost a string of friends in some pretty horrific accidents and others to a range of illnesses. By 1990 I had made my first trip to Ukraine and made some pretty close friends in both Lviv and Kyiv. Two of my friends from Lviv were dead before we even hit the new millennium. One friend was poisoned in Lviv in 1994, while the second, like my uncle, died of stomach cancer in 1996. Both of them were in their twenties. Shortly before I departed for Ukraine I heard of the extremely bizarre road accident which killed former dissident and extremely patriotic political leader Vyacheslav Chornovil. By mid-September in 2000 Ukraine, the journalist community and I personally had lost an acquaintance I had made in 1994 in the person of Georgiy Gongadze. Closure for me in Gongadze’s case finally came on March 22, 2016 when he was buried in Kyiv. I can only imagine how it must have been for his mother to never have had closure, Georgiy’s mother, Lesya Gongadze, passed away on November 30, 2013 at the age of seventy.
More losses to come
During the period of the Ukraine Without Kuchma movement, but more precisely on March 9, 2001, I was reunited with an old acquaintance from Lviv with whom I had lost touch with after the summer of 1993. His name was Oleksandr Kryvenko. In the days to come he and I met a few times and on one particular occasion while sitting at The Drum at 4A Prorizna Street in downtown Kyiv we reminisced about the two friends in common we had lost in the 1990s. I had met both Orest Vasyltsiv ¨(Interview with Orest Vasyltsiv and Oleh Khavych in The McGill Daily, by Alex Roslin on September 9, 1990) and Andriy Vynnychuk in the summer of 1990 during my first visit to Ukraine and had been introduced to Kryvenko by
Vynnychuk. Both Vasyltsiv and Vynnychuk had spent a month travelling with me throughout a greater part of Canada in the summer of 1991 and I had developed a close friendship with both of them. Oleksandr and I tried to remember the good times, though we both realized what a loss everyone who knew them both had suffered.
In 2003 journalism in Ukraine took quite a hit when Ukrainian cameraman Taras Protsyuk, working for Reuters, was killed on April 8, in Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq. I had never met Protsyuk, but so many of my friends were journalists I could feel the shock wave ripple through the community. A day later my friend Oleksandr Kryvenko died instantly in a car crash. I had seen Oleskandr the evening before with some other journos on Mykhailivsky Street who had all been mourning the loss of their colleague Protsyuk. It’s been moments like these in the past that have hit me the most. You see them one day, then they are gone. Just like that!
At the end of that week, I drove to Lviv with Ilko Kucheriv for Oleksandr Kryvenko’s funeral. If a stranger were to have by chance come across the funeral procession that day, they would have been convinced that this was the funeral of some head of state. Many of us shed many tears that day, not only for the loss of Oleksandr but also for Taras. And while there had been closure the grief seems to never go completely away. It seems we can only attempt to bury it in some deep subconscious crypt, hoping that the lock doesn’t rust off before the next time you lose someone close or even someone within two or three degrees of separation from you.
Ukraine was changing but not quickly enough, Leonid Kuchma was trying to control more and more of the media and as a result I figuratively lost another friend. On the evening of February 21, 2004 I received a phone call from the Director of Radio Kontynent Serhiy Sholokh. I had met Serhiy a number of years earlier and we had become friends over they years. He in confidence told me that he had to leave the country and needed my advice and assistance with a number of different matters, starting with contacting a neighbour of his to see if his apartment was still being watched by some not so friendly “official looking” characters, and also helping him contact a few others in order that he find what one would call the equivalent of a “safe house”. Sholokh also requested that I arrange for some friends to be present at The Drum on February 25, 2004 for a meeting he was to have with some people he didn’t trust a great deal and wanted to make sure that he could stay out of harm’s way. That last request I did manage to facilitate there was little more I could do.
While, all our attempted plans at getting Sholokh out of the country didn’t work out. But while sitting at The Drum with some friends early in the morning of Sunday February 29, 2004 I received a text message from Sholokh. It read, “Brate ya v Polshchi!” In English: “Brother I’m in Poland!” How Sholokh got to Poland is a story within itself which will not be told for some time and if it is told he will have to be the one to tell it.
On Saturday February 28, 2004, Radio Kontynent had taken on rebroadcasting Radio Liberty in addition to rebroadcasting BBC, VOA, Deutsche Welle, Radio Polonia which it had been doing for some time. On Wednesday March 3, 2004 Radio Kontynent was shut down when Ukrchastotanahliad, Ukraine’s State Agency for Radio Frequencies issued an order to close down the station. That same day Yuriy Chechyk, the director of YUTA Radio and Television in Poltava died in a car crash on March 3, very much à la Vycheslav Chornovil. I had interviewed Sholokh regarding the incident for The Ukrainian Weekly on March 9, 2004 and asked him what he thought about Chechyk’s accident. “I am not going to discount the idea that Chechyk took my place. The regime needed a sacrificial victim in order to frighten other directors from contacting Liberty,” said Sholokh.
Hitting Closer to Home
Later on in 2004 Ukrainians and the world experienced the incredibly peaceful Orange (R)evolution. Even back then as it was taking place I had dubbed it to be more of an evolution with the R in parentheses as I felt that this was not what was needed, nor did it finish where the Revolution on the Granite of October 1990 had started. It was simply part of the evolution of Ukraine’s polity and politics. While there was no bloodshed, its poster boy Viktor Yushchenko rapidly began to see the writing on the walls all over the country as his credibility dropped quite rapidly by the end of 2006. It still seems to me that Ukrainian politicians don’t get it. Governments get voted out, they do not get voted in.
In early January 2006 I received the news that my father’s sister Maria had passed away due to complications related to diabetes. Both a combination of the lack of availability of reliable transportation at that time of year from Kyiv and the treacherous climatic conditions that prevented me from attending her funeral. Closure to her loss had to be put off until my Easter visit to my paternal village in Ternopil oblast. There was grief as there always is when you lose someone close, though it was also somehow bolstered with guilt and the two together at times fermented into depression that on occasion made me quite dysfunctional emotionally.
No one needs to be reminded of what Viktor Yanukovych did for Russia, himself and his circle of thugs while pillaging Ukraine. Many were witness to the changing business climate in Ukraine and the global economic crisis that would quite quickly catch up with Ukraine as well. Though with a kleptocrat in power the possibility of the government taking any measure to stabilize Ukraine’s economy were few and far between.
Life went on under the Yanukovych regime, though by early 2009 I had already started to plan on how to make my exit to Ukraine and head back to Montreal. The plan was to be home for my mother’s eightieth birthday in mid-September. In early April of 2009 I took one more emotional blow.
It was a Saturday and I had just finished moving to a friend’s place on Saksahanskoho. I sat at Kupidon on Pushkinska Street having a bevy and a light meal when I received a call from my cousin Petro in Lviv, who is the son of my aunt Maria who had passed in early 2006. I heard his voice, “Allo Vasyl! It’s our cousin Vasyl, he’s dead! Marika my sister was with him, they couldn’t do a thing for him!” All I could reply was, “See you in the village Petro!” I felt the tears well up in my eyes. Vasyl was the closest cousin I had in Ukraine. I had first met him in Leningrad in 1985 and then again later in 1990 when Orest Vasyltsiv accompanied me to my father’s paternal village. Somehow, he and I just clicked on that August day twenty-three years earlier.
The next few days, really hit home when it comes to really looking death straight in the eye. Only now can I only partially imagine what it must have been like for those first responders in New York City on September 11, 2001. Most of North America and those primarily living in “first world” countries group and and experience “sanitized death”. While they may say their goodbyes to their friends and families in the hospital, go to the funeral parlour to make “arrangements”, greet those bringing their condolences and then go to closure with a funeral service and burial or in other cases cremation. My experience the Monday morning I arrived in Ternopil after learning of my cousin’s passing was far from sanitized. It was the experience of – raw death.
The day was quite crazy and started with my arrival in Ternopil by train. My cousin’s son-in-law met me at the train station. We went to his one room flat where I was greeted by his wife, and their four children. We sat down for breakfast and started to try to plan out the day which would include: getting a casket and a cross for the grave, getting a wreath, getting in touch with the priest which his sister-in-law was taking care of, but this would play a part in the decision making tree during the day. Many people seem to think that throwing money at their problems makes them go away, in such a situation, one could sanitize this difficult period in your life, but without large amounts of money things would be a little more difficult and more time consuming.
During breakfast I suggested that Serhiy talk to his boss, after all Serhiy sold flowers at one of the markets. People in Ukraine buy flowers, for birthdays and wedding and wreaths for funerals, so I figured his boss would know of who to speak to about not breaking the bank on my cousin’s funeral. My hunch had been correct and this saved us a great deal of running around. Though by the time we purchased the cross, casket and wreath then picked up clothes for the deceased to be buried in at the bus station and got to the morgue it was eleven-thirty in the morning. The morgue was a very nondescript farm house somewhere on the edge of town. On the way there we found out that the priest would not be available until Thursday for a funeral. This fact in itself gave us no choice but to pay for embalming which cost us just over one-hundred USD.
All monies had to be paid up front when providing the clothes to the morgue. By about one in the afternoon we were provided with the autopsy results. An hour later the coroner-undertaker asked us to go into the work area of the morgue. My cousin’s corpse was dressed in his best suit and was on the examination table. The plain pine casket with very little embellishment was on a gurney next to the table. Yes, was raw death. Pretty unsanitized! The man who was pretty accustomed to dealing with corpses asked Serhiy to help him lift his father-in-law’s corpse into the casket. I felt Serhiy lean up against me as he had seem to have a slight fainting spell and I helped him come to his feet and led him outside. That left me as the only available helper. It was one of the more difficult things I had had to do in my life and to this day both the image and the feeling of taking my cousin’s corpse by the ankles and helping the corner place him in the casket. It was something that was very surreal – this was as close as I would get to raw death.
My cousin Maria, Petro’s sister had arranged for transportation from the morgue back to my paternal village. .We loaded the casket into the ambulance following the tradition that feet must enter first. This tradition was followed in taking the casket into the dining room of their house when we arrived in the village. Though that was only half of it. When we arrived in the village we learnt of the problem of the plot in which my cousin would be buried. After some discussion we spoke to one of my father’s cousins who assisted by providing a plot from down my grandmother’s side of the family. Next came hiring grave diggers. This is not such a simple task as finding someone with a backhoe. The grave diggers worked with shovels in this village and this is the way it probably is in most parts of the world.
By the time the day of the funeral came around the entire family an extended family were exhausted. It was damp and miserable and the sun was shining on Thursday but this did little to brighten any of our spirits. Vasyl was a loss to not only his wife, three adult daughters, their husbands and children but to many of the people who knew him in their village. For me it was a loss of a close family friend down my father’s side of the family, in fact, he was the closest cousin I had regardless of the side of the family. This was my first experience of what I want to call raw death, the image and the emotions it left me with is very different than the other times I had experienced grief. Orthodox Easter was a little more than a week away and while I went to Lviv for a few days and came back to the village, the piety of my cousin and his family and friends, gave us some respite.
Far Away – Though I Could Feel Their Pain
I did return to Canada in September of 2009 and kept my finger on the pulse of Ukraine. In the spring of 2010 I was to visit friends in Boston but with a long stop over at Dulles International Airport. Knowing that Serhiy Sholokh was in the vicinity I called Ilko Kucheriv in order to get his coordinates as they had met when Ilko had a Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC. He complained to me about roaming charges and that he was in Indonesia and asked me to make it quick and was complaining about some pain he was having in his back. He forwarded me Sholokh’s phone number by e-mail. Unfortunately,when I contacted him I found out that he would be on vacation the day in April I was passing through.
Later that month I heard from an old room mate in Kyiv that my longtime friend Ilko Kucheriv had been diagnosed with cancer. I was in shock and did everything to get the word out to help raise money for his treatment. Unfortunately, the deadly disease caught up with him and he lost his battle on May 29, 2010. Shortly after he passed I was contacted by Ukraine Business Online to write a piece commemorating Kucheriv’s life. It was a difficult but cathartic process and it truly helped me put closure on the loss of this close friend and professional colleague.
Closer to home over the next couple of years a couple of my close friends lost their either one or both of their parents. I was asked to be a pallbearer for a very close friend’s father who was one of my father’s closest friend and my brother’s godfather. He was the first to go. He had won his battle with cancer, but then a broken hip and other health complications claimed his life. His wife passed just over a year later. Any time I was home from Ukraine I always made an effort to visit them both. We often had long conversations and he would alway have a drink with me even though it was “against doctor’s orders”. His justification was that he should be able to have a drink with his best friend’s son who has put in so much of his heart into creating a better Ukraine. I miss those talks though I fondly remember our father and son fishing trips, mushroom foraging outings, family gatherings and picnics.
With the events leading up to the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 there was not a day that went by that I was not somehow touched. Either I was proud to be Ukrainian and to see so many brave souls or I would feel profound anger. An anger at the senseless killing that was going on. By extension, these people were family, some of my very close friends were on the barricades. When I learnt of the death of someone I had met through the Kyiv Kobzar’s Guild, my anger turned into grief. I had a hard time dealing with my emotions.
In early July I was contacted by my friend Serhiy Sholokh, he asked me to contact Alla Lazareva in Paris, whom I had known since the late 1990s when she was running the Institute of Mass Information, the representative office of Reporters Without Borders in Ukraine. Serhiy and many others were concerned about the sale of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships by France to Russia. They wanted me to help coordinate a social media campaign against such a sale. On July 17 I had a planned Skype conversation with another social media activist. She had been interrupted by someone at her front door. As she came back to her computer, both had seen a feed on Twitter regarding MH17 being blown out of the sky.
I, think the world was once again in shock and in probably as much shock as we had been on September 11, 2001. I felt for the families and friends of the two-hundred and eighty-three passengers and fifteen crew members on board. It was something that hit me hard. No one in my family could understand just how much events in Ukraine meant to me and still mean to me. I had after all lived their for over ten years and had taken a serious interest in the country after meeting my cousins Vasyl in 1985 and with the Chornobyl catastrophe in 1986.
When I look at Ukraine today, I feel that the country is constantly in mourning. I think of my friends and acquaintances who have lost husbands, brothers, fathers in the ongoing war in the Donbass. These losses, I believe, touch all Ukrainians regardless of where they are geographically located. So when you hear about the loss of a young soldier or when anniversary’s like that of September 11, 2001 come up and that of Chornobyl on April 26 each year, take the time to reflect on the victims you may not have known. Remember that they all meant a great deal to their families, friends and those they had come into contact with. Just give it a bit of thought because it is not all of us who have to face raw death, but grief is real and affects us all in many different ways.