Love of country as dangerous narrative

This week’s guest reflection is written by Dan Leonard, operating principles coordinator for MCC, who visited Ukraine in February of this year. His thoughts reflect his own personal views.

“In the beginning war looks and feels like love,” writes Chris Hedges in his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.

It was not hard to see this love walking the streets in eastern Ukraine when I visited recently. The blue and gold colours of Ukraine’s flag are seen everywhere proclaiming Ukrainian unity in the face of Russian aggression. Plastic grocery bags are printed with the traditional Ukrainian embroidery- something I’m told is increasingly common since the war. As I flipped through the TV stations in my hotel room, channel after channel runs images of the military. As you enter the city of Nikopol, a few hours from Donetsk, the statue of Lenin has not been taken down like it has in other cities throughout Ukraine. Instead Lenin has been dressed in blue and gold.

Mariya, an IDP living in Nikopol, fled from the Donetsk area. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the conflict areas of eastern Ukraine find support through Nikopol New Life. This MCC partner provides holistic assistance to IDPs through emergency food packets, short term housing, document restoration, legal counseling, and psychosocial support. 27 IDPs who have been rehomed by Nikopol into a renovated office building.
Mariya, an IDP living in Nikopol, fled from the Donetsk area. At Nikopol New Life, an MCC partner, she received emergency food, short-term housing, documentation and legal assistance, and psychosocial support. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

Zaporizhzhia, a city of less than a million where I stayed, hosts more than 70,000 displaced people (IDPs) as a result of the conflict with Russia. When I visited with various displaced Ukrainian families, I found myself reflecting back a few years to the time I was serving with MCC in Ethiopia, when drought and conflict forced hundreds of thousands of Somali people into Ethiopia. It’s always tempting to make comparisons between countries visited.

My first impression as we visited partners is how different a humanitarian crisis is in Europe than it is in a place like Ethiopia. When a crisis hits Ethiopia, hundreds of international aid agencies already located in the country jump into action. They have local partnerships, relationships with government, and both the human and financial resources to mobilize relatively large and complicated responses in seemingly short (albeit often not short enough) time periods.

Ukraine is not Ethiopia. There are few international aid agencies ready to launch a humanitarian response. The strongest partnerships between global actors are political and military, not humanitarian. Consequently, the response in Ukraine, while garnering significant international attention, is remarkably local. Small agencies and churches, which previously ran small programs with little funds and mostly volunteers, are suddenly responding to a significant humanitarian crisis that far exceeds the resources available to them. And so whereas responding to humanitarian crises in Ethiopia often means a jockeying for space of large humanitarian organizations, the response in Zaporizhzhia is led by groups like the Zaporizhzhia Evangelical Baptist Union and the local government.

My second impression from Ukraine is how similar the things I heard from displaced families in Ukraine was to the families I spoke to in Ethiopia. In both places governments and military personnel project themselves as saviours and liberators to oppressed people. Russia projects itself as liberating Russian-speaking people in Ukraine from the marginalization they face from western Ukraine. Ukraine projects itself as protecting Ukrainians from the aggression of Russia. And yet when I talked to individuals they rarely spoke of either Russia or Ukraine as their protector or liberator. Instead, they spoke of their desire to be in their home, in their own space, making food for their family. They want peace, routine, their jobs, their lives. This same sentiment was true of Somali refugees in Ethiopia who frequently spoke of their desire to cook their own traditional food in their own home.

Yelena Glogovskaya (left), Viktoriya Gergert (right)Volunteer Social Workers at the Zaporozhye Baptist Union's City Aid Centre register incoming IDPs and provide assistance in securing housing, employment, and document restoration. Yelena was displaced by the conflict in Donetsk herself, but found support through this MCC partner and now offers her own gifts back as a volunteer for the City Aid Center. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)
Yelena Glogovskaya (left) and Viktoriya Gergert (right) are volunteer social workers at the Zaporizhzhia Baptist Union’s City Aid Centre (an MCC partner) where they register incoming IDPs. Yelena was displaced by the conflict in Donetsk herself, and now offers her own gifts as a volunteer. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

As I returned to Canada I was even more convinced of the need for Canada to strengthen its support for civil society groups in Ukraine. More so, these civil society groups, particularly those in the church, have a responsibility to critically reflect on the positive as well as potentially dangerous narratives that come with a love of country. Displaced communities have a right to safety that is not contingent on their rejection of or identification with any national or political group.

As theologian Miroslav Volf has written in his book Exclusion and Embrace:

The will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil.”

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