Odesa is bombed from the sea and from the territory of Russia, but people do not panic. They live an almost normal life. Like all Ukrainians, they have just celebrated grobki, or “small graves”. This is what we call special spring days when we honor the memory of deceased relatives and friends. At this time, the whole of Ukraine is devoted to the care of graves in cemeteries. Some Odessa people will have removed old foliage from graves and also repaired monuments and fences destroyed or damaged by Russian missiles.
Many cemeteries in Ukraine were destroyed or damaged by Russian troops, including the Berkovtsy Cemetery in kyiv, near Tupoleva Street, where I grew up. Some cemeteries were bombed; others were crushed by Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers (APC). Russian sappers also left traps in many of them. Authorities have tried this year to persuade Ukrainians not to visit cemeteries that were or are still occupied by the Russian military. However, Ukrainians are used to doing not what they are told but what they deem necessary.
They still went to tidy up the graves of their loved ones. The church has often asked Ukrainians not to bring plastic flowers to graves and to bring live ones instead, but many Ukrainians still bring them. Because they don’t fade. Surely some Ukrainians will have tried to visit cemeteries in the closed Chernobyl zone. There are dozens of cemeteries near the villages and towns that were evacuated after the 1986 disaster. Previously, former residents of these places and their relatives came from all over Ukraine to mark the anniversary of the disaster and the days of “little graves”. But this year, visiting the Chernobyl zone was strictly prohibited.
The Russian army captured the Chernobyl station and the area around it for over a month. Meanwhile, they paved a road to kyiv through radioactive territory, and about 10,000 tanks, APCs and other military equipment rode it, carrying thousands of troops to what they hoped would be their triumphant entry into the capital city.
Now the Russians are gone and only the radiation remains. The Russians returned through Belarus, and from there they shipped home to towns and villages all over Russia the things they had stolen from Ukrainian homes – washing machines, computers, scooters and even children’s toys.
It might have been forgotten by now, had it not been for Chernobyl. Shortly after the Russian army left the Chernobyl zone for Belarus, there were reports of some soldiers starting to feel unwell. Several people went to see doctors. An investigation showed that they were all suffering from radiation exposure. After that, the Belarusian KGB launched its own investigation – which will probably lead nowhere. After all, Belarus is already de facto Russian-controlled territory. The International Atomic Energy Agency says it is aware of reports that Russian troops may have been exposed to radiation, but so far has not been able to verify it.
For Russia now, it doesn’t matter how much radiation its soldiers brought to Belarus, or how many packages they sent to their loved ones. Nor is it significant that military equipment that passed through the Chernobyl zone twice could have become a source of radiation affecting Russian soldiers in action. For Russia, the lives of these soldiers are not important either. In all likelihood, they will die on the battlefield, not in the hospital from radiation sickness.
If this equipment remains on Ukrainian territory, it will become a dangerous source of radiation for the people living there, who will be its next victims. And again, the number of fresh graves will increase in Ukrainian cemeteries. And even more people will come to cemeteries between late April and early May to remember their dead on “small graves” days.
Ukrainians will come to cemeteries with baskets and picnic bags, sitting on the ground near graves or at special tables dug into the ground next to fences around graves. They will raise memorial toasts and drink. These traditions are stronger than bombings and occupation. War or no war, they must go on. War can even reinforce these traditions.
Putin would like to kill Ukrainian traditions. It would then be easier for him to say that Ukrainians do not exist – that they are only Russians who have been deceived, who have been told that they are not Russians but Ukrainians. But war only kills people. Traditions remain and cement national identity.
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