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Unfinished landscape: Heartbreaking lessons of a mercy mission to Ukraine

AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

How would you feel, in this day and age, if you were fleeing your home with only the few things you could carry in freezing winds and winter temperatures? How would you feel sitting in your car for 17 hours, waiting to cross a border, all the while worried that the sound in the sky above might be a missile or bomb bringing certain death? 

How would you feel trapped in your basement or a public bomb shelter, food and water running out, afraid to leave and face death? 

How would you feel if your city was under attack and you watched as civilians were shot up close by Russian soldiers and neighborhoods were rubbled from faraway artillery? How would you feel leaving your fathers, husbands and brothers behind to fight against impossible odds?  

{mosads}This is what I have wondered, listening to heartbreaking stories that have brought me to tears, told by Ukrainian refugees on my recent trip to the Hungarian border and into the Ukrainian city of Mukachevo, where hundreds of thousands have fled the war with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.   

Terrified? Scared? Panicked? Those are the feelings I expected to confront from refugees who had been forced to abruptly abandon their lives. Instead, I found a resolve and courage that has fortified both my belief in mankind and in the intrinsic value of freedom. In the face of overwhelming odds, Ukrainians remain a proud, determined people led by an inspirational president, a modern-day David hurling his stone at the Putin Goliath.  

Like so many Americans, from the outset of hostilities, I have been glued to my iPhone and television, watching as Putin orders the destruction of one city after the next. The indiscriminate loss of life, the level of destruction, have brought the world closer to total war than at any time since 1945. I was watching this all unfold, comfortably in our American bubble — a nation rich in freedom and rich in democracy — yet, deep down, I knew I needed to do more. 

And one morning, I woke and said to myself, “Let’s go.” As a trustee of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation and as an American of Ukrainian descent, I knew it was my obligation to arrange a relief mission to the region to help assist in any way I could. So I contacted two good friends — former New York governor George Pataki, who I knew had excellent contacts in Hungary, and my partner with the Appeal of Conscience, Peter M. Brant. Together, we hatched a plan to lead a relief mission to the Ukrainian-Hungarian border.  

What we saw on the ground was heartbreaking.  

In Mukachevo, Ukraine, we met children who were being housed in a college dormitory turned into a refugee center. We had brought along chocolate, just a simple reminder of sweeter times. The administrator of the facility told us “it was the first time the children had laughed in a week.”   

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In a Baptist refugee center on the outskirts of Budapest, I met a woman who clung to me, crying for help. Describing her three children that her husband forced her to leave behind, she wept not knowing if they would ever be reunited. She told me how she had traveled through the cold, wind and snow, every minute fearing for her life, and I imagined how many other mothers faced this same Hobbesian choice.  

As men under 60 are required to stay and serve in the military, I met yet another woman at a Baptist center who was struck with grief; an artist, she showed me some of her work. Among her pieces was a brilliant Ukrainian landscape, beautiful and vibrant but unfinished. She said she “could never find the heart to finish it.” So I bought it, as a reminder of her courage and Ukraine’s valiant struggle. 

Finally, as we prepared to leave, there was a 12-year-old girl who literally begged me to take her with us. I can’t describe how hard it was to walk away from this young girl whose life is forever changed.  

The human toll of Putin’s war is incalculable. But we must be sober in the knowledge that it can be worse.  

Beyond this mission, I have some experience in Russia as a public and private citizen that gives me some insight into the historic framework of this conflict. As the producer and co-director of the Academy Award-nominated film, “The Children of Theatre Street,” filmed in 1977 in St. Petersburg, Russia, and as U.S. ambassador to Finland for almost two years, as well as being a trustee of the Appeal of Conscience, I have gained a deep appreciation for the historic role of Russia in the region.   

Finally, there is my own deep familial connection going back centuries to Ukraine, a land and a people that has been fought over throughout history. In the early 20th century, there were more than 1,000 pogroms across Ukraine in which an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 Jews were massacred. These pogroms, another sad chapter of human history, resulted in a half-million Jews being left homeless.  

My great-grandfather was murdered in 1893 during one of the many pogroms that swept the region. As was the custom at that time, when the murderers were apprehended, they were brought to the victim’s nearest living relative who would decide their fate. When my great-grandmother was faced with the opportunity to exact revenge, she took another path; she chose mercy. “There are enough children without fathers, let them live,” she said, according to our family lore.    

Vladimir Putin is a man who has never known mercy, however. Putin — a man who reduced both the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo, once home to more than 2 million people, and Grozny, a city of 1.5 million people in Chechnya, to rubble — will not hesitate to repeat such atrocities in Ukraine.  

{mossecondads}With that perspective, I have reached the sad conclusion that America cannot close the skies over Ukraine. I fear the result will be the loss of the Baltics. There is nothing to stop Putin.  

The Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia lack the populations, the militaries and the political leadership to withstand a Russian assault; it would be over in days. Finland is the only other nation in the region with a sufficiently strong military and a history of pushing back Russian aggression which would be capable of putting up a meaningful resistance.  

America must stay firm with sanctions. President Biden and our NATO allies must continue to arm the Ukrainians to the best of our ability — but we cannot give Putin a reason to widen the conflict. 

While America cannot close the skies, nor can we close our hearts. We are a most generous people, and we must do all we can to provide humanitarian aid to our Ukrainian brothers and sisters until Putin’s reign of terror is over. 

Earle Mack is a former United States ambassador to Finland. He is a partner with the Mack Company, a real estate development and investment firm, and a trustee of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith partnership of business and religious leaders which promotes freedom, democracy and human rights in countries around the world.

Tags Joe Biden Russo-Ukrainian War Ukrainian refugee crisis Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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