Several things happened over the course of this Christmas holiday. First, Russia carried out the largest air attack on Ukraine since the beginning of their offense. Second, a man shot fourteen university students dead, wounding 25 and killing himself in Prague mass school shooting. Third, I read a poem that tied the events together in an unexpected way.
Russia has been carrying out military offense on Ukraine for nearly two years now, with tens of thousands of causalities, immeasurable amount of human suffering and long lasting environmental and geopolitical consequences. Basic services are failing, and families are torn apart. The future potential of individuals as well as the country is radically diminished. Humans can, in one way or another, cope with just about anything, so life goes on. But those who will go through to see the end of it will emerge with unerasable animosity for the opponent. I am Czech, and I don’t easily make friends with Russians. Don’t get me wrong, I have several Russian friends, some of them close ones. I have worked with many Russians and will do so in the future. I am willing to give anyone the benefit of doubt. However, anyone who I meet who is Russian will first undergo value-based scrutiny. I grew up in a former communist country, where the possibilities I had and the mindsets of people around me were crippled by the country’s history. I grew up on the backdrop of history of oppression, injustice, and fear. While many Czechoslovaks do carry the guilt of supporting the communist regime, it would have never emerged was it not for the territorial ambitions of the Soviets 1.
Now, I am also wary of Israelis. After a Hamas’ terrorist attack in early October 2023, Israel has launched a massive offensive targeting the Gaza Strip Wikipedia. It’s disguised as a revenge, but it is more than that. One thing is demanding some just settlement after violent action of Hamas’, the other is jumping at it as a pretext for perpetuating genocide. Over 1’500 Israeli and international soldiers and civilians were killed in the operation so far, while the death count on the Palestinian side surpasses 21’000. I am at loss of words to describe either the violence that happens there, or my helplessness over the international lapse to prevent this escalation. A year ago I saw a short movie that is a great artist expression of criticism for the conflict, and something I come back to frequently to find some framework for coping with current events. The movie begins with a 2004 military offensive in Gaza, where a soldier is injured. The move then goes ahead following his recovery in an Isreali hospital. He is visited by tens of people, including Bar Rafeli and the Israeli defense minister, and touted as a war hero. Subtly, an impression of utter farce and futility surfaces 2.
Terror close to home
The two ongoing armed conflicts described above sound dreadful for anyone, soldiers and civilians alike. But it is very difficult for any of us who are not directly affected by the conflict to imagine what it must be like to experience this terror firsthand. Just before Christmas, a 24-year old man shot 14 university students dead, injuring 25 before killing himself in the worst mass shooting of the modern Czech history. Czech Republic is a country of 10 million – that’s not necessarily small. 14 is ballpark one in a million. Yet when terrible things like this happen, you understand how close we actually are. Almost anyone will, directly, or indirectly, know someone who is affected. A friend of a friend died in hospital with bullet hole in their skull and someone I know nearly ended up being at the location of shooting, at the time it happened, was it not for a coincidental plan change. And I don’t even live in the city where it happened, heck, I have been living abroad for seven years by now. The shooting happened just before Christmas holidays, and I went to its location several days after to light a candle and pay memory to the victims. As I stood there, overlooking the building where it happened and the square it faces, I closed my eyes. As soon as I did that, I could not find the imagery of people running away in panic. The imaginary sounds of shots fired resonating between the buildings on the square sent shivers up my spine. It felt terrible, but all that was just a fraction of how people that were present there when it happened must have felt, and that in itself was at least as bad as what people who live in areas of armed conflict must go through on a regular basis.
Silence is a statement
Clearly, no one in their sane mind who has both feet on the ground would wish for armed violence to continue for a second longer. And let’s be fair, we don’t. But what has any of us done to express this sentiment? Are we mounting massive protests? Do we send financial support for humanitarian efforts in war struck regions? Do we put fierce and relentless pressure on our governments to do all they can to exert diplomatic and economic pressure on the perpetuators of the conflict? No, for the most part we don’t do any of that. I am myself employed at a major university in the Netherlands. Nowhere on the campus there are any signs of support for either Ukraine or Palestine. In the many months following the beginning of the conflict, no public statements to condemn the violence have been made. I find this extremely frustrating. Are leaders too afraid of being cancelled for taking a political stance? Only recently I realized one sad truth – not making a statement, is a statement of its own.
So I told you about three things that happened, and those were two so far. The last one is a poem I read, that ties the two together. I will just leave you here with it to see how it does that for yourself (click this link if you want to hear it narrated):
For the very same reasons, I am also more wary of Germans, but to much smaller extent. Knowing many of them well, I know they have done a lot of soul searching and retrospection over the past decades, clearly demonstrating the departure from mindsets that perpetuated the World Wars. ↩
The tension is there to stay. Either party finds themselves to be more in right than the other (see interviews with Palestinians and Israeli), and I am in no way an arbiter of who is more right and who is not when it comes to the territorial conflict. I do however stand behind the statement that Israel is committing ethnic cleansing and that internationally we must require our leaders to call it what it is and to work to stop it as soon as possible. ↩
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