Home on the Prairies; roots in Ukraine

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“PUT sunflower seeds in your pockets, so when you die on my land, flowers will grow.”

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/03/2022 (281 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

“PUT sunflower seeds in your pockets, so when you die on my land, flowers will grow.”

That’s what the Ukrainian woman in civilian clothes told a Russian invader with an automatic rifle last week. It’s the least he could do, before a distant brother shoots him dead in the fields, on the steppe or in Kyiv.

The people of Ukraine are taking up arms, as the military and citizen defence units of a democratic nation shoot down the planes and level the tanks of an authoritarian aggressor.

Like one-sixth of Winnipeggers, my blood is Ukrainian. My great aunt was born on the Prairies, in a sod hut under a rainstorm, as great-grandpa worked the land as he would have on the steppe back home.

My family came to Manitoba, up to Grandview and Dauphin, to grow wheat and barley, beets and potatoes. Then they grew families, from farmers to doctors and lawyers and diplomats — and journalists, like me. They built churches and towns. They communed with the Cree and the Ojibwe. They helped built this province into what it is.

They fled the chaos of Europe in the early 20th century. Now, it seems, the chaos has returned to their homeland, as it so often has.

Cousin Daria was the first I spoke to, before the bombs began to fall. I promised her I would do what I could as a journalist to help.

Our ancestral ties are different — her mother’s family, Auntie Hannia, came later in the 20th century. Daria’s nationalist fervour is felt in text messages and phone calls from the front; mine is a distant memory and a longing for real ties.

My side of the family were bohemian bumpkins who barely knew what country they left, while the borders shifted constantly — much different than the family of my ex-girlfriend, Alexa, whose parents fled the Soviet Union just decades ago, rather than a century.

But as I watch the bloodshed on CNN and on Twitter, my heart twinges for the place I know I am from, despite never having touched its soil.

Two of my auntie’s cousins, men, are staying to defend Ukraine, while the others flee to Poland. Auntie Angela in Ottawa went to the vigil as the bombs fell, the blue and yellow of Ukraine crowding the street. In Winnipeg, thousands crowded in front of the legislative building Saturday, chanting in solidarity, calling for the west to act.

Cousin Joseph is researching Ukrainian art, and he wrote an essay decrying Russia’s propaganda war, its oligarchy and Putin’s authoritarianism.

“How is this happening again?” Daria wrote to me weeks before Vladimir Putin’s troops moved in. “It can’t happen. Ukraine has worked so hard for their independence.”

But that raises a question — how do I report on a war in a country I have never been to, but that feels my own all the same?

Last week, while working on a story, I walked into a store on Selkirk Avenue that is run by a Ukrainian. I recognized the man behind the till. He comes to my uncle’s house on Christmas Eve every year. He sings carols.

He also sings for Ukraine, collecting cash for the armed forces and for the care packages sent to those who need it.

Is it right for me to write about the horror in my ancestral home? Do my blood ties muddy my ability to report on what’s happening, or do they strengthen it?

I’m not sure, but I lean toward the latter.

In a group chat, the family shares their wishes and news. Cousin Natalya wishes she was “home” in Winnipeg rather than in Toronto. Cousin Ivana wishes Natayla was here, too. Auntie Vonnie says the bloodshed is surreal. Auntie Carla had to work another shift as a public-health nurse amid the pandemic, but she says she was there in spirit on Saturday outside the legislature.

Overseas, my relations are fleeing their country — our country — or they’re fighting to keep every inch of its soil.

Little boys play piano in the lobbies of hotels in Kyiv while outside in the villages, ladies in babushkas make Molotov cocktails and the government hands out automatic rifles.

Here at the intersection of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, I just repeat words of hope.

Erik Pindera is a reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Erik Pindera

Erik Pindera
Reporter

Erik Pindera reports for the city desk, with a particular focus on crime and justice.

History

Updated on Thursday, March 3, 2022 6:58 PM CST: Corrects typos.

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