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Ukraine: On the road again, the ordinary people

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My brother and I are sons of a war refugee. When the Red Army swept through East Prussia towards the end of the Second World War our mother, twentyish daughter of a gentleman farmer, took the two horses he gave her and rode west. He said he hoped they would see each other again; it took ten years. Much later in West Germany, her now-widowed mother told me how they had had to pack up what they could take on a cart and join the fleeing crowds. A farming couple grudgingly let them sleep in their barn, not knowing that they themselves would soon be on the road.

Other members of our family headed for the Baltic states and were caught behind the Iron Curtain; we have no idea of their names and addresses. Axel, the cousin our mother loved, was killed on the Eastern Front. The farm, annually buried in winter so deep in snow that the family were locked in and lived off stored provisions, warmed by the high tiled oven (a coffee cup went missing for months because a tall relative had left it on the top), furnished with art and fine furniture including an amber-topped table: who knows if it still stands, or who lives in it.

Mother got to Hamburg, where displaced people were surviving by stealing from the ships in harbour; her sack of swag turned out to be tobacco, so she bought a pipe – she had used to half-smoke cigars for a fat old uncle to concentrate the tar and nicotine in the other half for him. An American GI tried to strangle her in revenge for the death of his buddy; mother broke his hold, climbed over a wall and went to see his CO the next day so no one else would be killed. Then she met a British soldier.

Her parents made it to Holstein, where father, pushing sixty, worked with his hands for the first time in his life; we still have a painting by her mother of haystacks. Then Wiesbaden and a flat paid for out of government compensation, where Opa helped refugees reunite; we have an oak plaque from his former neighbours, with the motto ‘Die Treue is das Mark der Ehre’ (fidelity is the mark of honour). A big man, squashed down from 600 acres with dozens of farmworkers, to four rooms in an apartment block.

Survival; but a permanent shattering of community and shared history.

This is what has been wished on the Ukrainians, and not just by the Russians. A word inserted by PM Johnson (among others) early into the narrative of the invasion is ‘unprovoked’, presumably with an eye to dragging President Putin to a war crimes tribunal. I can hardly wait for that day, so that the other third parties whose meddling has caused this tragedy can be exposed. Provocation does not exonerate violence, but can mitigate the punishment; who would be coming to the court with clean hands?

Not the EU, gobbling one ex-Warsaw Pact country after another like a labrador with no appetite off-switch, even though nations it has already digested have reason to regret their membership; so letting them into Nato, which has played ‘What’s the time, Mister Wolf?’ for thirty years since the Soviet Union’s collapse, bringing military threat ever closer to Russia’s borders despite promises that it wouldn’t. Not the offshore-billionaire Zelenskyy, almost a prisoner of his ultranationalists, trying to draw the wider West into a conflict that raises the ghost of 1962 and surprised when, like the Syrian Armenians, his supposed friends have left him high and dry. Not the countries that have stood off but poured in money and weapons (what a bonanza for the arms manufacturers who spend so much on lobbying) to ‘help’ Ukraine, thus prolonging and intensifying the conflict.

Now, months after Putin’s demand that Ukraine remain out of Nato was rejected out of hand, Zelenskyy has agreed, saying (he is his own spin-doctor) that Russia is becoming more reasonable in negotiations; perhaps the hawkish commentators detecting imminent Russian military collapse are mistaken. Will we get back to Minsky II, but only after a reported three million refugees and the vast, heartbreaking wreckage of the nation’s property and infrastructure?

On the road again, the ordinary people played with by war planners and geopolitical strategists.

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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