Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea: there were so many signs warning us about Putin’s Russia, but we thought our prosperity was more important than all the suffering. In the movie Who Vadis, Aida? by Jasmila Žbanić (2020), which makes the Srebrenica massacre tangible in a shocking way, there is a scene that literally made me nauseous and that I have watched over and over again in the last few days.
You watch Commander Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh), the commander of the Dutch UN battalion, desperately call out to all responsible authorities in the EU, when it becomes clear to him that the Republika Srpska army will kill civilians under their protection. . And as if that were not enough that no one feels responsible and no one promises him the necessary help, he is also told that the person responsible is on vacation and therefore cannot be located.
Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I can’t help but think that the West was on vacation too. For 22 years we had been on vacation as soon as someone called us and desperately asked for help against Putin’s aggression. We were on vacation when wars broke out in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; there too the Russian armed forces acted as ‘helpers’ and ‘liberators’ and supplied weapons. We were on vacation when Chechnya’s decade-long war broke out, razing the country to the ground. We were also on vacation in 2008 when the Russian army invaded and bombed Georgia. We were on vacation when Crimea was annexed in 2014.
Yes, all those years we were on vacation, because all those ‘conflicts’ were quite far from our well-to-do society, because our security and Russian gas seemed more important to us than the strange ‘military confrontations’.
We were on vacation, because for a long time we had made money the main ideology and we considered our prosperity more important than all the suffering. Until our vacation was cruelly disrupted, until the war also reached European territory. Until the bombs fell on Ukraine and that brave and militant people with their now famous president shook us violently.
In the aforementioned film, there is also a scene where Ratko Mladic and his army arrogantly enter the UN-enabled secure enclave and hand out bread to frightened people, to men who will kill them soon after. The way the officers of that army talk to the Dutch blue helmets is almost comical. That condescending and compassionate attitude of the perpetrators, who warn that the soldiers who are supposed to protect cornered people will not give them that protection, that the politically correct language learned in security and prosperity and the rhetoric of those soldiers towards their weapons, make almost grotesque their violence and hatred.
And the language that the West has been speaking to Putin’s Russia for 22 years also reminds me of that scene. And yes, I realize that we cannot speak the same language of violence if we want to be better, if we claim to defend different values, if we want peace and see ourselves as caring human beings who do not build their happiness. about oppression and submission.
But we must also finally understand that the language spoken so far by the West does not work, that our opponent smiles at it and does not take it seriously. We must understand that we need another language: a clear, common, coherent language that is willing to give up its own prosperity for its own values and principles. A language that does not die down when the war is waged again far from our bed, that is loud and clear, that is not based on threats and armed violence, and yet does not start whispering as soon as the threats and the gun violence play a role.
And one thing we can no longer do: close our eyes. Because even a war can become difficult and boring. Also the initial solidarity, the initial help can give way to a dull apathy over time, because we are all affected by adaptability and yes, sometimes we get used to horrible things.
I grew up with Russian tanks and Russian Kalashnikovs and I was also in Georgia in 2008 when the bombs fell. I have dealt extensively and extensively with the Soviet Union and the recent history of Russia. I have been to Chechnya and seen with my own eyes what happens when Putin’s ‘liberators’ are victorious. And although I often say to myself: you should have seen it coming, I did not see it coming. I too live in security, I also indulge sometimes in the seductive comfort of my Western life. But now it’s over forever.
Without gasoline, without comfort in the world, it is worth stripping ourselves of our humanity as a garment that does not fit us, to sacrifice others in order to imagine ourselves safe. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, a concert was recently held in the Kremlin with the motto, ironically bordering on perversion: ‘Be happy, forever’.
And as I read that, I imagine the countless women and children in the bunkers and cellars in various Ukrainian cities and find myself wishing that the organizers and participants of that concert could see the ‘bliss’ that those women and children themselves would experience.
Yes, I know, it’s a terrible thought and it scares me to think such a thing, but when the bombs fall, good manners go quickly and so do the holidays.
It’s the wrong time to say, “We told you, we warned you, we called you and called again and again, but no one answered the phone.” And yet, I understand the tendency of those who, like the Dutch commander, kept calling and pointing out what the Russian “liberators” do as soon as they “come to the rescue” somewhere. What will happen to regions, countries and population?
But it pains me unbelievably that Ukraine has to pay the price that we all just came back from vacation.
(Jantsje Post and Elly Schippers translation)
Originally published in Die Zeit online
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on March 25, 2022
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of March 25, 2022.