Chants of “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”) could be heard from blocks away as Ukrainian Americans and their supporters gathered in Times Square yesterday. The protest was led by the activist group Razom for Ukraine, whose volunteers have been working around the clock to provide information on how to help support Ukraine since the Russians invaded the Eastern European country 10 days ago. Echoing campaigns around the globe, the protesters were demanding that political leaders aid the besieged Ukrainians in every way possible.
Saturday’s rally called on the Biden administration and NATO to implement a “no-fly zone” in Ukraine to prevent Russian airstrikes. If a no-fly zone was implemented and Russian aircraft entered Ukrainian air space, NATO could take measures that might include shooting that plane down. However, both NATO and the Biden administration have ruled out establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, because that could lead to direct combat between NATO countries and Russia, which many fear could escalate into nuclear war.
Even as it appears that Russian forces have wrested control of Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine, U.S. residents are also afraid for their families in areas that have so far seen fewer consequences from the war. Olga Kovalenko has lived in the U.S. for eight years but grew up in Dnipro, Ukraine, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. She recalled to the Voice what it was like to live in a Russian-controlled country, where she did not have her own clothes and had to wear her older brother’s hand-me-downs. Kovalenko is afraid that history might repeat itself—that Ukraine will be controlled by Russia once more and children will grow up in the same way she did.
“We want our freedom. [This conflict has] been happening our entire history,” Kovalenko said. “We want to be a part of the civilized world. It’s been heartbreaking. I’ve been crying every day.”
Kovalenko’s brother is one of the thousands of men between the ages of 18 and 60 who are required to stay in Ukraine and fight if need be. She has spoken to her brother every day, and said that he wants to defend his home country. Another Ukrainian protester, Peter Goian, told the Voice that his 29-year-old brother has joined with local self-defense forces to protect Ukraine. Goian is afraid that his brother will be killed by Russian troops or by bombings in his town.
Throughout the crowd, people could be seen crying; children stood on their fathers’ shoulders, holding Ukrainian flags. Cars flew the flag as well, driving down Seventh Avenue, honking their horns and joining in with the “Slava Ukraini!” chants. The red and white flag of Belarus was also being waved by some in the crowd. Dmitri, from Belarus, would give only his first name, afraid that if he could be identified, the Belarusian government could track down his family still in the country and hurt them. Dmitri was at the protest to stand against Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as his own country’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who is closely allied with Putin. As if to emphasize their close ties, Russia announced on Saturday that its largest airline, Aeroflot, would suspend all international flights to any country except Belarus, starting on March 8.
“We’re terrified for people in Belarus,” said Dmitri. “We’re all trying to free Belarus, have it become a democratic society where people can live without fear, not get jailed for opposing Lukashenko. We’re afraid of losing Belarus as a country. It’s a scary place to be right now.” Then he added, “We’re trying to show people that we support Ukraine. Belarus is not the same as Lukashenko’s regime. Normal people in Belarus are just terrified to do anything at this point.”
Immigrants from other countries that were once part of the former Soviet Union were present as well, showing support for their neighbor Ukraine while also raising awareness of the dangers Russia poses to their own homes. Pikria Pichkhadze is from Georgia, which has been partially occupied by Russia since a war between the two countries in 2008. She said that Putin’s current military aggression is nothing new, that Russia has been doing this for “centuries.”
“I was born [in] the first generation of free Georgia when we came out from the Soviet Union. There was poverty. There was war. They killed people. Lots of people still can’t go back to their homes,” said Pichkhadze. “Georgians want to use our voice to say Russia kills. This hasn’t started yesterday or the week before. We want the world to hear us.”
Georgia, like Ukraine, is not a member of NATO; both are seeking immediate acceptance into the European Union. Similarly, the small country of Moldova is not a member of the EU or a part of NATO. Andzi Tatazci, a Moldovan native, expressed worries that Russia will go after his home country and other vulnerable neighbors next. Tatazci said that he had come to “stand next to the Ukrainian people to say it’s not right what’s happening right now in Ukraine. It’s unacceptable. They [Russia] have to stop.”
Answering demands from protests all over the world for a no-fly zone to be implemented in Ukraine, Putin, according to CNN, warned that any countries who impose the rule would be considered “participants in military conflict.”
For Olina Tokar, whose 87-year-old mother is currently in Western Ukraine, a no-fly zone could determine life or death. Tokar said that her mother must go into a basement every day because of sirens about potential air raids. A few days ago, Tokar’s mother was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack and was again forced to go to the basement, as alarms rang through her town. “Ukraine is a peaceful nation. [We’re] not getting enough support,” said Tokar. Although President Biden is seeking to send $10 billion in aid to Ukraine, Tokar explained that her country needs aid now, not at a later date. “Ukraine needs planes; they need more equipment. This is such a cynical act of war. We want to live in peace.”
“Nine days we’ve been standing against evil,” Arthur Zurgov, a member of Razom for Ukraine, said during a speech on the Red Stairs at Times Square. “Nine days, people all over the world came to show support for Ukraine. The stand that Ukraine is showing right now will be in history books. I’m sure about this. It’s a terrible situation, but we will stand.”
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