by Mary Wald

My neighbor is a twentysomething woman from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Her family is still there. When I asked her how her family is doing, she said, “Well they’re alive, and that’s good.

“What is so hard to understand is that the Russians were our brothers. We were like Americans and Canadians. So how could they do this to us?”

Her father is Russian, her mother Ukrainian, a couple from a different time. Today, as Russia-occupied cities are liberated, Ukrainians at home and abroad are sickened by what their troops find– the mass graves, the torture, the murdered children. “And you find out they were laughing about it. How do you ever forget that?”

Ukraine will be liberated. The dead will be mourned, the process of rebuilding the cities will begin. But no amount of foreign aid or goodwill from the West will eradicate the feeling a Ukrainian will have in his or her stomach when they see a Russian they don’t know and think of their child’s teachers who were killed when the school was deliberately shelled with Russian missiles. Or the soldiers who electrocuted their neighbor or loved one, or beat them with metal pipes, sometimes for 45 days on end, starving them in between beatings. Then laughed about it.

Rescue workers search for survivors in the rubble of a residential building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, after shelling by the Russian military.

I attended a conference in the early 2000s at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, for a program called Women Waging Peace. The program brought women from both sides of conflict areas to the table to work together on peace processes and the rebuilding of their societies post-conflict. There were Hutu and Tutsi women from both Rwanda and Burundi, survivors of the 1994 genocide.

Before the Rwanda genocide, if a Hutu woman married a Tutsi man, she became Tutsi. Similarly, if a Tutsi woman married a Hutu man she became Hutu. So you could be a Hutu woman with Hutu children, Tutsi parents, and a Tutsi sister. The Hutus and Tutsi had become so intermarried their physical ethnic differences were fading. Their children went to school together. They shared meals. They sang in the same church choir– until the country descended into hell and Hutu extremists and their militia killed 800,000 Tutsis in 100 days.

Old hatreds from other times, fomented by Belgian colonial governments and virtually forgotten on the city and village level, were re-ignited. Not by accident, not by a pendulum swing. They were ignited by “Hutu power” extremists in the government, with a propaganda campaign that worked  up the young men and women, creating a murderous hatred that was then unleashed in a killing frenzy.

The country survived and rebuilt and today is fast becoming a tech hub of Africa. But how do you forget the neighbor who came to your house and raped and killed your mother, and would have killed you, too, if you hadn’t made it out and hidden in the reeds? And how do sit in church and listen to your children or your grandchildren sing in the church choir now with his offspring?

During Glasnost and Perestroika in the Soviet Union, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, my father hosted a State Department tour of two people from each of the Eastern bloc countries, and four from Russia. They had been selected by their home countries as potential business leaders in the new economy. They toured US business and met meet with the management personnel to start getting up to speed on business practices. After the tour, my father went to what was then Yugoslavia to help in the establishment of its first business school.

When Kosovo exploded in ethnic cleansing and mass executions, he was stunned. When he had been there, he said,  the Croats, the Serbs, the Muslims, were intermingled, filling the coffee shops together, dating—probably not so unlike the social scene that brought my neighbor’s Russian and Ukrainian parents together in Kharkiv.

What do they have in common? The flame of hatred was left to burn, even if damped down by events. Old horrors were swept under the rug. (If you think Ukraine and Russia don’t have these, I highly recommend Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands). On the ground, in city and village life, as generations passed, they didn’t matter. Then someone came along and realized he could re-ignite it and ride it to power.

The United States has reaped the consequences of having allowed the flame of racial hatred to continue to burn, of believing that the Civil Rights Act had extinguished it. This is particularly true for White people in the Blue coastal cities–0 and I count myself in the guilty party. We weren’t even looking at it. Why should we? We had Affirmative Action now. Not allowing someone to stay at a hotel because their skin was dark was illegal now. We even have friends in interracial marriages and no one thinks anything of it any more. Then someone figured out that the fire was still burning, that he could re-light it, refuel it, and ride it to the White House. Then he could use the position to incite civil conflict.

For the moment, it’s all about liberating Ukraine, and securing democracy in the United States. When the dust has settled, as it has for Serbia and Rwanda, it will be about trying the war criminals.

But when the time comes, we are going to have to damp that fire of hatred back down again. It may be too much to ask that it will ever be fully extinguished. But it will require identifying its fuel, and taking note — and action — when leaders attempt to relight the fire for their own purposes.

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