Dr Bridget Storrie
The blog was written on 24th February.
I had my own war-induced wakeful night, after Putin declared war on Ukraine. Unlike people across that country, I wasn’t scrolling through news feeds searching for signs of an invasion, planning if (and how) to evacuate or working out what I need to do to keep myself and my family safe. As one Twitter user remarked it seemed like nobody was asleep that night. Instead, I found myself searching online for a one minute 59 second video from December 1994 that I never watch but haunts me anyway.
It is one of the first news pieces Andrew Simmons and I, and the rest of the ITN crew, worked on when we were covering the war in Chechnya. We had driven to the Chechen capital Grozny in the morning from the school we were staying in, just across the border in Dagestan. That was where the satellite dish had been set up, so that was where the international news teams had their operations, too. We pooled our footage and edited our news pieces in small classrooms and slept on beds that had been provided for us in the gym.
The road into Grozny was straight and exposed. Flat fields stretched out on either side of us providing little cover apart from the wide ditches on either side. As we drove, Russian warplanes flew overhead. We felt their menace but were not unduly alarmed. They did their reconnaissance by day and dropped their bombs at night. Our job was to film the consequences.
Everything changed that day. We parked our car in a residential area close to the Presidential Palace minutes before the first daylight bombing raid by Russian forces began. As we filmed the destruction from the night before we felt the air pressure around us changing. People’s expressions altered. A man shouted Allahu akbar. We were blown off our feet.
It's not that experience that haunts me, but what we found afterwards. An older couple dead in their car. Disoriented, wounded survivors trying to help each other get to safety, wherever that was. A shocked and angry woman railing at Russian President Yeltsin, asking how he could do this to his own people. A dog emerging carefully from the wreckage of a house. And then later, the women who had fled the city, who came to our room while we were editing, searching our footage for signs of those they had left behind. Grozny was flattened.
Are towns and cities across Ukraine destined for the same fate? What will happen to those wakeful Twitter users in the days and weeks to come? It is a terrible question.
And so, I emerged in the morning to a world changed in a way that feels devastating. Thirty years later can we really be here, again? We know war destroys people, buildings, economies, and countries. It reverberates down generations and takes its trauma with it. What possible solution does it offer? To what? And for whom?
On radio 4 one of the commentators remarked that Putin had described the European/American collective as the ‘empire of evil’. He followed this up by noting that it was Reagan who first described the Soviet Union in this way.
Perhaps we focus on the wrong problems. The question of who is eviller than whom is an uninteresting one. Whatever answer we come up with leads us nowhere new. But it lurks behind approaches to foreign policy that assume we are locked in competition that you must win or lose. Either you are the problem, or we are.
Later in the day I spoke to my son. He had also spent a restless night. ‘It’s the start of World War Three’ he said to me, in a way that sounded uncharacteristically flat. ‘I didn’t think I should sleep through it’. He asked me what I thought should happen next. What could be done to bring this to a close? I told him I thought options are limited at this stage. I have no idea, obviously.
But I do know this. We are distracted by conflict. It is noisy and intrusive. It demands our attention. It presents itself as the problem that we must fix. Conflict resolution or conflict transformation, call it what you will, are all predicated on the same idea which is that human relationships at any level only require our care when they are failing.
The problem with this is that it means we are constantly faced with dilemmas that are already intractable and questions that don’t take us far. How do we stop Putin invading Ukraine? How can we limit Dodik’s ambitions for Republika Srpska? How do we prevent an election being overturned? What is unfolding in Ukraine speaks to the dangers of this.
We need to ask ourselves more interesting questions and we need to ask them all the time. How do we move forward with people we don’t agree with? What does it mean for us all to live well together? What prosperous future can we collectively imagine? How can we flourish on (and with) the planet we inhabit? What sort of world do we want to bequeath to our great, great grandchildren? We need to think about how we can build a sustainable, global future underpinned by fairness and justice and allied to a realistic, long-term vision of humanity’s place in the world. We need to change how we think about prosperity and attend to the things we care about.
The fact is we live deeply entangled lives that are held loosely and chaotically together by social media networks, gas pipelines, territorial borders, NATO, container ships, carbon emissions, mountains of trash, plastic microparticles, viruses, child labour, the EU, coffee, avocados, copper and climate trends. Some of us are doing much better than others as a result. We have urgent things we need to talk about all the time if we are going to live better lives together.
As I check the news headlines, I know it is too late for any of this now. Another part of the world is being blown apart by Russian fire. What has been unleashed will be hard to stop.
If we want a better answer to the challenges that face us, we must ask better questions than the ones that seem obvious. Otherwise, the past will repeat itself, over and over, again. And the consequences will be terrible.
Dr Bridget Storrie is a trained mediator and a specialist in post-conflict peacebuilding and reconciliation.
Image Credit: @iamphilbo on Unsplash
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