On being … torn apart

By Ingrid Sapona 

On March 8th it was International Women’s Day. Until this year, I saw it as a day to celebrate the achievements women have had in law, politics, business, science, the arts, and so on. In the past, my friends and I marked the day by reflecting on – and being grateful for – the doors that have been open to us largely thanks to the hard work and tenacity of women who came before us. (Of course, it was also a day to reflect on the fact that women are still held back by many doors and ceilings.) 

But this year, I suspect I wasn’t the only person whose focus on March 8th was the plight of women of Ukraine. I try to imagine the stress of air raid sirens going off day and night, or of hiding in a bunker to avoid the bombs and shelling. I also try to imagine the desperation that leads to the decision it is time to flee. Well over 2.5 million at this point have made that decision. And, as we know, the vast majority of them are women and children, as men between the age of 18 and 60 may not leave. 

The bravery and stoicism of these women is remarkable and inspiring. Their whole life has been torn apart. Many of them are leaving their homes – and homeland – with little more than a suitcase or bag of possessions. And of course, they must say goodbye to their husband, brothers, sons, and other loved ones who may be too old to leave. Who knows whether they’ll ever see them again. 

And then there are the many logistical hurdles they have to deal with as they cross into foreign lands. Would you even think to take your passport or your children’s birth certificates? Hopefully they did, as they’ll probably need them if they have to make a refugee application to remain someplace for an extended period. 

On top of the fear and fatigue, they face near total uncertainty. Some of them may have an idea of where they’d like to go, but they don’t know if they’ll be able to get there, or how long they might be able to stay once there. Then there’s the uncertainty of where the basic necessities of daily life for them and their children will come from. Yes, countries, citizens, and aide organizations have rallied to help with much of that, but imagine having to rely on others for everything. 

And, though it’s 2022, the sad reality is that women are especially vulnerability to abuse. With millions of Ukrainian women having to rely others, it seems inevitable that some of them will end up victims of abuse by people who are purportedly helping them. 

Besides families being torn apart, their homes and cities are also being decimated. Seeing news photos of half-standing residential buildings and craters where hospitals once stood, you can’t help but think there won’t be much for them to go back to. It’s hard to imagine where or how they’ll ever be able to rebuild. Of course, those are issues for a much later time. 

Though the lives of Ukrainian women have been centre-most in my thoughts, today’s title isn’t just a reference to the lives being torn apart by the invasion. Russia’s disregard for the rules of war threaten to tear apart the international legal order put in place specifically to safeguard people in times of conflict. Whatever you think of the rules of war, they provide at least a minimal foundation of accountability human beings ought to have toward each other. But, if they are to have any meaning at all, things like rules prohibiting indiscriminate killing of civilians and allowing safe passage of humanitarian aide must be universally upheld. Violations of the rules of war are war crimes that should be of concern to us all. We owe it to the people of Ukraine to put economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia and its allies and to hold them to account for their crimes. 

What Ukrainians are going through is simply heartbreaking. I pray that long before we mark International Women’s Day 2023, the people of Ukraine will be living in peace once again. I also hope that they will soon be able to channel the strength they have shown in defending their country into rebuilding their lives and homeland instead. 

© 2022 Ingrid Sapona


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