Vadym Semenko   Ukrainian Weekly   15-Feb-1998   A system of killings
All my life I saw death and murder as a result of this system.  The best and the most innocent people die, those who work hard and have attained something.  Earlier the Communists took everything; now everything is taken by the same people, except that they call themselves 'democrats' now.

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(A tragedy)

by Vadym Semenko

The short gray December day created a similarly gray mood for my interlocutors traveling in the compartment of the train traveling from Kyiv to Lviv  The morning had begun with the usual queue to the toilet: the people stood meekly in the aisle, one behind the other, holding towels in their hands.

Across from me sat an old woman in a black kerchief that nearly concealed her gray hair, were it not for several unruly strands.  Her pale blue eyes blinked rarely, looking straight out the window; from time to time she would exhale deeply--evidence, I thought, of some spiritual trauma or grief.  They hadn't brought the tea yet and I, a young journalist returning from the capital of independent Ukraine, was eager to start a conversation with this silent elderly woman.  I wanted to somehow raise her spirits, to share with her my good mood.

"Don't worry, babusia (grandmother), it's only three hours or so before we reach Lviv", I said.  She slowly turned her gaze from the window to the table and then looked me straight in the eyes.  "Son, do you have a family, a wife, children?"

"Yes," I responded cheerfully, happy that I had succeeded in beginning a conversation." I am married, but we have no children yet."

"And you don't need them," she answered abruptly.  "Raising them, educating them, and protecting them was the goal of my life.  And what of it?  Only grief and trouble," she added hopelessly, gesturing with a sense of dismissal.

"Well, nothing is without its problems.  Even in America..." I began.

"In America, you say?  What do you know about America?"

"America is the most powerful and richest country in the world.  And our Ukraine will be like America some day.  After all, we are free now," I replied confidently.

"What did you say?  Free?  From whom?  Why, the same people who sat in positions of authority 10, 15 years ago, continue to sit in those same chairs.  The ones who killed then, are the same ones who kill today!"

I could not believe that this was the same quiet grandmother whom I had been observing earlier as she sat across from me.  Her eyes were burning with passion, her voice was strong, as if it were about to erupt.  Out of the corner of my eye I could see that our conversation had attracted the attention of other passengers, who were now tilting their heads out of neighboring compartments.

"But in every state there are criminals, and everywhere there are incidents of killings," I answered.

"Incidents?  What are you saying?  Not incidents, but a system--a system of killings.  I have seen this from the time I was a little girl.  Now I am 66.  All my life I saw death and murder as a result of this system.  The best and the most innocent people die, those who work hard and have attained something.  Earlier the Communists took everything; now everything is taken by the same people, except that they call themselves 'democrats' now.  They have joined 'democratic' parties.  But their essence remains the same: as they stole then, they steal now; as they killed then, they kill today; as they plundered then, they plunder today.  The only difference is in the methods they use."

During our conversation, our compartment had somehow filled up with more and more people who had come to listen.  And there were even more people gathered outside in the aisle.

"Can you cite some examples to support your statements?" I interjected carefully.

"Examples?  As if it were difficult to find examples," she replied.  "Ask anyone--it's just that not everyone will tell you the truth because they are afraid.  I am no longer afraid of anything.  After all, everybody knows what is happening in the cities and villages, but not everyone has realized that the most terrible has come to pass.  During Soviet times Black Marias took people away during the night; people disappeared--some forever, others for decades into Siberian prisons where they were tortured.  And have any of these torturers, whose who arrested people in the dark of night, whether it was the KGB, or the party henchmen and murderers--have any of them stood trial to answer for their crimes?  Have any of you people heard of such a thing?"

"No," came the answer from within our compartment and from the corridor.

"No," she continued, "And this cannot happen.  Because who will try them?  Who will question them?  Those people still are in power; even today they control the militia and the KGB, except that today it is known as the SBU [Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrainy, i.e., Security Service of Ukraine.]  And the Communist leaders have come to be called 'businessmen.'  And through their 'businesses' they have brought the nation to economic collapse, to poverty, because they care only about how to steal more, how to sell it abroad and whom to rob.

"And the most horrifying thing is this: Our youth, our children from proper homes, from hard-working families, those 16- to 18-year-old teenagers see that their parents cannot feed their families, although they work from morning to night each God-given day and then do not get paid by their Communist-businessmen bosses.  So a businessman call the young 16-year-old boy and says: Do you want to earn 50 hryvni [approximately $25 U.S.] per hour?  And who wouldn't want to earn that much?  Especially when the boy knows his father's salary is 70 hryvni per month, and that he has not been paid for six months anyway, and there isn't a single piece of bread in the house.  So, of course, the boy answers: 'Yes, just tell me what to do.  And when do I start?'  The businessman laughs: 'Oh, not so fast.  Here's an advance of 50 hryvni.  My assistant will call you about when to come to work.'  And so, the next day, that assistant shows up and says: 'A guy has just arrived here from Greece.  He made big bucks there, and brought over a car and all kinds of expensive and interesting items.  Go and tell him that he has to share with us.  Two or three other boys will go along with you.  We know he has brought over $12,000, so that if he wants his beautiful 3-year-old daughter to live, he has to pay us $10,000.  He can keep $2,000 for himself."

"Well, that's rare.  That's robbery," I commented.

"Yes," she replied.  "This is robbery, but this robbery is only the new ways and means used by our own much-valued authorities.  That is how they approached my son, who worked for five years in America on the most difficult construction jobs and then had to return--even though I wrote to him and told him not to return.  There he at least had a means to live, to work and to provide for his family.  Here it is very difficult to do that.  But his visa to America ran out.  He, his wife and 2-year-old son returned to their small apartment in Kyiv.

"A so-called businessman's messengers came about a month later and they needed all the money they had brought from America.  The criminals knew the exact amount of money that my son had to declare upon entering Ukraine.  After they returned to Kyiv, my son and his wife did not tell anyone, not even me, that they had money, but the mafia--that is, our authorities--knew everything.  And, even though my children no longer had the full amount they had brought back because they had bought some things for their apartment, some furniture, a car, and paid for transporting some items from America, they had $3,000 left.  The messengers took the full amount and told them to find the rest and give it to them within five days--if not, their little boy would not live.

"My children had no choice.  They went to the militia and told them everything, even though they suspected that the militia is tied to the mafia.  Five days later the businessman's messengers came again to demand the money; the militia 'could not come,' even though they knew the criminals would be there.  And these messengers looked my son straight in the eyes and said: 'Don't go anywhere, not to the militia, not to the president himself, because we hold the power and we know everything.  We're telling you, give us the money.'

"My son began to beg them to take anything they want, telling them there really was no money left.  Then the criminals tied up my son, taped his mouth, and right before his eyes, one by one, tortured his wife--all the while demanding the money that did not exist.  And then ..."  The woman stopped cold, turned her gaze away toward the window, and then continued.  "Now I am returning from the funeral.  Our little American--their little boy was born in America--is no longer on this earth.  My little grandson is gone.  My daughter-in-law is in the hospital.  My son is in a psychiatric institution.  Someone brought him to the funeral.

So, son, perhaps you don't need any children.  See what is happening in our, as you described it, free Ukraine.  Or maybe I'm saying this out of grief because the children are our hope, the continuation of our life, our future and the future of our nation.  But where is the solution to today's situation?"

The train slowed down.  We were approaching Lviv.  The people quietly filed out, like ghosts, getting ready to disembark.  Everyone was silent.  And I could not find any words to comfort this down-trodden, grief-stricken woman.  I was no longer returning from an assignment in Kyiv; I felt as if I were returning from a funeral.

I thought: if only we could walk away from our problems just like I am walking out of this train.

The woman in the black kerchief walked away from the platform slowly, insecurely, without looking back.

Small raindrops covered the dirty gray snow, but they could neither melt the snow, nor wash away the dirt.

The story above is by a writer from Ukraine.  Though a fictional account, it is based on numerous true stories about the atmosphere and life in Ukraine today.  The original Ukrainian-language version of the story was first published in January in the Lviv newspaper Ukrainskyi Shliakh.