Through The Lens of Grief: Odesa School Hit By Air Strikes

A sobering video and pictures capturing the aftermath of air strikes on a school in Odesa recently reached Spotlight Ukraine through a network of concerned individuals. Aleks, a Ukrainian expatriate who has called the United States home for nearly three decades, shared this raw visual testimony after receiving it from a friend near the affected school. The video footage and other images from the scene depict a smoky fog enveloping the school, shattered windows, and curtains fluttering through the broken glass—an unsettling testament to the relentless destruction that continues to unfold in Ukraine.

Unveiling Personal Connections

In an interview with Aleks, we explore his personal connection to the school and the profound impact of witnessing his childhood memories crumble amid the horrific acts of warfare imposed on the innocent civilians of Ukraine. This narrative unfolds as an urgent call to keep Ukraine in the global spotlight, urging readers to share Aleks’ story, helping to sustain awareness about the human cost of the war.

Journey from Ukraine to the U.S.

Aleks’ life journey spans from the heart of Ukraine to his current home in the United States, underlining the global impact Russia’s war on Ukraine is having on not only those living through the horror in Ukraine but also those beyond Ukraine’s border with personal connections to Ukraine.

Born in southern Ukraine, Aleks spent seven years at the school shown in the video that he recalls was known as simply ‘School Number 1’ before pursuing higher education at a nearby university. The trajectory of his life took a turn in 1998 when his family moved to the United States, providing Aleks with a unique perspective that bridges two worlds.

Personal Reflections on Devastation

The heart of our interview lies in Aleks’ visceral reaction to the video capturing the devastation of the school where he spent his formative years. The emotional weight is palpable as he articulates a mix of anger and sorrow, labeling the attacks on civilian structures as nothing short of barbarism. His childhood memories, deeply rooted in the school’s surroundings, transform the war from a distant tragedy to a personal and intimate loss. Aleks comments, “That’s the schoolyard where I used to play as a kid. I helped to remodel that schoolyard with my own hands, along with my friends. All of the vegetation there, we planted it as kids. The trees, the bushes, I planted them with the other kids. I was maybe ten or twelve years old at the time. We watered the bushes and watched the plantings grow through the years. We put a lot of effort into it.”

Odessa School Before Attack
Aleks shared an image of his school in the days when everyday life was normal and children flourished as they filled the school’s classrooms.

Aleks remarked that the school building was significantly damaged, but thankfully, no people were inside when it was struck. He went on to say that he used to live virtually across the street from the school. There is a storage area nearby that was also hit and severely damaged about a year ago. During the interview, Aleks stated several times that the location is a residential area without any military installations, yet it continues to be attacked by missile strikes.

Odessa School Before Attack
Odessa School After Attack
Odessa School After Attack
Odessa School After Attack
Odessa School After Attack
Odessa School After Attack
Odessa School After Attack

The Phenomenon of Psychic Numbing: An Urgent Plea for Continued Attention

Speaking with Aleks brought us back to reflect on a blog story in the early days of Spotlight Ukraine. The blog titled “Keep Ukraine In The Spotlight: Share Personal Stories” foreshadows what has come almost two years later as the war continues with no end in sight. The phenomenon we wrote about, psychic numbing, is playing out in real time, and Aleks alludes to this concept during our conversation.

Aleks reinforced the concept of psychic numbing without using the term: when you have a tragedy, people are generally empathetic; however, as the tragedy becomes worse over time, there is less empathy even though the tragedy becomes worse. People become numb to all of it. The phenomenon of ‘psychic numbing’ and the gradual erosion of empathy as the war in Ukraine persists is of great concern. As time passes, people grow indifferent to the suffering in Ukraine.

In speaking with Aleks, it is apparent that the notion of indifference is a key reason behind why he felt compelled to share the video of his school. Aleks remarked, “The war becomes a routine in the background. People live their own lives and they stop paying attention. But I don’t think this is right. People need to keep thinking about it. The war is ongoing, and innocent people, civilians, are being attacked every single day. People get tired of bad news, but they still need to listen to that news. Someone needs to listen.”

Civilian infrastructure from schools to hospitals to churches to museums and other historical landmarks are being destroyed, and yet Ukraine has fallen from the headlines as people far from its borders have moved on with their lives to focus on their own personal challenges.

What’s Ahead for the Future of Ukraine

So much has been written about the resilience and courage of the Ukrainian people as they have battled to preserve their freedom. At the onset of the full-scale invasion, the world watched in awe as the courageous and resilient Ukrainian defenders pushed back Russian aggression. The underdog held its ground. But now, almost two years into the war, we asked Aleks about his thoughts on the future.

Aleks was candid in expressing his concerns, not for the will of Ukrainians to continue the fight, but that over time, Ukraine may not have the resources to battle over the long term. The worry for the future lies in waning public support and general assistance from the global community. Metaphorically painting a stark picture, Aleks likens Ukraine’s struggle against a powerful adversary to a bear fighting a squirrel. He remarked, “A bear is a large and heavy animal, much stronger than a small squirrel. If a bear attacks a squirrel, unless the squirrel gets help in fighting the bear, the squirrel will fail.” Ukraine is a much smaller and less populous country that becomes harder to defend without help. The President of Ukraine has repeatedly stated that it’s not troops they need but defensive weaponry. Like the squirrel battling the big bear, Aleks acknowledges the dire need for more international support.

As we concluded our interview with Aleks, he urged our readers to stay informed and engaged in supporting Ukraine. He emphasized that staying silent in the face of injustice only emboldens aggressors, and the aggressor won’t stop. By keeping the spotlight on Ukraine, individuals can contribute to raising awareness and garnering support for Ukraine.

Why Should People Care About Ukraine?

In our closing minutes, we asked Aleks what he might say to motivate people to advocate for and support Ukraine. Aleks reflected on a saying about the risk of staying silent in the face of injustice. He commented, “I remember a saying that goes something like this… Today, they [the aggressors] come for your neighbor. You say nothing and they take away your neighbor. Tomorrow, they come for your relative and you say nothing. They take away your relative. On the third day, they come and take away your wife. And again, you say nothing because they didn’t do anything to you. But eventually, if you say nothing and keep quiet when an injustice is happening to someone else, the aggressor will come for you. And when they do, you will have to fight back on your own because no one is left to help.”

First They Came

Once again, Aleks’ words brought us back to one of our previous blog stories published in the summer of 2022. It was titled, “We’re All In This Together,” and the article highlighted Martin Niemöller’s poem, ‘First They Came’. This is the saying that Aleks reflected on. Niemöller wrote the poem just after WWII and today is part of the permanent exhibition of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The poem reinforces the danger of apathy and indifference. It is a reminder of the importance of the moral connectedness of all people and to speak up and stand up for what’s right.

So many times throughout history, there’s a call for “never again” after a tragedy. Sadly, despite these calls, history repeats itself. As Aleks remarked, “It’s pure barbarism what is happening in Ukraine.” Day in and day out, innocent civilians are being murdered. Civilian infrastructure from schools to hospitals to churches to museums and other historical landmarks are being destroyed, and yet Ukraine has fallen from the headlines as people far from its borders have moved on with their lives to focus on their own personal challenges. It’s understandable for people to prioritize their personal concerns, but for all of humanity, we must look beyond ourselves during these times.

First They Came

A Resonant Call: Uniting for Ukraine and Humanity

As we near the 2-year mark of this full-scale invasion and war on Ukraine, we’re asking our readers to support a resonant call to action to please share Aleks’ story and every story that you come across that reveals the truth of what’s happening in Ukraine. Let us collectively keep Ukraine in the global spotlight. As the world’s attention shifts, it is crucial to maintain a continuous focus on the human cost of war in Ukraine. We hope you will help to share this narrative, spark conversations, and amplify the call for empathy and action. In doing so, we contribute to the collective effort to ensure that Ukraine and the ongoing war do not fade into the shadows of indifference.
In the haunting message of Martin Niemöller’s poem, ‘First They Came’: when we fail to unite against injustice and combat aggression, someday they will come for you, and there will be no one left to help you fight back. This poignant reminder underscores our moral responsibility to speak up and stand up for what’s right, transcending borders and connecting us in a shared commitment to humanity.

 

Let us not wait until the echoes of war become the silence of apathy; instead, let our collective voice reverberate against the darkness, serving as a beacon of hope and resilience for all.

Portrait Ukraine

Read the ‘Portrait Ukraine’ blog series for more stories about what is happening in Ukraine.

In the face of the ongoing war, when the world often reduces crises to cold statistics and faceless figures, the true power of personal storytelling emerges as a beacon of understanding and compassion. Spotlight Ukraine stands at the forefront of this belief, partnering with photojournalist Allan Mestel and photographer David Graham, to illuminate the stories of those deeply affected by Ukraine’s ongoing struggle.  Click here to read more stories.