Leonard Pitts: Does Ukraine have courage enough to be a country worth fighting for?
Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 6, 2022
This was going to be a song of praise. Instead, it will be a groan of frustration.
In other words, it was going to be a column heralding the titanic courage of Ukraine in the face of Russian attack, the acts of defiance that have endeared that nation to the world. Like the woman who gave a Russian soldier sunflower seeds so that Ukraine’s national flower might bloom from his corpse, or the comedian turned president who has rallied his people like some latter-day Churchill, or the outgunned Ukrainian defenders who invited their attackers to go perform an anatomically impossible act.
The column would have noted what a stirring example Ukraine provides America, where so many people confuse patriotism and guts with sedition and insurrection.
But that hymn of acclamation died amid reports of how dark-skinned people from Africa and India are being singled out for mistreatment — segregated from other refugees, beaten and left stranded by Ukrainian authorities — as they join half a million frightened souls fleeing the besieged country.
“They stopped us at the border and told us that Blacks were not allowed,” Moustapha Bagui Sylla, a student from Guinea, told France 24, a French television network. “But we could see white people going through.”
Saakshi Ijantkar, a medical student from India, told CNN how guards at a border checkpoint refused to let Indian men through. “We had to literally cry and beg at their feet. After the Indian girls got in, the boys were beaten up. There was no reason for them to beat us with this cruelty. I saw an Egyptian man standing at the front with his hands on the rails, and because of that one guard pushed him with so much force and the man hit the fence, which is covered in spikes, and he lost consciousness.”
Rachel Onyegbule, a medical student from Nigeria, told the network how she was kicked off a public bus at a checkpoint. “More than 10 buses came,” she said, “and we were watching everyone leave. We thought after they took all the Ukrainians they would take us, but they told us we had to walk, that there were no more buses. My body was numb from the cold, and we haven’t slept in about four days now. Ukrainians have been prioritized over Africans — men and women — at every point.
“There’s no need for us to ask why,” she added. “We know why.”
A spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Border Guard Service denied these allegations and reminded CNN that guards are working under great pressure as they process the torrent of refugees. Duly noted. But you have to ask yourself: Why would the students make this up? What would be the point? No obvious answer presents itself.
And frankly, it is deeply disappointing, in the midst of crisis, that we even have to have this discussion.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the French newspaper Le Monde ran a headline that became iconic: “Nous sommes tous Américains” (We are all Americans). In that same sense, right now, we are all Ukrainians, a declaration that connects us, not simply to another nation’s geopolitical plight, but to the humanity we all have in common.
At an exigent moment, when they were given a chance to vindicate that humanity, guardians of Ukraine’s border stomped it instead. Make no mistake: The hearts of all good people are with the citizens of Ukraine. They’ve shown beyond doubt that they have courage enough to fight for their country.
But let them also have courage enough to be a country worth fighting for.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.