A man opens his arms as he stands near a house destroyed in the Russian artillery shelling, in the village of Horenka close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, March 6, 2022. On Day 11 of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Russian troops shelled encircled cities, and it appeared that a second attempt to evacuate civilians from the besieged port city of Mariupol had failed due to continued violence. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

A man opens his arms as he stands near a house destroyed in the Russian artillery shelling, in the village of Horenka close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, March 6, 2022. On Day 11 of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Russian troops shelled encircled cities, and it appeared that a second attempt to evacuate civilians from the besieged port city of Mariupol had failed due to continued violence. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

COLUMN: Ukraine conflict hits close to home

Refugees from Ukraine are leaving places they have known and loved

The Russia-Ukraine conflict is thousands of kilometres away from me, but my heart aches as I follow the news of the ongoing destruction in Ukraine.

The conflict began at the Russia-Ukraine border on Feb. 24, following eight years of rising tensions between the two countries. Within days, fighting had reached the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. On March 4, a nuclear power plant in the area – the largest in Europe – was targeted. The city of Zaporizhzhia has also been attacked. The region close to this city is under Russian control at present.

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The Zaporizhzhia Oblast region in southeastern Ukraine holds a special place in my heart as it plays a role in my family’s history. My grandparents, and several generations before them, lived in Mennonite villages in this area, close to the present-day city of Zaporizhzhia.

The first Mennonite colony in Ukraine was established in the late 18th century and is now part of the city of Zaporizhzhia. A few years later, a second Mennonite colony in the area grew nearby, to the southeast.

In the years following, as the Mennonite population increased, additional colonies were established in Ukraine and later eastward into Russia. These colonies became home for tens of thousands of Mennonites.

Everything changed following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and during the Russian Civil War from 1917 to 1923. During the Russian Civil War, bands of armed anarchists ravaged villages in this region. Religious persecution and other hardships followed.

In the 1920s, tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Mennonites came to Canada as refugees. This is when my family’s story shifted from Ukraine and Russia to Canada.

Canada has been a welcoming home for us, and I am grateful to live in in this country. But there is also sorrow for what has been lost.

When I was growing up, older people who had lived in Ukraine before coming to Canada would describe the area with fondness. They recalled their lives in a beautiful, prosperous region – a place where they could no longer return.

While they had built new lives for themselves in Canada and while they were glad to live in this country, they were no longer in the place that had once been their home.

Today, as I follow the news reports of the present conflict in Ukraine, the accounts seem similar to the heightened level of tension and the effects of the Russian Civil War a century ago. Refugees from Ukraine are crossing into neighbouring countries in Europe, once again leaving places they have known and loved.

The details of the conflict today are different from past conflicts in that area, but in many ways it seems as if history is tragically repeating itself. A beautiful part of the world is under attack and those living there are experiencing a terrible level of devastation. Their homes are in a war zone.

The conflict in Ukraine is far from me, but I am deeply sad. Today’s armed conflict is in an area earlier generations in my family knew as home.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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