March 4. 2024. 6:53

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The Brief – Darkest before dawn


I woke up at 3:46 on Thursday morning a year ago, when many of us were buzzed out of our sleep by our phones and the realisation that war had broken out on the European continent.

The days before, we journalists had our eyes tied to the newswires and live TV announcements, wondering whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would actually do the one thing we hoped might not happen: Invade Ukraine.

On that Thursday morning, messages from Ukrainian colleagues, several of whom I had seen only a few weeks before during an assignment along the then ‘contact line’ in the Donbas, confirmed that he had.

As Russian tanks charged into Ukraine and missiles hit Kyiv, Odesa and Mariupol, the first reaction of many across Europe, including in Brussels, was disbelief and fear – and for Eastern Europeans, the thought that history indeed repeats itself.

Few thought a full-scale, interstate war between a nuclear superpower and a neighbouring country on European soil was possible.

“We were shocked, but not surprised,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a small group of reporters in Munich last weekend when recounting the moment he received the news in 2022.

“Of course, until the planes are flying and the battle tanks are rolling, and the soldiers are marching, you can always change your plans,” Stoltenberg said.

“But the more we approached the 24th of February last year, the more obvious it was.”

As the next few days and weeks unfolded, we saw the EU, just emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and, for the opaque decision-making apparatus it usually is, make decisions at what Brussels-experienced bureaucrats described as the ‘speed of light’.

One year on, much has changed.

Russia’s invasion has profoundly reshaped Europe.

It made the bloc abandon traditional foreign policy dogmas, rapidly weaned it off Russian energy dependencies and brought enlargement policy back from its dusty place deep in the Berlaymont’s corridors.

For many of us reporters, the war had a face. Many faces in fact, and it was not primarily the face of the leader of the country that declared it. It was the face of the people he decided should be extinguished.

The war was in our iPhones, on our screens and part of nearly every piece we wrote.

Of course, there is no comparison between the flood of news on Twitter feeds, chat groups with sources or talks with EU and Ukrainian government officials to the terror of Ukrainians praying they won’t see their own hometown or apartment block struck by a Russian missile. But it was also very real.

Instead of writing about the number and outcome of emergency meetings, the ins and outs of the EU’s sanctions framework or decisions about weapons reimbursements, this account will focus on three key memories.

The first snapshot in my mind is a crying child at a previously insignificant crossing at the Polish-Ukrainian border, now filled with snarled-up traffic and evacuating families. Many of them, often mothers with small children whose husbands stayed behind to fight, came on foot in days-long odysseys.

It was the most dramatic flood of refugees Europe has seen since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, with currently 8,087,952 displaced or on the move across Europe, according to the UNHCR. This number amounts to around 20% of the Ukrainian population.

What the exodus brought with it was truly remarkable acts of solidarity and kindness of strangers, volunteers and local authorities, while international agencies and donors were still formalising their response.

It also showcased the transformation of Poland, a nation with a reputation for being wary of foreigners, which accommodated far more refugees from neighbouring Ukraine than any other, burying historical disputes with Kyiv in the process.

The second is the smell of fresh earth over a mass burial site in Kyiv’s liberated outskirts, surrounded by bombed-out buildings. Some things we won’t forget in a lifetime. Bucha, in many ways, was a turning point in this war.

According to official accounts, more than 70,000 alleged war crimes have been reported in Ukraine since Russia invaded, and prosecutions won’t be easy. It is already clear, however, that the fight for accountability and justice for the victims will define the post-war world order and international legal system.

The third memory is the stark contrast between the silence of sandbags in a basement of a Ukrainian government building and people going about their daily lives even as air-raid sirens blared on the streets.

Ukrainians have amazed the world with their fightback and resilience.

They say it is always darkest before dawn.


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