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'Stop Putin' - Ukraine protest draws hundreds to city hall rally

War in Ukraine brings up memories of Croatian conflict for Prince George protester

Nick Vukovic knows the agony of war and what it’s like to be other side of the world while his homeland and its people were being destroyed by conflict.

For four years from 1991-95, while Croatia fought to gain independence from the former Yugoslavia, Vukovic was in Prince George feeling powerless to help his family and friends in their efforts to survive.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has stirred those painful memories in Vukovic and he felt compelled to join the noon-hour protest Sunday at Prince George city hall to show he stands behind the Ukrainian people and the worldwide outrage at what is now tearing that county apart.

“All of my family was there in Croatia and it is hard to believe what people can go through,” said Vukovic. “At that time I thought it was the last war in Europe, but unfortunately it didn’t happen that way and the reason for that -  I have no idea that in the 21st century we have to solve a problem with a war. It’s not the right way to do it. Today you can have everything and another day you’re fighting for your dear lives and you have nothing. That’s what the Ukrainians are going through right now. So many young lives are being destroyed.”

Vadym Fedotov-Segal of Stony Plain, Alta., was part of an Air Canada crew that overnighted in Prince George and he had time to speak at the Prince George protest before his flight left. Fedotov-Segal grew up in Lviv, in western Ukraine and has lived in Canada since 1997. His family and friends are still in the Ukraine and his 56-year-old best friend has been conscripted to join the army, which has put up fierce resistance to the Russian soldiers.

“The support there is unbelievable and the fact we are actually holding strong is because of the people,” said Fedotov-Segal. “It’s unprecedented what’s happening now and I think we’re watching the re-mapping of history in many ways.”

Fedotov-Segal stays in touch with his close circle of 13 friends and family in the Ukraine using internet apps that allow direct conversations and he’s hoping those channels will remain open during the conflict. Facebook and other social media giants have closed their networks in Russia and he says that is already having an effect.

“I do have a lot of friends in Russia and now we’re cut off,” he said. “Facebook is very censored right now and communication is being torn apart because they don’t want to know the truth. There is a lot of discord and dissent in Russia, from what I’m hearing, and some of them didn’t know what was going on.

“A lot of those young (Russian) soldiers who were actually sent, they didn’t know they were sent to die and they defected. They dropped their arms and ran away. Fifty-three per cent of them in the southern part of Ukraine actually ran away. That’s not known publicly, but that’s the information I got from my sources.”

He said the Ukraine government has set up a toll-free phone number for mothers of Russians to check up on those captured in the fighting who are now prisoners of war. He’s hopeful the meeting between the two sides being set up later today near the Belarus-Ukraine border will result in a positive outcome that leads to an end to the conflict.

The rally was organized by the Prince George Ukrainian Catholic Church priest Andrii Chornenkyii, and a crowd of about 250 people gathered, including Mayor Lyn Hall, who was given a Ukrainian flag which will be raised at city hall on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.

Galynie Chornenkyii, Father Andrii’s wife, began the speeches by singing the Ukrainian national anthem – She ne vmerla Ukrainia – which translated in English means, “Glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”

Similar protests have been ongoing throughout the world and Andrii Chornenkyii said it didn’t matter that it was hundreds rather than thousands of people in Prince George who attended the rally.

“It’s not about the number, it’s about what is in your heart,” he said. “It’s not a thousand, but I know the people who are here, their heart is truly with Ukrainians and that’s what is most important to me. They came here and they are not bystanders, their hearts are full of love and support for Ukraine and this makes me happy to see them here. They represent different countries, different generations, different cultures and I’m really touched.

“We cherish every single life, whether it is a Russian soldier or other soldier, because for us as Christians, life is the most  precious thing. It’s a Sunday of forgiveness and today I forgave those who are killing my brothers and I forgave even Mr. Putin. But I hope my forgiveness is not in vain. I hope that these words will at least touch some soldiers who will not shoot their bullets.”

Missile strikes have been hitting Kviv, where Chornenkyii’s family lives, and he’s maintained sporadic contact with them since the invasion began on Thursday. With each air-raid warning he loses touch with them because their internet connections do not get through the bomb shelters.

Members of the University Hospital of Northern B.C Traditional Drummers were invited by Father Andrii to attend the protest and they offered a sweetgrass blessing and performed the Grandmothers Song, among other traditional songs, to show their solidarity.

“We are far, far away but our voices are being heard with the families that are suffering,” said drummer Wesley Mitchell, who is hopeful international economic sanctions and the rest of the world agreeing to sever banking ties to Russia will have the desired effects.

“It helps,” he said, “and that’s the peaceful way of stopping Russia from doing what they are doing. Eventually, the Russian people will not like what’s going on and will turn on Putin and shut it right down. When you see someone big picking on somebody little, what do you do? You’re going to stand up with them and help them and hopefully resolve it in a peaceful manner, but it’s past that right now.

“Vladimir Putin will be known forever as a war-monger. That’s a decision he and whoever is following him made and they need to pay. There’s got to be justice.”