Gina Christian

Earlier this month, Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska was interviewed via email by CNN international anchor Christiane Amanpour. 

Zelenska’s words shone with the clarity found only in life-or-death situations. 

Amid Russia’s relentless shelling of civilian targets, the horrific discoveries of mass graves and accounts of rape and torture by Russian troops – all against a backdrop of what now adds up to more than 11 million displaced Ukrainians – Zelenska issued an urgent warning.

“It is important that our war does not become ‘habitual,’ so that our victims do not become statistics,” she wrote. “Don’t get used to our grief.”

Zelenska was just as forthright in her March 8 “Open Letter to the Global Media.”

 “I testify and tell the world,” she wrote, “the war in Ukraine is not a war ‘somewhere out there.’ … If we don’t stop (Russian president Vladimir) Putin, who threatens to start a nuclear war, there will be no safe place in the world for any of us.”

As her nation endures a savage, unprovoked invasion – one that actually commenced in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed separatist regions in Donetsk and Luhansk – Zelenska implores us to resist enemies that, without a single shot fired, threaten us all: indifference and selective memory.

Her words were echoed by human rights attorney Amal Clooney in an April 27 address to the United Nations.

“Ukraine is today a slaughterhouse right in the heart of Europe,” said Clooney, citing a list of well-documented atrocities that defy comprehension: the Russian bombing of civilians sheltering in a Mariupol theater marked with the word “children” to deter attacks; the systematic torture and death of residents still trapped in that besieged city; the rape of teenage girls by invaders, “in the street, in front of their families and neighbors”; the forcible deportation of thousands of children to Russia.

Yet despite such horror – the mere mention of which should evoke sheer revulsion in all of us – Clooney admitted she feared international leaders would find themselves distracted by other issues and become “numb” to the war in Ukraine.

We may be globally interconnected, but we routinely dismiss tragedies and trials that happen on the other side of our preferred borders – an ocean, a line on a map, our front door. 

We may live in the Information Age, but we seem to forget certain things all too quickly – among them, genocide and the raw evil that fuels it.

We may document our every like, dislike and unfiltered thought on social media, but the record shows that, on balance, we as a species are too often silent when hell roars.

The Shoah, or Holocaust, saw some six million Jews murdered by the Nazi regime, with almost 34,000 of them executed over two days in 1941 at Babyn Yar in Kyiv, Ukraine. The site of the slaughter was barely acknowledged by Soviet Russia when it occupied Ukraine; on March 1 of this year, a Russian military strike damaged the memorial that the democratic Ukrainian government had constructed.

Attempts to erase Ukrainian history – and indeed, Ukrainians themselves, whom Putin openly refuses to acknowledge as a sovereign people – are far from unprecedented. From 1932 to 1933, Soviet Union premier Joseph Stalin starved anywhere from 4 to 6.5 million Ukrainians through an artificially created famine known as the Holodomor.

The globe itself is drenched in the blood of other victims: 1.7 million who perished in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 under the Khmer Rouge; 500,000 to 1 million in Rwanda butchered by machetes and other crude weapons between April and July 1994; 8,000 men and boys shot – and some buried alive – by Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina a year later.

In our own nation, the true number of Indigenous and people of color who have been slain through genocide and related atrocities may never be known.

Sadly, the list is far from exhaustive.

And there will be more added to it – unless we heed the cries of Zelenska, Clooney and all those who implore us not to normalize the darkness of the human heart, so that we might remain faithful to the divine light of life within it.

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Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina