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  • Writer's pictureNataliya Apanovich

On the wrong side

As my husband and I were driving home from Phoenix, I couldn’t stop admiring the sunset. It was something out of this world: bold, orange, sublime. The twilight consumed everything except for the silhouettes. The desert now consisted only of the outlined saguaro cactuses, eroded hill tops, and distant mountain ranges covered with last week’s snow. I felt privileged to live in a place where nature was still one big masterpiece.

But then, suddenly, I realized I might never see it again. That perhaps tomorrow, this week or maybe even month, all of this could disappear. I grabbed my phone and started googling how to prepare for a nuclear winter. I had creepy intuition I might need that knowledge and skills. Should I start buying canned food? Filling empty jugs with water? Purchase a gun? I couldn’t believe I might live in an apocalyptic world for four years; the number of years scientists predict a nuclear winter could last. Four years of no sun. Four years of no plant growth. Four years of chaos, starvation, and death.

No, it wouldn’t be a local wildfire to finish me, it would be a Russian nuclear missile. Chills spread across my body as I remembered my dream from years back. Two simultaneous nuclear explosions. The Earth’s orbit shifted. Everything went dark. Then I remembered another dream: zombies with machetes attacking me and the humanity. The realization that these sci-fi images could become my and everyone else’ reality felt suffocating.

What happened to the world?

When Matt and I were visiting Belarus just a month ago, everything felt normal. Nobody talked about Russia or Ukraine. Instead, it was the protests in Kazakhstan that ate up most of the time on TV. The journalists talked about decapitations, looting, and street violence. My relatives praised the Russian army for so quickly installing peace and order in a country teeming with terrorists and hot-blooded savages. Another successful Russian operation to eliminate democracy.

But that was Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan is far away from Belarus. And in a country like Belarus where every inch of earth went through at least ten wars, people mind their own business. Precisely, they want to live in peace. “I would take anything over a war,” said my dad’s mom who grew up during the Second World War. Every time Matt and I visited her, she talked about the war. It was like it happened yesterday. She didn’t remember what she had for breakfast, but she could perfectly describe the pitch of the soviet rockets flying over her head when liberating my hometown. “We have food, clothes, and medicine in stores now. What else is there to need?” she repeated on multiple occasions. I rolled my eyes. I grew tired of hearing about the war that happened more than eighty years ago. But for her, everything was still about the war.

It was the same with my other grandma. Even though she grew up after the war, she was still traumatized by the starvation, poverty, and diseases that followed. It was so bad that people formed bandit groups in the woods to attack each other for food and clothes. My grandma lost one half of her family to those bandits and another half to pneumonia. Because there was absolutely nothing, she relied on land to survive. She worked day and night to grow and process food, make clothes, and care for her family and livestock. “We grew flax and then turned it into linen which we then used to make towels and clothes,” she said. I knew everything she had in the house and on her was made by her. “So many of my relatives died because of the war, I would take anything over a war,” she echoed my other grandmother’s words. For her, too, everything was still about the war. She talked again and again about the dead relatives hung on the walls. And when she went to the cemetery, she kissed their monuments and crosses while recounting their stories. Even the clay pots in which she cooked reminded her of the war: some men in her family were killed by the bandits when traveling through the woods to sell their pottery.

A nation entirely shaped by violence is justifiably averse to it, or so I thought. Now, however, Belarus took a different position. It became the aggressor. How could a country that got almost entirely wiped out by a war do anything even slightly similar to anyone else? How did it happen that Belarus is on the wrong side of the history?

When I asked my cousin in Belarus about what ordinary people were saying about the war, his response stunned me. He said people were relieved they still lived in peace. I don’t think Belarusians are selfish or don’t care about others. I think WW II traumatized them so much that even something as horrific as an unjustified war in a neighboring country is no big deal as long as they still have their peace.

I feel sad for the people of Belarus knowing they didn’t choose this war, that not that long ago they were fighting themselves to liberate Belarus. What’s incomprehensible is that it took no time to go from doing something so right to doing nothing about something so wrong. I cringe at the thought that neighboring countries could use “Belarusian” to describe someone as savage and cruel, the way Belarusians still use “German” to describe someone as savage and cruel.

Now, Belarus, a country that bases its identity entirely on being a victim of a war, will forever stay in the history as an aggressor. A conflicting dimension to the already paradoxical nature of the Eastern European bloc. A pit from which only a miracle, that is democracy, can help them get out of.

And while the Belarusians get to have their peace, Lukashenko is co-plotting with Putin to end the world as we know it. Not in a million years did I think that my small home country located in the geographic center of Europe would make me prepare for a nuclear winter. No, it wouldn’t be climate change to finish us, it would be two deranged dictators who will finish us all.

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