As a shaky truce ended within hours of it being announced, sending the capital city of Kiev back into chaos, one Newton woman sits in worry about what is happening to her native country of Ukraine.
Svitlana Miller said the violence unfolding throughout the nation is heartbreaking.
“Seeing people being killed because they want to be heard and they want to make a difference is truly distressing,” she said. “The territory of Ukraine was first inhabited at least forty-four thousand years ago. And ever since then Ukrainians have been fighting for their independence and for the independence of their land. And this is exactly what is happening now.”
Miller, who works as a student enrollment specialist and advisor for the Buena Vista University satellite in Newton, recently became a U.S. citizen. Her mother, Maria, also resides in Newton, but her grandparents and other family members are still in Ukraine.
“Even though the biggest protests are happening in Kiev, things are intense in Cherkassy as well,” she said. “We are worried for my grandparents and for their safety, because people know that they have family in the United States. Our friends are also afraid for their children because young adults are beaten and thrown in jail if they walk outside in groups of two or three and look ‘suspicious.’”
Miller came to Newton as one of the first exchange students sponsored by Newton’s Organization Promoting Everlasting Neighbors, the city’s sister-city organization. One of Newton’s two sister cities, Smila, is located a little more than 120 miles south-southeast of Kiev.
Members of the OPEN Board have been communicating amongst themselves and with other former exchange students since the most recent hostilities began. Two other students, Anastasia “Nastia” Yefimova and Oksana Kovalenko, have both spoken with their former “host mother,” Jane Johnson of Newton.
“Both girls came here as OPEN students from Smila,” Johnson said. “Nastia’s parents own a clothing sale business in the open air markets and Oksana’s mother is a branch manager of a bank in Smila and her father teaches math at the tech high school.”
She said Oksana attended Newton Senior High School during the 2008-09 school year, living with the Johnsons the second half of the school year. She is currently attending university in Kiev, and was due to graduate this spring with her bachelor’s degree with plans to earn her master’s degree, as well.
Johnson said Nastia attended NHS during the 2004-05 school year, living with the Johnsons the entire school year. After high school, Nastia attended a university in Kiev affiliated with the University of Wisconsin, earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business.
An internship with Citi Bank in Kiev eventually resulted in her current job. Tuesday, the first day of violence in Kiev, Nastia wrote twice to check in with Johnson:
“It is [a] real nightmare. In all years that I’ve been living in Kiev, and it’s around seven years, I can’t recall [a] time when I would not be able to get home (like physically get from one spot to another),” she wrote. “All transportation system stopped at one point — subway didn’t work, busses didn’t go any where — it was even impossible to call a taxi.”
She told Johnson her work was located near the epicenter of the protests in downtown Kiev, meaning she was nearly cut off from the rest of the city. She said she was so busy with her work, however, she didn’t realize what was happening outside at first.
“My mom called me and said that it’s practically civil war was starting,” she wrote. “And just now, I’m watching TV, it is online translation, and it doesn’t look good ... There are more than thousand people hurt, a lot of people’ve been already killed, there are horrible fires over there ... And it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop .. Oh my, people are saying prayers and singing national anthem out loud!”
“It is so horrible and so noble at the same time!”
Miller had similar sentiments, watching the violence unfold.
“Let me tell you, in a way I am proud that people are fighting for their rights, that they are not afraid of the corruption,” she said. “But my heart is just hurting every time I see that a another dead body was found or another person was injured.”
Miller noted that many of the protesters are young college students, her age. She said seeing “the future of Ukraine” dying or being severely injured as a result makes her “furious.”
“The conflict started with a peaceful protest, violence was not used in any shape or form,” she added. “The protesters were forced to use fire and rocks to protect themselves after the army pushed with their force.”
Johnson also heard from Oksana early in the day Wednesday. Oksana said her university was closed, and noted the public was scared about what was going on. But, she said it was safe where she lives; she intends to stay home to avoid trouble.
However, Johnson did not hear from Nastia Wednesday. Johnson said Nastia may be trying to make arrangements to work from home, but also noted emails and other communications with the West may be monitored by the Ukrainian government.
“It may be fear mongering, but yes, I told her to be careful,” Johnson said.
“I don’t think anyone ever expected things to get this bad, and I really don’t see things changing or getting better anytime soon,” Miller added. “My hope and prayers are that things get resolved soon and that my fellow Ukrainians find peace in their own country.”
UPDATE: This story was edited to correct information about Svitlana Miller's history as a foreign exchange student to Newton.
Daily News Editor Bob Eschliman may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.