Piles of Rubble

By now, we’ve all seen ruins. Many of us have had the privilege to stroll through them, the famous ones, in places like Egypt and Manchu Pichu. They have a power to transport us to the past and imagine not only turning points in history, but also the mundane seconds and minutes of lives lived right there a thousand or two thousand years ago. Sometimes and some places that power thrives and sometimes and places it does not. I know. In Rome, the fallen columns of the Forum gripped me. In Athens, the walk to the Acropolis didn’t. It’s still not clear to me why.

The power doesn’t, I’ve learned, emanate from the age of the ruins.

I recently rode my bike down the street where I rented a home. I’d seen before what had come of it. More than ten years ago the bungalow where my wife and I lived with our kids for close to a decade met a wrecking ball. The house was not an architectural wonder, nor a model of efficiency.

Our old rented bungalow, with our van and our Canucks flag.

But there’s a lot wrong with what replaced it.

Certainly this new structure is more energy efficient. But its style makes me question what passes for taste and wonder about the quality of our design schools. I can almost guarantee that though at least twice the size of the home it replaced, fewer people live there. And given the financial sorcery at work in the Vancouver real estate market, I know this house will remain standing a fraction of the time our old rented bungalow did.

Previous drive-bys never elicited the strange emptiness I felt when I rode through the our neighborhood last month. In the past, we’d drive through to see what was new since we left. It was a straightforward calculation. While our lives had gone on, what had changed in the old neighborhood? This time was different. It wasn’t the monster house that supplanted our old home that did it. This time I rode down the next block as well, past the house where Doug and his wife and his step-daughters had lived. We met them when they moved in across the back alley from us. Doug and his wife stayed in the neighborhood longer than we did, but they later divorced and moved out, too. This time I pedaled down his old street and found that his former home was also gone. It and the homes nearby, all of them seemed to have been replaced with such thoroughness I could hardly tell where Doug’s house had even been.

The change felt drastic this time. Unfair. Doug’s house had come down and life hadn’t gone on. Not for Doug. He died on Christmas after a long bout with cancer.

I rode through the alley separating our former homes to get a better sense where his little place had been. I found contractors installing gutters on two new buildings, one a lane house. They didn’t have a clue about me or Doug or our families. I looked at the rubble still in the yard, leftovers from the jobsite. I imagined the rubble from the demolitions of both our homes. That’s when the changes hurt. I never mourned our little bungalow before, but I did now. The bedroom our sons shared, the walls we painted, the tiny dining room where we hosted dinners, the backyard we used to fill with laughter. Those places, including those places where we shared time with Doug, were gone. Never to be seen again, never to be understood or appreciated by anyone who came after.

As I rode away that day, to the home my family lives in now, I realized I’d approached every place I’d lived the same way as those builders. When we moved in and painted the walls, and replaced the flooring, and put up our pictures, we never once thought of those who’d come before us, who’d made their own memories and lived their own lives in those homes.

We should have.

I know there are ruins all over. In Sudan. In Myanmar. In Gaza. In my own neighborhood. But the feeling I rode away with took my thoughts to Ukraine. Where the destruction is incomprehensible in both its scale and its intent. I realized I couldn’t put it out of my mind any longer.

This is the first I’ve written about Ukraine since Russia invaded. My unwillingness to address the terror and the crime of the war inflicted on that nation stems perhaps from a simple-minded hope that it would end before I had to think about it too deeply.

When I visited Ukraine for the first time in June, 2016, I was aware of the fighting that had torn up parts of the east. In Kyiv, I visited publicly displayed documentation of the death and ruination Russia had inflicted in the Donbas region beginning in 2014. I visited the shrines to those who fought against it. These were important memorials and warnings to the citizens of Ukraine, but they were also distinctly not the focus of life there. People were not looking back. The place of course had the remnants of its Soviet past, its inefficiencies and aged technology. But Kyiv vibrated with vitality, youth, and initiative. They were looking ahead.

Further west, in the countryside where my relatives live, the fields of corn and berries and the whispers of the wind reminded me of Tuscany.

near Rivne, 2016

Full-scale war, or even the faintest threat to any of the land or the way of life, never occurred to me. When I visited again in the winter of 2018, the threat had entered the realm of the theoretical. But that was all. No one I spoke with believed it real.

Yet years later, Putin brought it. A level of destruction only those on the ground can begin to grasp. Begin, yes, but perhaps even they can’t comprehend the extent of it. Those of us not there, well, from our safe homes we might have a more complete picture. The NY Times recently published the first comprehensive tally of the destruction in the Ukraine war. The presentation is a service to the people of Ukraine and all who are fighting Putin’s mad tyranny. The details are sickening.

The images included in the report give readers a hint of what has happened across swaths of this proud country.

NY Times, June 3, 2024. Pre-war Wikimedia Commons via Ліонкінг. April 2022, Serhii Nuzhnenko, Reuters. June 2022, by Gleb Garanich, Reuters. January 2023, by Leonid ХВ Ragozin via social media.

The infographics provide both the scale of destruction and important details, including what buildings the Russians have targeted.

Source: NY Times, June 3, 2024 Damage data by Corey Scher and Jamon Van Den Hoek based on InSAR data from Copernicus Sentinel-1, building footprints by OpenStreetMap. Satellite images by Maxar Technologies via Google, June 2023

The whole report deserves to be read. Demands to be.

What happened to my old house and Doug’s comes in the stream of life. What I felt visiting those places where our homes no longer stand, what I felt in Rome—that is a privilege, a gateway to prized memories and to flights of imagination that hopefully engender empathy and awe and new understandings of the human heart.

What has happened in Ukraine—what is still happening—is none of those things. It is, instead, a picture of the human heart emptied. Putin and his armies have sacrificed hordes of their own people to rain down death and devastation on a country more hopeful than Russia could ever imagine. He has not only made ruins of everyday Ukraine, he has obliterated and ambushed the ruins to deprive Ukrainians the chance to revisit what is being taken from them.

For what?

The lengths Putin has gone to for death, his indifference to the pain he causes, and his childish justifications for his war—these are not explained by trauma or a psychosis or a desire to re-write history. This is evil.

The nature of that evil can be debated by clerics and philosophers and all the rest of us another day. It is real, as real as the goodness that exists in the world. Every day ahead is yet to be written, but where there is goodness, there is a chance for justice. Where there is a chance, there is only one way forward.

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