It took over 24 hours to reach Kyiv from my native Riga. A trip which a year and a half ago would have taken an hour by plane. As I sat on the first of two trains and looked out of the window at the Polish landscape, I wondered – how will I feel entering a country at war? How will I respond to night-time missile strikes, how will it be, spending an entire day in Bucha, where just over a year ago mass atrocities committed by Russian soldiers were uncovered and broadcasted to the world?
I am not Ukrainian. I am Latvian. Latvia and Ukraine share a history of occupation, oppression, and aggression at the hands of Russia. When Russia launched this brutal invasion, I, and so many other people from countries which have experienced Russian imperialism for centuries, felt that the war was very personal to us too. And that Ukraine is fighting not only for their freedom, but also for ours.
Needless to say, the trip to Ukraine was a deeply personal, and emotional one for me.
If you have watched “Oh, Sister!”, you’ll know that one of the most powerful elements of the film is its depiction of the kindness, resilience and bravery of ordinary people. Being in Kyiv, especially during a week when Russia launched almost nightly missile and drone attacks on the city, it was the resilience and bravery of ordinary people that I found most powerful there too.
Walking through Kyiv in the middle of the day what I saw and felt was not war. I saw and felt everyday acts of defiance and overwhelming resilience - street musicians playing patriotic songs, such as Okean Elzy’s “Bez boyu” (without a fight) with children dancing to the music around them; street artists incorporating anti-war messaging and traditional Ukrainian imagery in their art; Ukrainian flags and tributes to people who have been killed lining city streets; people wearing traditional “vyshyvankas” (embroidered clothing) and determinedly speaking Ukrainian, visibly countering the Kremlin narrative that Ukraine has no culture or language of its own.
Life in Kyiv was buzzing. People were going about their days, enjoying meals with friends in the sunshine, almost as if everyone was sending a collective middle finger to the invader, saying – you won’t scare us into submission, you won’t stop us from living.
The city felt defiantly, beautifully alive.
In Bucha, and Irpin, where I travelled to take part in the Bucha Journalism Conference, the feeling was different. Fences still bear visible scars of occupation, many buildings are not yet rebuilt, and people’s faces look somber. The road from Irpin to Kyiv is littered with tank traps and check points, and hundreds of burnt cars of people who attempted, unsuccessfully, to flee besieged areas, are piled high as a reminder of the atrocities which took place.
But even on the backdrop of the reminders of horror, resilience was palpable. A shipping container sporting a spray-painted slogan – "перемога за нами" (victory is ours), next to piles of burnt cars decorated with traditional sunflowers. Fences being replaced, and buildings rebuilt, and life going on where so much death and pain was inflicted just over a year ago.
In times of war and conflict dominant narratives focus on the military and often overlook other acts of defiance. Yet wars are not only fought and won on the battlefield. Those same narratives also show men as heroes, while women are seen predominantly as victims. Yet women are crucial to peace-building. “Oh, Sister!” challenges those perceptions, and shows an entirely different, but no less important, fight for peace. It was important to show it to reporters who shape public narratives.
But what I saw in Kyiv, Bucha and Irpin challenges those narratives too. Songs, street art, rebuilding, everyday acts of defiance – they all contribute to fighting for peace. They may not provide physical security, but they do provide inspiration, moral support, and a collective uplifting in the face of war.
The journalism conference where “Oh, Sister!” was screened challenged those narratives as well.
Journalists by virtue of their being are also fighting for peace. Not only do they report what is happening, they are documenting war crimes, recording history in the making, and fighting propaganda, which plays a central role in Russia’s invasion (moreover, around 70% of those present at this particular conference were women, typically newsrooms only have between 25-40% women).
Wars are multidimensional, and a wide variety of people play numerous crucial roles in the struggle to end them. Seeing, and recognizing the roles women, LGBTIQ people, artists, ordinary people play in achieving peace, justice and freedom is not only representative of reality, it is also crucial for ensuring sustainable, inclusive peace. Because being seen is crucial to being recognized, and to being included.
In Ukraine every Ukrainian is fighting for freedom, for justice and for peace. As is echoed throughout "Oh, Sister!", it is their joint efforts which will ultimately bring victory and restore peace in Ukraine.
Written by Daina Ruduša
Daina is NWI's Head of Media and Communications. She has 15 years of communications experience from a variety of feminist civil society organizations including OutRight International, ILGA-Europe, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others. She has an LLM in Public International Law and Human Rights. Daina lives in Riga with her two dogs.
Photos used in this blog were taken by the author.