by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
On March 14 at Liberty Lodge #31, Alžběta 'Bety' Týblová, a Liberty High School exchange student from Prague, gave a moving account of her family and friends' experiences in Ukraine. Pictured left to right are lodge Master Rod Guzman, Bety, and her sponsoring family Randy, Linda, and Zachary Hicks.
Editor's Note: Alžběta 'Bety' Týblová is an 18 year old exchange student studying at Liberty High School near Kansas City for the current school year. Brother Randy Hicks, a member of Liberty Lodge 31, is her sponsor. Bety lives in Prague and has close ties to family and friends who are now under siege in Ukraine. Last week at Liberty lodge she gave a moving and personal account of her family and friends' experiences with the devastating war raging next door to her home. The text of her remarks to the Brothers of the lodge follows.
Hello, my name is Bety Tyblova, I am an exchange student from the Czech Republic staying here in America for the school year with the Hicks family. My host father, Randy, suggested I speak in this venue to try and convey my perspective of the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia and I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about this with you this evening.
First of all, I would like to emphasize that I am not here to tell you why the conflict is happening. Only one person, Vladimir Putin, can answer that question for you and I don’t think there’s any real right answer as to why Russia has attacked the democratic sovereignty of the Ukraine. I cannot see into Putin’s mind, so I cannot tell you why he has decided to destroy innocent, free people’s lives. My goal this evening is to help you understand the European perspective on this war. I hope you will have grace because as an 18-year-old girl, there’s no way I can convey all of the hurt, pain, and fear felt across Europe in this crisis, but I hope that I can appeal to your empathy and compassion to emphasize how vital this conflict is not only to my country and to myself, but to everyone in this room. I am here to help you understand that what you read every day in the newspaper about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is real, and it is happening to real people, thousands of them, at this very moment. I am here to show you how this situation is perceived by someone who is not Ukrainian or Russian, but who is also not American. First and foremost, I want to make it very clear that it is not the Russian people who are to blame for everything that is happening in Eastern Europe right now. The blame falls on one man, and one man alone, and that man is Vladimir Putin. He alone is responsible for the bloodshed, the blood of innocent citizens in Ukraine but also that of Russian soldiers who were unknowingly sent to war. Most Russian soldiers have no idea that they are at war; they have been told that they are only going to practice, or that they are going to “liberate” Ukraine. Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian army captured two Russian soldiers, the first of the war, who said that they had no idea that they were at war, why the Ukrainians had captured them. They had run out of gas in their vehicle on their way to Ukraine, and the unsuspecting soldiers came to ask the Ukrainian police if they had gas to spare. Both individuals were arrested immediately. It is crucial that you understand that these men did not know the game their autocratic leader was playing. It was not their decision to invade, and they did not do so willingly or knowingly. Please, do not blame the Russian people or Russian soldiers for their unknowing participation in this travesty against human life. This is the deranged mind of one autocrat, Putin, laying fear and travesty at the doorstep of innocent people on both sides.
My country is lucky to be a member of NATO and the European Union. I am grateful for the strong allies we have in Europe because without membership in the North Atlantic Alliance, it is possible that my country would be part of the war right now. While we are separate from Ukraine and Russia, and perhaps you are finding it odd that I am speaking on the issue to you here tonight as a citizen of an independent state, but we are not far from all that is going on. The Czech Republic is 242 miles from Ukraine. This is a 3 and a half hour car ride; just about the distance from here to St. Louis. Not only do we draw raw material from Ukraine, but it is common that the people in Europe travel to neighboring countries, much like you might visit Kansas or Arkansas over the weekend. As a result, some of my closest friends are Ukrainian and/or Russian. This is why this topic is so important to me and why I need to talk to you tonight. This is territory I know, territory my family has been many times. At this time, it is heartbreaking to me that I cannot do much to help, but even more so, I cannot be with them. I can’t be the emotional and mental support that they need now more than ever. The only thing I can do is to help inform you, and bring the situation closer to people who only see the conflict via TV and newspapers. To remind you that these are real people, with lives and families, who are under attack. People I have called friend and family in my life.
A few days after the war started, one of my friends here in Liberty said she couldn’t understand what was going on and why it was such a problem. For those of you who don’t know, Ukraine used to be a part of the Soviet Union. My friend did not understand what the problem was and why they didn’t just rejoin Russia. Since 1991, Ukraine has been an independent country, more than 30 years now. Moreover, Ukraine adopted a democratic framework, and it does not exist under Putin’s communist system. My friend did not understand the significance of the pain, suffering, and heart with which the Ukrainian people lived prior to this time under communist rule, and the relief felt when they were finally freed to exist as their own nation, free to express themselves as part of a democratic society finally released from autocracy and tyranny. What, in this day and age, makes Putin feel he can strip those rights, own these free people once again is beyond me. To put this into the perspective of American history, America was not always a separate state. It did not always look the way it does now, nor did it always enjoy the freedoms of democracy it now does. At one time, America was a colony of England; a then autocratic governance which found value in the ownership of an entire group of people and their land. Imagine that St. Louis was invaded by an autocracy which assumed ownership of you as the American democracy. Regardless of what you had made of your life, a ruler of a completely different country decided that that life belonged to him now. Imagine you are 18, never having even lived under that ruler’s thumb, and you are told that you have 2 options: fight for your home and your family and your friends or be oppressed under the dictatorial rule of another state. I choose to believe that most of you would select option 1, to fight for your rights to live life how you want to live it and--remember Ukraine has been a democracy for 30 years—how your parents and grandparents endured for it to be lived that way. The Ukrainian people chose the same way and they continue to fight for their democracy right now.
Ukraine has been a troubled country for several years. In 2014, the Civil War began, which has lasted until now. There is a brief documentary on this war on Netflix, where everything is summarized in detail and I recommend everyone in this room watch it. It is called Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom for those that are interested. In brief, Putin used this war to invade Ukraine. Putin publicly declared that he wants to “liberate” Ukraine and save them from the political system which they chose when they gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This is not the first time a Russian leader has claimed something like this. In 1968, Russia invaded the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) claiming the same reasoning. The Czechs did not want to be part of Russia either, but we did not have the strength to defend ourselves so the Russians occupied us, strengthening the authoritarian wing of the communist party of Czechoslovakia. Ukraine has immense heart and bravery, and they are escalating the conflict to avoid the same fate as my country in 1968 which took 23 years to reverse.
As I said, the conflict in Ukraine is not something which just began on February 24th this year. This began when Russia wanted to take back the island of Crimea, a gift from Russia to Ukraine after the end of World War II. Before 2013, however, Russia decided to take back Crimea and declare it Russian territory once more. At that time, not only the civil war in Ukraine began, but also the war between Russia and Ukraine.
The media and television have spoken extensively about this conflict, as I’m sure you’ve either seen or followed. But I also understand that this is a far away issue for many of you. This is not happening on American soil, and thankfully, does not need to. This is thousands and thousands of miles away from your home, from your family, from your friends and neighbors and land; this is another continent. It’s a different world as far as I’m sure many of you are concerned. But I am here from that other continent to tell you about what is happening. I wish I could even do justice to the atrocities that are happening this very second, as I stand here and try to make you understand fully. This hurts for me to have to do. I hurt for my friends and my family that live in Ukraine, for the people I love that are standing on a battlefield right now, afraid that they are living on land that they will die on.
When the war began, the entirety of Europe was talking about it. Here in America, there was nothing. I did not know until I got home from school. The day it began and when the news was first released that Russia had invaded Ukraine, I felt overwhelmingly hopeless. The worst scenarios appeared in front of my eyes. My little sister called me that day, there was despair in her voice as she told me how the news had affected those around her. After a few minutes, the conversation led to a question. “What if it sucks and I never see you again? What if you stay in America so you don’t have to go back to war? What if you stay in America and I never see you?” I didn’t know what to say, because that’s when the situation really hit me. I’m in America now, I’m isolated from it all and I’m separated from it just like you are, thousands of miles away. But the people in Europe, my family, my friends who are part of it know exactly what could happen. My best friend, who has been living in Prague for 5 years, has family in Ukraine. Two weeks before the start of the war, her boyfriend was deported from the Czech Republic to Ukraine due to documentation issues. I can’t even describe in words the pain she exuded when this conflict began and every day, afraid that her boyfriend will go to war and never see him again. She’s afraid when her boyfriend doesn’t text her back within a few minutes. One day she texted me and then called me in tears that her boyfriend hadn’t answered her messages. He hadn’t called since the morning, she didn’t know what was going on, and nor did his friends know where he was. She didn’t hear anything for almost 24 hours. When she did, he apologized for not calling, but he had spent the day digging trenches in his backyard for his family in case Russian troops invaded their village. Teenagers here just can’t fathom this kind of anxiety, this kind of fear right now. This was not the kind of anxiety that perhaps your daughter has felt when her boyfriend doesn’t respond to her texts—“is he off with some girl? Is he ignoring me? Does he not like me anymore?”—this is the kind of fear a girl feels when her boyfriend very well might be in hiding from the Russian army or, God forbid, dead. There are hundreds of stories like this, many translated on the Internet and accessible to you. These are the stories of strangers to you, but these people are part of my life, part of my home, and while these may be strangers experiencing a war to you, this is my family and friends’ reality. This is my reality. I hear from my friends and family how they fight for their friends, but also about how their fathers went to war, how family Members died, how they left their hometowns and homes, and they hope that that will eventually allow them to escape. These are people, in a town of the same development as St. Louis or Kansas City, who are seeing their homes flattened, their lives destroyed, everything they hold dear ruined by artillery, because of the whims of one man. They do not know if they can leave the country, or what they will even do if they do leave the country. The only possible way out is via the Slovak Republic, the other Ukrainian borders are occupied by Russian tanks and the way is impossible. Buses that supply basic necessities for Ukrainian refugees are gathering on the Slovak border, or buses that are waiting to be filled by Ukrainians who have crossed the Russian border and then will be taken to larger cities by Slovakians. But then what? Alone, in a foreign country with a foreign language, without anything, by themselves, and only the money and belongings they could carry with them. All they can do is pray. And fight.
This is difficult for me to talk about with you. They are real stories, real people I know personally. I saw some of them just a few months ago. And now all I hear are their frightened voices. And now, every night, I read the newspaper to see what happened, how the day went, what threatens my family and friends. I have to wake up every day, go to school, and live my life, just like my friends and family in the Czech Republic. People are dying. To my friends at school here, this is just newspaper headlines, just words. But these are real people and they are really dying. Their lives are really being destroyed. Their churches, their hospitals, their schools, their grocery stores. Flattened, without a second thought, without remorse, by one aggressive man. Here people laugh and live their lives as if nothing is happening. I am not, of course, saying everyone should suspend their lives and live only in the pain and misery of Ukraine, but I think we need help. I can’t tell you 100% the right thing to do to help, but by sending money to organizations to help Ukraine, for example, I think that we can help make a difference. They need it more than we do right now. I found a couple American organizations that have fundraising opportunities to support Ukraine. Beyond that, I hope you’ll join me and my host father in prayer for the families and people of Ukraine right now as they experience war in their backyards. Thank you.
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