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Editorial: In Ukraine, a human story

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Mayor Bogdan Kelichavyi and his wife Mariya in his office at Kopychyntsi City Hall in western Ukraine. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOGDAN KELICHAVYI

By Joseph T. O’Connor EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

I was prepping for an interview when I heard the first explosion. Big Sky Resort ski patrol was performing avalanche control, detonating explosive charges on the hill. The blasts shook me. Three days earlier, Russia had invaded Ukraine. I thought of the chaos and terror of war. What if these explosions were Caliber cruise missiles raining down on my own town of Big Sky?

The interview was with Bogdan Kelichavyi, the 30-year-old mayor of Kopychyntsi in western Ukraine.

In 2020, Ukraine allocated $4.3 billion to its military, about one-tenth of the amount Russia spent. With approximately 200,000 military personnel to Russia’s 900,000, Ukraine is supremely outmanned. And they’re putting up a hell of a fight. Kelichavyi has already sent 60 of his townspeople to the front lines.

It’s tragic watching the events unfold in the wake of Russia’s invasion, an unprecedented act of war against a sovereign nation. Many Americans are wondering: being so far from the conflict, what can we do to help? Where should we direct our efforts? 

Here at EBS, we asked ourselves the same questions. As a newspaper, we share information. This is, in fact, our responsibility. But how? We don’t have reporters on the ground in Ukraine and the conflict is being well covered by journalists around the globe. How can we tell a human story?

Two days after the invasion began, I received a text message from my former editor, Emily Stifler Wolfe. She connected me with Brit Fontenot, who, through his work as Bozeman’s economic development director, had connected with Bogdan in Ukraine three years ago.

After speaking with Bogdan and his wife Mariya, I realized there exists a human factor that we as a newspaper could tap into. Who lives in their town? What is a typical Sunday in Kopychyntsi? Since the invasion, are people still working? Going to school? How often do air raid sirens echo across the town square?

What I heard in the Kelichavyis’ voices was somewhere between stunned fear and heroic resolve.

“We will fight for our country,” Mariya told me. “You can take away our flag but we’re the same people; we’re no different from you.”

And that’s the message Bogdan, Mariya and their fellow countrymen are desperate to share. With approximately 6,500 citizens, Kopychyntsi is about twice the size of Big Sky, Montana. Its residents hunt and spend time outdoors and it’s close to the mountains. They are no different than us. And they need help: money for medicine, blankets, food, beds for refugees pouring in from Kyiv, training.

Fontenot has set up a relief account at First Security Bank in Bozeman. Checks can be made out to “Brit Fontenot – Ukrainian Relief Fund.” Money will go directly to assist the people of Kopychyntsi.

Here’s an excerpt from our interview. Click here to watch the full interview on YouTube.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Explore Big Sky: Bogdan, you’re nine hours ahead [of Montana time and it’s 12:30 a.m. in Kopychyntsi]. This was the time you suggested: later in the evening. Why is that?

Bogdan Kelichavyi: It’s less intense because during the day we are organizing a lot of processes … and it’s [takes] a lot of attention and a lot of concentration. In the evening our defense unit is watching the town so it’s much easier to talk and to be focused on one thing.

EBS: I imagine you have not been able to sleep much.

B.K.: Oh yeah. Even if you get the chance to sleep, there’s sirens and the air [raid] alarm … You simply cannot sleep long. There are so many things that you’re worried about. 

EBS: All things considered, what is your greatest concern right now?

B.K.: One of the biggest concerns is we had to put on hold many things in terms of developing the town, but [on the other] hand … we should be concerned for our lives and our safety and our people. Actually, today we got news that one of the doctors who lived like 10 kilometers away from us and we knew him because he was head of the hospital, he died today actually trying to save people.

EBS: Where was he?

B.K.: He was in Kyiv. The building fell on him and that’s how he died. 

EBS: I’m sorry to hear that. Certainly, Kyiv is seeing its share of the Russian attack right now but in your town in Kopychyntsi, you aren’t seeing specific attacks, but you are receiving air raid warnings.

B.K.: Yeah, it’s a small town, so that’s why people are considering this a safer place, more or less. But we have air alarms like two [or] three, sometimes four times a day. Sometimes [they’re] at night. And until now we’ve been lucky but there were bombardings 100 kilometers from here, so this is like 60 miles.

EBS: What are you most surprised about in terms of the resolve of the Ukrainian people?

B.K.: The unity. Every day, every minute I see a person coming to my city hall or texting me and asking, “Can I help you with something? Can I help this community with something? Please register me for the self-defense unit.” Everybody is now so involved, and I’ve never imagined this kind of unity in this local society.

EBS: You play soccer. You’ve recently started a basketball league. Paint us a picture. What’s the town of Kopychyntsi like?

B.K.: It’s a small town. I was born here because it has a hospital and my parents are doctors. It’s a very safe town. When you’re small, it’s your playground and all the strangers are actually watching you to help you because they’re like neighbors. My town is very sport oriented, and it’s a bit religious like any small town. 

So, the typical Sunday for my neighbors would look like they would go to church in the morning. And then after church, all the men go to play soccer. Those who cannot play, they prepare potatoes, some meat, maybe they have a little fish. So by the time we finish playing, we’ll have a little picnic. There is a forest around and we like bicycles.

EBS: That sounds similar in some ways to small-town Montana. You mentioned there are a number of hunters there as well

B.K.: Yeah. We have hundreds and actually now I see the value of them because at least they have some weapons. We rely on hunters very much and try to split our units so there will be at least one or two or three hunters in any group of 10 because we don’t have any military veterans.

EBS: You were telling me about Molotov cocktails. Could you talk a little about that?

B.K.: We are preparing [for war] in different ways and one of the ways is [that] we know Molotov cocktails [are] very effective for fighting tanks. And by it was interesting because nobody had done research about it earlier. So, we have to Google it basically. Some people started preparing a lot of them. 

EBS: What do you want to tell the world right now?

B.K.: I would like to say that we are the same people. We have similar values. This shouldn’t be happening and the whole world should do their best to stop this war. People in free countries and democracy countries, this is not what they deserve. They just want to live their peaceful lives and we have similar healthy hobbies, similar dreams and similar future plans.

EBS: Our thoughts are with you, Bogdan. We’re here and I think us being able to get the word out and be able to speak to you is a great privilege.

B.K.: And thanks for those words. Don’t watch, just act. Going into the streets, join demonstrations. If you really believe in us, show your position to everybody, to your governments. We need your support. We rely on you, we will surprise you. We want to be your partners, your friends, and in case you [are in] need, we’ll be there for you as well.

EBS: Thank you for your time. Stay safe.

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