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No such thing as neutrality in this war: Ukraine ambassador

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She’s a single mother of two young children with a brother in Ukraine and colleagues who have lost their homes to Russian bombings. A woman she knew was killed in recent days. But Ukrainian ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova, is calm and stoic while watching her country burn at the hands of a heartless dictator.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from her office in Pretoria, Abravitova says she met the South African Jewish Board of Deputies two weeks ago because “this war will affect everyone” and she appreciates the support from all sectors of society.

At the meeting, they discussed the urgent humanitarian needs on the ground, the relentless Russian propaganda, and the myriad Jewish organisations which have offered support since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

Abravitova told the SA Jewish Report it had been particularly challenging working in a country that had shown by its actions – or lack of actions – that it has sided with Russia.

This is why she appreciates the support of every Jewish organisation that has taken the time to express its dismay or offered to help. She notes that if South Africa continues to trade with Russia, “it will have Ukrainian blood on its hands” because every economic interaction with Russia supports the invasion.

She says although South Africa may declare itself neutral, there’s no neutrality in a situation like this – especially as South Africa just celebrated Human Rights Day.

She emphasises that South Africa could have taken a strong stand in the early days of the war and made an impact. Now, as the invasion reaches the one-month mark, South Africa’s lack of moral courage has shown the world exactly where the rainbow nation stands.

Meanwhile, Abravitova’s Ukrainian colleagues in Pretoria all have family and friends back home who have been affected by the invasion and know people who have lost their lives.

The woman Abravitova knows who died is someone she worked with in the past. “She was killed because she threw herself over her child during the bombings,” she says. “It’s surreal and hard to believe.”

While it has been a hard time for everyone at the embassy, they continue to focus on ways they can help rather than feeling powerless. “People are frustrated, but we are in South Africa for a reason, and must find ways to help from here,” she says.

The ambassador notes that although we’re far away “South Africans must understand that the war will affect them. Ukraine produces 10% of all the wheat in the world. You may say it’s only 10%, but what about your pasta being made in Italy? We live in a very interconnected world, and we’ll see shortages and price increases of essential items like bread and cooking oil.”

It will also change the “structure of global systems, peace and security, and international law. At the end of the day, if Africa allows Russia to do this, then Africa will also be challenged with territorial conflict. Neighbouring countries will feel they have the freedom to invade another country to take its resources. So, it affects the security of the continent itself,” Abravitova says.

She says there are about 1 000 known Ukrainians in South Africa and that many have asked for help in bringing their families to South Africa. She has even been contacted by hotels and individual families asking to host Ukrainian refugees. In turn, she has reached out to the department of international relations and cooperation, but has received no response.

Abravitova was born in Moldova, and remembers her city as a hub for Jewish refugees from the former USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) making their way to Israel and America. Growing up in Odesa, she was aware of the thriving Jewish community there.

She notes that Ukraine is a multicultural society and that the Jewish community makes up an important part of that fabric – now being torn apart by the invasion. In the context of such a multi-faceted society, she says many Ukrainians welcomed the election of a Jewish president and didn’t see it as unusual. Rather, it was a reflection of a diverse country where everyone is welcome, and where even a Jewish comedian can make it to the highest office in the land.

While many Ukrainians believed Putin wouldn’t invade, Abravitova always knew it could happen. Her brother remains in Odesa. As a male in the 18 to 60 age group, he’s legally obligated to stay and fight. Yet, she points out that many Ukrainians want to stay and wouldn’t flee even if they were allowed to go. Even if her brother wasn’t forced to, he probably would have chosen to stay.

At the same time, she has seen the heartbreak of families having to leave behind husbands, brothers, and even grandfathers on the border as they have crossed over and become refugees.

Seeing families ripped apart, knowing that ordinary people as well as cultural icons are being killed, hearing of communities fleeing en masse, and watching places she knows being flattened are all scenes that haunt her. Yet she gets up every day to continue to speak out on behalf of her people, which she says is “an honour and a privilege”.

To the South African Jewish community, she says, “Everyone’s voice is important in speaking the truth. Please keep supporting us.”

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