In a 21st-century hyperconnected global economy, we have regressed to witness a 20th century-style invasion, driven by the 9th-century ideology of the ‘Kievan Rus’, from where modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus draw their sense of identity. Kyiv also has historical heft for the Bolshevik identity, the Slavic identity, and Orthodox Christianity. Vladimir I or Volodymyr I ruled Kievan Rus, and incidentally, now those are the names of the two leaders in Moscow and Kyiv. History has a funny way of repeating itself.
There has been a debate if this is the “darkest hour” (the only time I quote Churchill) that Europe has seen since the mid-20th century. Plunged into the abyss of a thunderous war, people are struggling with missiles falling, sirens blaring, martial law declared, toddlers in one arm, the search for bread with the other, tears in eyes, fear on the face, resilience in heart and anger on the mind. They all move in different directions, but their reason to move remains the same.
Proud homeowners have been suddenly rendered refugees overnight, and are fleeing to the west for no fault of their own, all because of a war they didn’t want, but a war they did get. Russia, they say, needs to stop the fighting for peace; Ukrainians, however, need to continue fighting if they want Ukraine to survive.
Discrimination at the Borders
The world’s eyes are on Kharkiv to Kyiv to Korczowa-Krakovets on the border with Poland, as close to half a million people try to flee for safety. There is grief, anguish, terror, fear and anger at the injustice being done to those leaving. But ironically, even in the injustice, there is more injustice as news emerged of South Asians and Africans being unable to escape reportedly due to racial discrimination.
There is war-time hysteria, information is scarce, and disinformation plenty, given that one of the antagonists has been the Kremlin’s cyber machinery in the past. Not to add fuel to the fire, these are troubling reports.
Thousands of students from South Asia and Africa travel to Ukraine to study medicine, engineering, and other technical-related fields due to the affordability and the Soviet-era STEM robustness that has remained in the curriculum. Now, their aspirations have turned into desperation. One painful video circulated on social media showed African students with their arms in the air, screaming that they don’t have “arms”, that “they were students” and that they shouldn’t be stuck in the cold and be unable to leave. They are refugees now, without refuge.
Sadly, this is not the only report on discrimination. Some reports state that only Ukrainians are being allowed to leave. The world is sympathising with Ukraine right now, where the value for human life has been reduced to nothing.
But it is even crueller for African and Asian students not to be allowed to leave a country that they do not belong to, at a time when even its own nationals are fleeing for safety.
'People With Blue Eyes and Blonde Hair'
There has been a sense of revulsion with some of the reporting on the conflict. Apart from the heart-wrenching stories of the humanitarian crisis, the physical destruction, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s valour and the ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is another insidious element. Some sections of western reporting have reflected a deep-seated bias, which can be defined as a preference for (or aversion to) a person or group of people.
I first got a glimpse of this on BBC, when Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, perhaps inadvertently said, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” That’s eerily specific. There, of course, could be a contrived case of this individual referring to his brethren or compatriots, but he literally seems to be describing Slavic racial features.
CBS foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata said, “This isn't Iraq or Afghanistan, this is a relatively civilised, relatively European city.” The irony was that he said he would have to choose his words carefully, but he eschewed all sense of being “politically correct” or careful.
He wasn’t alone. Another journalist, ITV’s Lucy Watson of the UK, echoed the same sentiments when she brazenly and callously said, “The unthinkable has happened … This is not a developing, third-world nation; this is Europe!”
Even if you assume that they’re roving reporters facing a harrowing experience during the war, one can’t explain the comments of an Al Jazeera anchor, who, safely ensconced in his studio, said, “What's compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East … or North Africa. They look like any European family that you'd live next door to.”
A Europhile View
This isn’t just implicit bias, it’s grotesquely explicit bias. The pre-9/11 world, particularly the West, assumed and firmly believed that if there was terrorism, it was likely because the region was dystopic and in far-flung lands from Western utopia. On that horrific day, both physical edifices and ignorant beliefs were shattered.
This explicit bias reveals an orientalist, Europhile view of the world. It assumes that dystopia, war, chaos, famine are indigenous to non-Caucasian lands in the Middle East, Africa, and other parts of Asia.
This is “Europe”, she said, forgetting that this was the same continent that gave us the only two wars dubbed “World Wars”, the continent where horrific genocides (both during WWII and in the Balkans) have taken place; she perhaps forgot that the genesis of Putin’s assault has been a recreation of a decade-long geopolitical standoff dubbed the “Cold War”.
The arrogance and irony in saying that Europe was civilised while Iraq wasn’t, are palpable. The media is forgetting that the etymology of the word ‘civilised’ comes from ‘civilisation’, and that the world’s oldest civilisation is the Mesopotamian civilisation that would contain Babylon, which today would be in modern-day Iraq. Even for the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, the origins of Adam and Eve and the first humans and their progeny, the location is said to be somewhere along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that still flow through Iraq. Darwinian evolution is said to state that man first walked the earth in the continent of Africa.
But it’s not the ignorance of history that’s troubling, it’s the sordidness of assumption and the brazenness of stereotypes.
Not Like 'Any European Family'?
The Ukrainians need help and refugees must be given relief at a time when war is wreaking havoc. But one can’t help but wonder whether such comments allude to a “lesser form” of refugees, and why many countries were not so amicable to Syrians in 2014, or to Afghans more recently. Is it because (to quote the overtly ignorant Al Jazeera anchor) they weren’t “prosperous, middle-class people and don’t look like any European family that you'd live next door to”?
George Floyd’s horrific murder reignited the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in a powerful way, whose ripple effects helped address other forms of non-black racism that went unchecked for decades. But one can’t be “woke” if they are blind to such biases that exist deep within our subconscious.
It’s one thing to atone for your mistake and say 'mea culpa', it’s another to wonder why you even said or perhaps thought a certain way in the first place.
(Akshobh Giridharadas is based out of Washington DC, and writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. He is a two-time TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and a graduate from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. He tweets @Akshobh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)