Until recently, I’ve never thought of war in my country or encountering people with guns. For me, war was happening in faraway places and in the memory of my grandparents and older generations who lived through World War II.
But when Ukraine, independent for only 23 years, found itself in the war against Russia three years ago, I had to adapt to my new reality.
First, it was very hard to imagine.
I was sitting on my bed in the apartment I rented with friends in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine. It was the end of winter. A snowy and bloody winter. People were still shocked after what happened on the main square in the capital Kyiv, when a hundred citizens, the very best in our society, were shot by the police.
The EuroMaidan Revolution came to an end when former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, hurrying to take every piece of treasures on a board.
On my bed in Lviv, I felt secure. Surrounded by friends and beloved, I thought that mass shooting was the worst event that can ever happen to my country. But I was wrong.
So we turned on the TV and listened to what was happening in Russia. In a parallel reality, in the country where the government devalues human life, President Vladimir Putin asked the Russian parliament to allow him to send troops to Ukraine.
“What is that supposed to mean?,” I asked my friends. “Are we going to have a war now? I don’t want a war!” No one knew the answer, but the war came without waiting for a reply. In the following weeks, Russian troops occupied Crimea and started sending weapons to the eastern territory of Ukraine.
So, today my perception of reality is different. It’s not carefree anymore. It’s not only about enjoying my life; it’s about making my country a better place to live despite the circumstances.
Now, the soldiers die almost every day, though officially we declared a cease-fire. In my new reality, I have friends who served in the East and some lost their relatives and siblings. Overall, around 10,000 people have died since it stated.
When I traveled to the United States, I thought the six-month fellowship would give me a break in thinking about any kind of armed conflicts. “At least, you’ll be safe,” my friends said, supporting my opinion. But I didn’t suspect how wrong we would be.
First, I moved to the Midwest city of Columbia, Missouri, with the rest of the fellows. The stereotypes about the U.S. I gained from movies, like wide streets, an abundance of food in a grocery store, huge houses and cars, came true. So did this typecast: “Almost everyone has a gun at home in this country.”
I’ll explain why I have this feeling about the gun culture in the U.S.
I was working at the Columbia Missourian newspaper, where a discussion of the daily news budget often involved stories about gun laws. The legislators in the state capitol Jefferson City were discussing a bill allowing guns on college campuses, including the University of Missouri in Columbia. The session ended without the bill coming up for a vote, but the effort will continue.
The state last year did enact a law that allows Missourians to carry a gun around without a concealed weapons permit. It means that now, just about everyone can come to a firearms shop or even a Walmart store, buy a gun immediately, like a carton of milk or a cake, and walk down the street with it. The public library had to change the sign on the entrance door that said weapons were not allowed inside.
On one of my assignments, I went to southern Missouri with a photographer to cover a disastrous flood. On the last day of reporting, we visited a house in a tiny village. The water was coming closer to the house, though it seemed still far away. It was windy, so we took shelter inside of the house to chat. The owner was sitting in the living room, guarding his fortress. We had a very nice conversation with him, but he had at least three rifles from what I was able to see, and I wanted to leave the place as soon as possible.
After we were outside the house, my colleague joked, “Does it mean that he has a gun for every room in this house? Hey, this is my kitchen rifle, this is a corridor rifle, and this small one is a bathroom rifle.” It was funny and terrifying at the same time.
When I recalled this story to another friend, a student in his 20s and journalist-to-be, he shared his perception. He also has a gun, though it hasn’t been loaded. Back in his hometown, everybody has one in the at home, he said, so he grew up with the knowledge that it is perfectly fine to have a gun. From time to time, he goes to the forest or a shooting range to fire his gun, “just to de-stress.” Imagine, a 20-year-old boy is relaxing while firing a gun. I do jogging, yoga, drink mint tea or just yell. But I am not shooting. And the reason is that I would be terribly afraid to kill someone accidentally.
In June, halfway through the fellowship, I moved to Chicago. The locals keep telling me that I should stay away from the South Side of the city, where people are killed by gunfire frequently. I imagined that my colleagues at the Chicago Tribune prepare for reporting in the South Side the way we prepare our reporters to go to the war front – helmets, body armor, first aid kit.
Though I have a war in my country, I never felt threatened from just simply walking on a street. The least you want is to live in a peaceful country and not need to worry about getting shot. I feel that people so wanted to be secure in their homes that they failed to recognize that the weapons are causing more deaths, more danger and more fear.