We waited at the checkpoint while the police officer, his face obscured by a neck gaiter pulled up over his nose, inspected our passports. There are checkpoints on all the roads which enter and exit the city, where the movement of people, vehicles and cargo are monitored. Glancing from my passport photo to my face and back again, the officer asked what we had in the car and where we were going. My colleague answered that we were heading to a kindergarten in a nearby village with humanitarian aid. Satisfied, he passed our documents back and waved us through.
We were running late, and after multiple apologetic phonecalls to our hosts, we were relieved to arrive at our destination address: a large garden centre and nursery. Buildings and businesses across Ukraine have been re-purposed for a wide variety of missions, so we assumed we’d find the kids inside somewhere. The owner of the garden centre came out to greet us, and ushered us in to meet everyone.
Passing through the retail section of the centre, we came to a large room that had been converted into a kindergarten. There waiting for us were twenty-odd kids of all ages and their parents, and the manager of the facility. My colleague introduced us both, after which the manager told us a little about the kindergarten. I turned to my colleague and whispered that I wished we had brought more food and clothing, as we were being feted like VIPs.
Gathering all the children into a group, the manager suggested to them that they sing for us. The kids enthusiastically agreed, and after being counted in, began to sing Ой у лузі червона калина (Oy U Luzy Chervona Kalyna; Oh The Red Viburnum1 In The Meadow). There was no shyness or awkwardness in the group, regardless of the adults and two strangers present. The kids, their little brows furrowed, belted out Chervona Kalyna, in many different keys all at once, with confidence and pride.
According to historian and linguist Milana Sribniak: ‘For decades, the Ukrainian riflemen’s song Oh The Red Viburnum In The Meadow has symbolized national resistance and aspirations for freedom. Originating from a 17th-century Cossack song, it was a beloved anthem for Ukrainian Sich Riflemen in World War One‘.2
This is one translation of the song’s lyrics:
Oh, in the meadow red viburnum bent down; For some reason, our glorious Ukraine is distressed; But we will raise that red viburnum!; And we will cheer our glorious Ukraine up, hey-hey!
Do not bend low, oh red viburnum, you have a white flower; Do not worry, glorious Ukraine, you have free people; But we will raise that red viburnum!; And we will cheer our glorious Ukraine up, hey-hey!
Marching forward, our fellow volunteers, into a bloody fray, To free our brother Ukrainians from Moscow shackles; And we will liberate our brother Ukrainians; And we will cheer our glorious Ukraine up, hey-hey!
When the stormy wind blows forth from the wide steppes; Then it will glorify the Sich riflemen throughout Ukraine; And we will preserve riflemen’s glory; And we will cheer our glorious Ukraine up, hey-hey!2
The song has become an anthem of defiance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whilst patrolling near Kyiv’s Saint Sophia Cathedral early in the war, the lead singer of the Ukrainian band Boombox – and now Territorial Army soldier – Andriy Khlyvnyuk was filmed singing part of Chervona Kalyna. The clip, featuring the singer’s powerful voice echoing through the empty square, was remixed with the addition of vocal and instrumental tracks from other popular Ukrainian musicians, and is hugely popular.
Many other versions of the song have also been recorded, including this one where a Ukrainian refugee and locals sing together in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius.
Like their professional counterparts, the kids in the garden centre kindergarten held strong until the end of Chervona Kalyna, whereupon we all cheered and applauded. We unloaded the food, clothing and blankets we had brought from the car, and the children and their parents thanked us again. Two girls, sisters who were about 10 years old, came up and introduced themselves to me. They then presented me with a small origami envelope. Ukrainian kids, and maybe kids everywhere, seem to have a innate desire to give. I thanked them and put the little gift carefully into my pocket.
Before we left, the owner of the garden centre took me for a little tour of the building, At the far end of the room from the kids’ play area, three ladies sat at sewing machines, making webbing pouches and other kit for the Ukrainian soldiers. On a rack nearby hung recently sewn snow camouflage suits, and another lady was busy adding fabric strips to a camouflage net. Through one of the parents that spoke a little English, the owner told me that their number one priority was working towards victory and peace, and when that was achieved, they would resume their nursery business again full-time.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the warm welcome and hospitality we had received, I still felt bad about our meagre delivery of aid. However, at least for the kids, perhaps the food and other items were not the point. What mattered to them was that people who cared had come to visit them, one from a nearby city, and the other a foreigner from a country on the other side of the world.
Leaving the centre, I hoped that soon there would be no more need to make uniforms and camouflage nets, and the nursery could return to growing plants and supplying local gardeners with tools and seeds. But most of all I wished that Ukrainian kindergarten choirs could go back to singing nursery rhymes and pop music, and that songs of war would only be taught in high school history lessons.
I have intentionally excluded the names of locations, towns and people (if I do mention individual’s names, they have been changed) in my posts about Ukraine, and not included any specific photographs. Although this may seem excessively cautious, this is an appropriate time for excessive caution.
1 A green leafy shrub with small red berries, which is one of Ukraine’s national symbols
2Sribniak, M., 2020, ‘Ukrainian song with translation: “Ой у лузі червона калина”‘, Ukrainian Lessons
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