No Current Plans
“In regard to the situation in Ukraine, there are no current plans for an evacuation…”
I just got this message in an email from the US Embassy in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, the country where I live. No current plans. Of course, as we know, this could change at any point.
As I write this, the war has been going on for 2 weeks and I’ve gotten check-in emails, messages, and phone calls from friends and family, some of whom I haven’t talked to directly in a decade or more. In Kaunas, the second largest city in the country and where we live, we’re about 800 kilometers (500 miles) from Kyiv as the car drives so we’re not (current plans) in any immediate danger. But then again, between us and Ukraine is Belarus, where there are faulty nuclear plants and petty dictators just on the other side of our border, both just moments away from blowing up.
So, yeah. Everyone is worried.
Like everyone else over the past two years, we’re spending most of our time in a holding pattern, albeit a slightly more proactive one. When the COVID-19 lockdowns started on March 13, 2020, we knew it was a matter of just waiting it out. The world chipped in and through the magic of the Internet, we had access to live recordings of theatre productions in London, curated tours of some of the best museums around, and “animal-cams,” where we could voyeuristically peek in on zoos to see what everyone was up to (penguins on tour was a particular highlight).
My daughter and I created “stroller-coasters,” where we would strap her into a stroller much too small for regular use and put first person thrill ride videos on the TV while I mimicked the action, giving her an immersive “ride.” All the while, we would make plans for when the “batteries” (her word for bacteria/germs/the virus) went away, and we could go ride the real rides.
But the disease kept going and eventually we all just gave up. Most of us understood it was still out there, but it just got too hard to fight with the onslaught of mis and dis-information, having to explain again and again that as our knowledge changes, we have to reassess what we know and how we fight it.
And then, two weeks ago, the president of Russia, after years of feints and military exercises, decided to invade Ukraine, a free and sovereign nation on its southwestern border.
It’s a very strange feeling, knowing there is a war happening just around the figurative corner. Sure, for years, we’d all been a bit jumpy when Putin would regularly amass troops in Belarus and Kaliningrad for the Zapad war games and training, the nightly news expressing concern for the number of military personnel and equipment showing up (and, more often than not, staying behind). In the end, though, nothing untoward happened and we here in Lithuania started feeling like the villagers while the news was the boy crying wolf. We’d note Zapad happening, shake our heads sadly, then move on with our lives.
And then, two weeks ago, the president of Russia, after years of getting us used to the idea of an increased military presence where one should not be, decided to invade Ukraine.
It’s impossible to live and work in Lithuania without knowing some Ukrainians. So the first thing that happened when the attacks came was we reached out to friends and family, either living locally or back in Ukraine and checked in.
Then we began to think of ourselves.
Back then, with no idea how things would play out, we thought (probably like Russia did) that the invading forces would steamroll over the Ukrainian countryside and overwhelm the former TV star who was leading the country. The victory would be decisive and quick and then we would be next.
Putin has long said he wants to get the “sisters” reunited and rebuild the glory that was the Soviet Union. As far as he was concerned, this was just the first step in getting the band back together. And Lithuania is like the bass player. They’re not as sexy as the singer nor as energetic as the lead guitarist, but they are steady and solid and, ultimately, they control the foundation.
Plus, geographically it makes the most sense. With Belarus already under your thumb like that little dog, bouncing behind Spike in the Looney Tunes cartoons, once you take down Ukraine, you’ve got a serious base and good supply lines to go after the other parts to remake your whole.
All of which means that after two or three days, we had to formulate an evacuation plan. The idea of Lithuania coming under direct attack, Article 5 of NATO notwithstanding, became very real, very quickly.
This is where things start to get complicated.
If it was just me, or me and my wife, that would be one thing. We both understand our work schedules and that sometimes we have to do things in ways which are…not ideal. We may not like it, but we can understand. We know that just because we’ve made sure to put all our important documents (“Papers, please.”) into one, easy to grab waterproof folder, we’re just taking precautionary measures. We know that when we look at maps to strategize our escape routes and make sure the car, no matter the cost of gas, is never below a half tank, that we’re just (“No current plans”) being careful.
When dealing with a 5½ year old, on the other hand, it’s a bit different. And that’s what we’re dealing with. She’s got her own life. She goes to a preschool (the year before 1st grade, what, in America, is called kindergarten) in the morning and she likes it. She loves learning and seeing her friends and the teacher and every day she comes home to tell us about the day’s events. She also has a roomful of toys and books and stuffed animals, all of whom she cares for quite deeply. And now, we have to sit down with her and explain that if we tell her we have to go, now, there cannot be any arguing. When we give her the word, she needs to grab whichever animals and toys she simply cannot be without and get them ready to go.
I wish to God she didn’t, but she does. She watches the news and her teacher at school (after asking permission from the parents) has been doing activities to explain some of what’s happening in Ukraine.
Thing is, for her teacher, what’s happening in Ukraine and what could happen here isn’t a hypothetical or some sort of thought experiment. She, like many others here, lived through it once before, about 30 years ago.
On January 13, we celebrate gaining our independence from Russia back in 1991. Ultimately, this is the thing Putin is trying to undo. Lithuania was the first of the Soviet countries to declare its independence and the rest fell like dominoes. To celebrate this, the preschool kids are given coloring pages showing the armed freedom fighters and the Russian tanks attacking civilians.
As parents, we get the idea of national pride and learning history even if we don’t necessarily agree with the specific imagery chosen to represent it. But in light of what happened six weeks later, maybe we should have paid more attention to the lessons?
Now, my friends and I start each conversation with “how are you?” Not the empty platitude meant to fill a conversation gap, but an actual inquiry with understanding we all know we’re talking about the fact that everyone is on edge. Everyone is on the starting line, in position, waiting for a starting gun (“No current plans”) we hope we’ll never hear. But the nightly news here doesn’t censor the way it does in America. They’ll talk about the Russian soldiers firing at bystanders and show the bloody damage from the explosions.
And the little one? She sees and hears it all. We try to talk quietly and discuss when she’s not around, but it’s impossible to filter out everything. Not even most things. So, for her, she sees Ukraine in everything. Everything she paints these days is sky blue and sunflower yellow. Her schoolyard games have become “Ukrainians and bad soldiers.”
She keeps asking us when those bad soldiers will leave and if we’ll have to go visit family in America. And all we can really do is hold her tight, breathe deeply, and think to ourselves “there are no current plans for an evacuation.”