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Opinionista

After more than a year of Putin’s war, we must talk about death and global hunger

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Liubov Abravitova is the Ambassador of Ukraine to South Africa.

Most of us don’t want to think about death. We aren’t comfortable discussing it with friends and family, and most people are even less happy making the necessary plans and arrangements in case ‘the worst happens’. But, for every Ukrainian, death has become a daily encounter. It is literally everywhere — death took on the form of Russia’s barbaric attack and crept into every aspect of our lives.

It’s been over a year. We all now know someone killed by this war, so much so, that at times it feels that our Facebook pages are just long announcements of deaths. I sometimes get numb checking the happy, bright, smiling faces on the photos people post, the pictures of their loved ones that are no more.

Death is all around us, literally. It is right there on our city centre lawn in the form of thousands of flags that Ukrainians leave to commemorate their friends and family members killed by Russia. 

Death looks at us from the ruins of our homes, streets, suburbs and entire cities. 

Death comes dressed in Russia’s uniforms, delivered unexpectedly and suddenly via missiles, bombs, drones… 

Every second of every minute of every hour of every day could be your last one. 

By now, everyone in Ukraine knows that standing at a bus stop, sitting in a classroom, going for a stroll in the forest, taking your dog for a walk, or getting to work — all of the daily activities that so many around the world take for granted — come with a high possibility of being the last thing you ever do. 

We have become used to it. We have no choice. We have to keep going, we have to keep working towards our victory. 

We have to give it all. 

Get ready for Russian-made famine

But today, I want to take this opportunity to remind the countries that still play nice with the Russian murderers and terrorists: this year they are also spreading death all around the world. Get ready for a Russian-made famine.

At the beginning of March, there was a big piece on Ukraine’s soil by Rod Nickel for Reuters. The article ends with a very bleak: “The future is from grey to dark at the moment.” And at this point, that is a positive assessment of the situation.

I’ve already written a lot about Russians stealing our grain by the thousands of tonnes, stealing our agricultural equipment and machinery and extensively bombing grain silos across the country. About them sabotaging the grain deal more than once. About our fields being heavily mined. We’ve got to the point when getting behind the wheel of a tractor is compatible with heading into battle.  

All of the above are the diabolical doings of the Russian forces, but, what the world doesn’t seem to grasp is that there’s an even greater danger this year than the last when we had our harvest ready to go as soon as Russia’s forces were near our ports.

This year, and possibly many more to come, will be very different. Let me give you some facts.  

Our scientists have had a chance to analyse the soil from our deoccupied territories — they looked at samples taken from the Kharkiv region and found that high concentrations of toxins such as mercury and arsenic from munitions and fuel are polluting the soil. 

Our Institute for Soil Science and Agrochemistry Research stated that “the war has degraded at least 10.5 million hectares of agricultural land across Ukraine”. That land, five times larger than Israel, is 25% of our entire agricultural land. That percentage is dangerously high for a country that is known as the “breadbasket of Europe” — we were the fourth-largest exporter of maize and fifth-biggest wheat seller. As Europe’s breadbasket, we were a key supplier to the African and Middle Eastern countries that depend on grain imports.  

If you knew how many grain and sunflower growing fields are out of order today for a multitude of different reasons, you would be shocked.

Reuters’ Nickel states:

“Two dozen experts who spoke with Reuters, including soil scientists, farmers, grain companies and analysts, said it would take decades to fix the damage to Europe’s breadbasket — including contamination, mines and destroyed infrastructure — and that global food supplies could suffer for years to come. 

“Shelling has also upset the delicate ecosystems of microorganisms that turn soil materials into crop nutrients such as nitrogen while tanks have compressed the earth, making it harder for roots to flourish, the scientists say.” 

What that means in the short run is that Russia has managed to drive the global grain prices even higher, and, I’m tired of reminding everyone, we are still at the very beginning of this, and things can get way, way worse. 

“The war damage could cut Ukraine’s potential grain harvest by 10 to 20 million tonnes a year, or up to a third based on its pre-war output of 60 to 89 million tonnes, the Soil Institute’s director, Sviatoslav Baliuk told Reuters.” 

Nickel’s article also points to the obvious: yes, there’s inflation and the prices are high, but there’s no food shortage. Soon that will no longer be the case. Soon, having money won’t automatically mean you can buy food. And trust me on this: when the Russian-made worldwide famine starts, they themselves will be selling their grain to the highest bidder and not helping people in Africa. 

Another horrifying part of Nickel’s article says:

“US academics Joseph Hupy and Randall Schaetzl coined the term ‘bombturbation’ in 2006 to describe war’s impact on soil. Among the unseen damage, bomb breaches in bedrock or soil layers can change the water table’s depth, depriving vegetation of a shallow water source, they wrote.

“At a former World War One battlefield near Verdun, France, some pre-war grain fields and pastures have gone unfarmed for more than a century due to craters and unexploded shells, a 2008 paper by Rémi de Matos-Machado and Hupy said.

“Hupy told Reuters that some arable land in Ukraine, too, may never return to crop production due to its contamination and topographic alteration. Many other fields will require significant earth-moving to relevel the ground, along with demining on a massive scale, Hupy said.

“Lead, for example, has a half-life of 700 years or more, meaning it may take that long for its concentration in the soil to decrease by half. Such toxins can accumulate so much in plants growing there that human health may become affected, Rintoul-Hynes said.”

So, add all that to the billions of dollars and decades needed to demine our land, and you’ll have a very clear understanding of what Russia is bringing to the world in a very short while: hunger, suffering and death. 

So yes, most of us don’t really want to think about death. We are all desperately trying to hold on to the few stable pieces in our lives for peace of mind and for sanity. 

But, please, remember, that Russia has already ruined your lives, and keeps doing it every day. And they might not be killing you by raining missiles on your homes, but they are bringing food shortages and inflation to most of your houses, and to some — hunger and death. DM

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  • Sue Malcomess says:

    Thank you for this. It’s a question I’ve being asking but nobody could answer. Other places will fill the gap as that’s what happens but it all takes time. I see it as a problem too huge to contemplate and therefore people find it easier to ignore.

  • Richard Bryant says:

    Dear Liubov, to start, I wish to deeply apologise for the position our government has taken on this atrocity. The legacy of Nelson Mandela who actively involved himself in resolving international conflicts while at the same time remaining uncompromising on the maintenance of human rights, has been sadly trashed by the current ANC leadership. I can tell you, a vast majority of South Africans bought into the democratic principles in 1994 as set out in our founding Constitution and particularly, our Bill of Rights.

    This Bill of Rights demands our politicians to uphold the rights to dignity and security of people, wherever they live. That includes both people of Ukraine and Russia.

    However, we know that the ANC leadership, starting with jacob zuma, mortgaged these principles at the alter of self-enrichment. putin jumped at the opportunity, and provided the necessary financial inducements to ensure the ANC became his puppets. This started with an illegal nuclear program which zuma tried to push through. The ANC today is insolvent and knowing this, those in leadership have made sure their own nests are properly feathered.

    putin will ultimately be accountable for the atrocities he has perpetrated not only in Ukraine, but in Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan and West Africa.

    There are sadly, many long lasting after effects of war. I worry about the mental impact the war will have on your soldiers and children.

    Stay brave. Slava Ukraini!

  • Belinda Cavero says:

    Gosh, I am speechless; I did not consider this. I wish hunger and famine could be the punishment for those just complicit in this war (the ANC comes immediately to mind), but, sadly, the innocent and those totally against the war will also suffer. How frustrating to be governed by a party that is so nonsensical and self-seeking. May God help us.

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