When your hometown is burning and you’re thousands of miles away, what do you do?
For locals with personal ties to Caracas and Kiev, the answer is: You worry, you watch Twitter, and you keep your phone charged.
“I call every couple hours that it’s possible, when it’s daytime there, and I’m asking, ‘Are you all right?’” said Tatiana Yavonska, a 36-year-old Albemarle mother of two whose mother and brother live in Kiev, the city she left a decade ago.
And when you can’t trust the news, the human network becomes even more important.
“I have family in Venezuela, but even with them there, I sometimes have more information than them,” said Ingrid Chalita, a language researcher at UVA who left her native country 11 years ago, and has been transfixed by the violence that erupted there last month. “The government also kidnapped the ways that you can keep informed about what’s going on,” she said.
Their second-hand stories of anti-government protests turned violent are similar, and have sparked the same emotions: fierce pride, anxiety for loved ones, and, underneath it all, fear that the place they still think of as home will never be the same.
Chalita left Venezuela 11 years ago when her second child was still a newborn. She was an attorney working for the pre-Chavez government then, and she and her husband didn’t like the way the political winds were blowing. They wanted something different for their growing family, something more stable.
“It’s not the same country that I left, where I was raised,” she said. “It’s completely different.”
Since then, she’s watched the Venezuela she knew slip away, replaced by a country whose government has manufactured a new, rigid narrative, condemning those in power while seizing it for themselves. The last time she was in Caracas was four years ago. She remembers telling her young daughters, now 11 and 7, to stop speaking English in the street.
“When we came back, I told my husband, ‘I’m not going back to Venezuela,’” she said. “That was really hard.”
When the student-led protests railing against a government unable to control crime and rampant inflation turned violent, she felt the gulf widen. But she can’t look away. Her network of contacts tries to stay a step ahead, and she shares the disparate pieces of information they send her via Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp: This highway in the south is open; that bridge is patrolled by military.
“I try to keep contact with them every minute I have free,” she said. “I try to be their voice.”
Roman Gryniv has also been glued to his laptop, but the reports of violent protests he’s been watching are coming from a city nearly 6,000 miles from Caracas. Gryniv, a 21-year-old fourth-year math and economics major at UVA, spent most of his life in Kiev before coming to the states for college. He was home during winter break in January, when the demonstrations against Soviet-aligned president Viktor Yanukovych were still peaceful. “I left the day before things turned violent,” he said.
Now he can only watch. “I follow the news,” he said—mostly online Ukrainian channels. “I keep in contact with my parents, all my friends.”
He feared most for his girlfriend, who left her med school studies in Hungary to join a volunteer nursing corps in Maidan, the Kiev square that saw violent clashes.
“One of her friends in the medical brigade was shot in the neck”—a 21-year-old volunteer who was pictured on the front page of The New York Times being led bleeding from the square. “She spent more than 12 hours on a shift with her the day before,” said Gryniv. “I spend my time worrying about her, because she’s basically in the center of it.”
Yavonska has felt the same anxiety. She wishes she could disbelieve the stories of people not just killed but tortured, their hands and heads severed, but the sources—old friends among the protesters—are too reliable.
During the worst of the violence, her brother, a hotel manager in Kiev, ran past buildings with snipers on the rooftops, telling her what he was seeing via cell phone. “He said, ‘I just wonder if they think I’m a criminal, someone they’re supposed to shoot. You see how many innocent people they killed.’”
Even with Yanukovych out of power, Yavonska said she can’t shake her horror and her anxiety. “I get up tomorrow, and what news am I going to see in the paper? That Kiev was bombed?” she said. “I’m losing my sleep. It’s hard to think about it. Is this the 21st century?”
She’d go back if she could, but her kids need her here, she said. “When I talk to my family who are there, participating, doing something—my brother, my mom—it’s been harder. They’re doing something to protect somebody else, to help, and I’m here and basically can’t do anything.”
Gryniv, too, said he hates feeling powerless. He thought about getting on a plane to Kiev last month. “Watching from a distance was extra hard,” he said. “If I leave today, is it going to end tomorrow? Every single day, it’s changing.”
All he knows is he’ll be back someday. He wants to work in banking, do something to change the economic instability he says set the stage for the unravelling of the country he loves.
“That’s what I feel like I can do most in Ukraine,” he said.
Ingrid Chalita is making peace with the fact that she won’t ever go back to her native state as a citizen. That has made watching the violence there and sharing the snippets of news she gathers even more difficult.
“I was raised there. My friends are there. My university was there. It’s not something you can just cut,” she said. “I’ll always have one part of my heart thinking about what’s happening there. That’s human.”