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'Putin is a goonda'

By VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL
March 28, 2022 14:54 IST
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'Sholay wallah kahani hai: 'Gabbar Singh aayega, Gabbar Singh aayega.'
'But what is inside Gabbar Singh nobody knows.'

IMAGE: Kundan, Olga and Aaryan Sandwar, with Archi, after crossing the Polish border on March 13, 2022 at Rava Ruska. All photographs: Kind courtesy Kundan Sandwar
 

Two Sundays ago, Olga Sandwar bid her parents and family goodbye with a heavy heart.

Then she, her husband Kundan Sandwar, their son Aaryan, 7, and their little seven-month terrier Archi got into their off-white Nissan Rogue and departed from Vatutine, driving west for Lviv and across the Polish border at Rava Ruska for a destination unknown.

It was a decision they had not expected to take even after Russia unceremoniously marched with heavy boots into Ukraine on February 24.

Kundan's love for Ukraine matches Olga's deep attachment to her motherland. He puts it quaintly, with simple emotion, "I am from India by face. But inside -- Ukraine ." He has lived in Ukraine for 31 years.

IMAGE: Happier times for the Sandwars in Ukraine before the war.

When the horrendous rocket bombardment began in the pre-sun-up hours of that February morning, the Sandwars's life was instantly shattered, perhaps, with any luck, temporarily. Their apartment at Osokorky, Kyiv, on the left bank of the Dnieper river, is on the way to Boryspil international airport, which was the target of many of the Russian bombs.

But they quickly gathered their wits and realised what they had to do. By 3 am, 24 hours later, they had packed up some warm clothes, documents, cash and left Kyiv driving south. Traffic was impossibly awful but still disciplined, he recounts, with "everyone helping each other, but a very horrible situation, everyone running all ends, sirens all the way, helicopters flying overhead."

They proceeded 250 km -- over 14 long hours -- to Vatutine, the town where Olga's family has lived for several generations, located roughly halfway between Odessa and Kyiv. It's a drowsy, pretty but Podunk place -- population 16,000 -- in the central province of Cherkasy, near Uman and the Sandwars felt that they could ride out the uncertainty of the invasion safely in this town, which was unlikely to be the target of any Russian bombs. "The rockets were flying above us but not in our area. It's a small village with no industries nearby, nothing. (Not a place of) tactical advantage."

IMAGE: Kundan Sandwar takes cover underground with Aaryan after the air raid sirens went off in Vatutine, south Ukraine.

Like many Ukrainians who had stayed behind, they monitored the alarming evolving situation on both Russian and Ukrainian news channels.

A recent bulletin from a Russian station made Kundan's blood run cold. "When Russia started talking about chemical plants and chemical laboratories, I thought it was the high time we left.

"We used to see the Russian channel. Russia ka kya strategy hai ki before doing something wrong, they start the propaganda. They were saying they (Ukraine) have chemical laboratories like this and that. Three days they will (talk) and they will put a bomb there (at the chemical plants) and they will say it's not ours. It's theirs."

Kundan reluctantly finally made a decision to leave Ukraine. It was not a plan Olga or Aaryan greeted with any cheer. "Yes, of course my wife was upset. My son Aaryan was also upset: 'Why are we going? Where are we going? I don't want to go. I want to live here'.

"I would have never left Ukraine..." he says sorrowfully.

But Kundan felt that had to do it for Aaryan in case chemical warfare started up.

"I left because of our small boy. If something happens, then I will be answerable to him. In what way will I answer him after all this. Just because of the child, we came here (to Poland)."

IMAGE: Little Aaryan is all bundled up in many layers for the cold while hiding in an underground shelter in the town of Vatutine, where his grandparents live.

Thus, after a fairly calm two-week break from Kyiv, surrounded by family in the Kostenko house at Vatutine -- the town was not facing any issues of food, petrol or cash shortages -- the Sandwars were back on the road, this time out of the country.

Kundan's in laws would not, perhaps unsurprisingly, join them. "Olga's parents said they will not leave the place. They want to stay in Ukraine."

The drive to Lviv and then the border and crossing into Poland was exceptionally worry-free.

Recalls Kundan, moved, "When we were coming from Vatutine to Lviv, at one block post, the Ukrainian soldiers stopped us for checking. I opened all the windows. He scolded me, saying 'Close the back window, the child will get cold' and gave candies to my son."

It took an hour to reach the border from Lviv and just 45 minutes to cross, the painful lines of 36 plus hours of the previous weeks of "chaos" had thinned considerably.

Polish immigration was courteous, supportive. The only hitch was Kundan's car didn't have EU insurance.

"We didn't have the green card for insurance for the car for Europe. They made it free of cost. That took 20 minutes, that's all. There were no questions, they didn't ask anything."

IMAGE: Gifts for Aaryan Sandwar from the warm-hearted townsfolk of Skierniewice, Poland.

The Sandwars have sought refuge in Skierniewice, a city of 47,600 in central Poland, on Lupia river, 70 km west of Warsaw.

Kundan has rented a place, which he says he found with great difficulty.

He cannot stress enough how good the Polish folks have been to them and won over their hearts. He and his wife are deeply touched.

"The Polish people are very, very, verrrry, helpful. They are helping in all possible ways and are homely and friendly. We have free school, transport; many shops have special prices for Ukrainians; free SIM cards, you can call free to Ukraine."

Two days ago, a lady arrived at the door of their new home with armloads of presents. "Gifts from Poland people, unknown people. Just fantastic. All new goods that they had bought for us."

As utterly lovely as the Polish are and as warmly welcoming as Poland has been, the only strategy in Kundan's head is of returning to Ukraine. "My plan is to wait, and as soon as the situation becomes somewhat okay, I'll be back to Kyiv."

Though he has family in India -- his sister is in New Delhi and his father lives in Dhanbad, he says "India is the last option and if everything is finished, then India."

Kundan -- who grew up in Dhori, a tiny coalfield town in Jharkhand where his father was posted for Coal India, came to Kyiv in 1991 to study civil aviation engineering and met his wife through friends -- was/is running an ayurvedic products business in Kyiv. Olga also worked in the company with him.

He would import the raw ingredients from India and the products would be made up at a small manufacturing unit -- "formulations, packing, design, everything is done in Kyiv" -- which is now closed, but he has seven or eight employees still on the rolls, who he is supporting and helping, and whatever ready stock is left is still being sold in western Ukraine.

Kundan was/is also the chairman of the Ukrainian Association of Ayurveda and Yoga, that was created in cooperation with the Embassy of India, with certification from the Indian ministry of AYUSH, to promote yoga and ayurveda.

Olga is additionally the director of the International Ayurveda and Yoga Institute, run by the association.

In the interim, Kundan might look for supplementary opportunities ie businesses to start from Poland, but their Kyiv firm, Amma Life Sciences Pvt Ltd is still their present and their future.

IMAGE: "Gifts from the Polish people, unknown people, just fantastic."

Kundan will not give up on Ukraine so easily. The country is his life and he and Olga cannot dream of transplanting themselves anywhere else, not even Poland. There are no tomorrows without Ukraine.

He is certain, with an inexplicable, unshakeable deep-in-his-soul confidence, that Russia cannot get Ukraine that easily. Ukrainians have joyfully tasted liberty from Russia's yoke for over 30 years and know all the "freedoms" that independence has brought.

"Back year nahi laga sakte hai. Golee chal chukee hai (You cannot take the country back in time. That chapter is over). Even if an atom bomb were to fall down here, they will not go back." That ship has sailed.

He offers further reasons, explaining that Ukraine is not a small country and it's a rich country with geographical significance as a gateway to Europe.

"They have a wonderfully, high level of cooperation and coordination. You cannot imagine. The chat I am using is Viber, like WhatsApp. We have 4 million people in one chat! Every city has its own chat. So, if you want something like food, medicine, or to transport somebody, or somebody is short of something, they help each other."

A land battle to take Ukraine is no piece of cake for the Russians and Vladimir Putin has now realised that, believes Kundan, after "the small boys of 18-20 years" he sent were directionless. "If somebody is going to fight, he should have reason to fight. His blood should be boiling. Unka soldiers ko patta hi nahin ki where they are going and what for they are going."

Further Ukrainians are excellent at tactical terrain warfare, especially as spring comes to Ukraine -- "they will lose like anything. Woh ghar ghar se marega unko (from each home they will attack)," he declares.

"They are standing fantastically strong. Today (March 21) is the 22nd day. Not a single administrative building has the Russian flag. Even in once pro-Russian areas, like Kherson (etc). Or Mariupol, which is a very sad situation.

"Wife ka brother wahan rahta hai unke saath koi bhi touch nahin hai (My wife's brother lives there and no one can get in touch with him). No phone connection. Once he (made contact) a week back. He said 'We are alive', that's all. Bari walli mausi bhi hai udhar. Koiee khabar nahin hai humare paas (Her eldest aunt is also there. We have no news)."

But yet Kundan is confident that Putin's days are numbered. "Putin is not a politician. Jaise ki aap bologe Hindi mein, bolege toh ek goonda hai (Like you would say in Hindi he is a dangerous hooligan). He is a goonda. He is a thief."

IMAGE: "They sent us all new goods that they bought for us," says Kundan about the huge haul of late Christmas gifts the Sandwars received from the ever helpful Skierniewice residents of Poland.

The Ukraine invasion happened, according to Kundan, because Putin wants a goonda of his own in every former Soviet republic -- "Aap bhi choree karo, mein ko bhi chori karne doh. Theek hai. Everybody's happy" -- and Volodymyr Zelenskyy was not playing ball.

Zelenskyy is not that kind of politician, he says. "He's an open book. He is a very first page. He is a simple man."

Putin, feels Kundan, also did not bargain for the kind of rampant corruption that exists within the Russian army and it caught him off guard.

"His position is going bad, and more bad, every day. When you see the books, it will say suppose 500 pair of shoes, but in fact it's 50 pair of shoes. Because they have stolen the rest. They feel they have 1,000 litres of diesel, but it's 100 litres of diesel. It's like joh data boss ke paas gaya that data is wrong. This is this is the main point where woh maar khaya hai (where he is finished). Woh toh soch raha hai (he thinks I have) 1,000 rockets ready. But in fact, he has 200 rockets ready.

"Sholay wallah kahani hai: 'Gabbar Singh aayega, Gabbar Singh aayega (It's like Sholay where the dreaded Gabbar Singh is supposed to be coming). But what is inside Gabbar Singh nobody knows."

In the midst of all this, Kundan is very disappointed with India's stand on the war and the widespread admiration that exists in India for Putin. He attributes some of it to misinformation because Putin, he says, has poured millions in creating propaganda, false news and bias.

In reference to the fan-following Putin has among Indians: "Humari India mein bhagwan ka puja hota hai, aur aadmi ka puja hot hai. (In our India we worship gods and men). We don't think ki kaun hai, kya hai (We don't examine the person we worship)."

He says, with sadness, "Mera dil mein thoda dukh hai (I have hurt in my heart) about India's stand. India has not taken a proper stand. Aisa nahin hona chahiye (That should not have happened)."

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

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