Opinion: Ukraine intervention is a matter of people, not politics

One family’s story told through the lens of war and geopolitics

I think of the stories my father told me.

When war came to our native Balkans, families scrambled to prepare. The women and children headed to the villages and mountains, with provisions to wait out the inevitable famine and strife. The men armed themselves and traveled to the front, most often conscripted to fight. This happened over and over, for centuries.

I think of my father’s stories today, as Ukraine defends itself against a Russian invasion. The pictures coming out of Kyiv and the nation’s other major cities are heartbreaking. Early shelling has claimed civilian lives. Citizens are lining up for food and petrol. The roads out of town are packed with cars, as families head toward the Polish border, hopeful that nearby NATO troops might protect them from Vladimir Putin’s vast military.

Americans often think of war in geopolitical terms. But people and families stand in the center of the storm.

Let us pray for those families in the Ukraine. They will try to survive the war. Like my ancestors, they know the drill. Do we?

Sadly, the answer is yes for many San Franciscans. They’ve come from China and Honduras. Russia and Nicaragua. The Philippines and Mexico. Let’s not forget our own Ukrainian diaspora, as well, which gathered at City Hall Thursday to protest the war and call for peace. Many of us have come from war-torn nations around the globe to seek asylum in the city of St. Francis, named for the Italian friar who found God as a prisoner of war.

St. Francis achieved sainthood, in the 13th century, preaching a doctrine of peace and redemption of human sin. I’m not a religious man, but we’d all do well to listen to our patron saint in these days of fear and uncertainty.

Perhaps our leaders will do the same. As a democracy with a massive military, does the United States intervene on behalf of Ukraine? And to what extent? Can we afford to stand by and allow aggressors to reshape the world order?

Such questions have confronted the United States since the days of Chamberlain and Roosevelt, Nixon and Johnson, Bush and Clinton. The present sentiment in America spans the political spectrum, creating strange allies along the way. The far left and far right both seem to be taking an isolationist stance, arguing that every battle cannot be our battle. The centrist position, championed by President Joe Biden, backs economic intervention, with tough talk about subsequent NATO engagement if sanctions do not work.

Putin appears to be listening to no one, reportedly isolated in his autocratic throne and charging forward with Russian history on his tongue and economic windfalls in his heart.

I don’t see a path forward for the United States and NATO that does not include intervention. We can squeeze and appease, hoping for a decrease in tensions. Europe has seen this movie before, and it didn’t have a happy ending. Allowing Russia to run roughshod over Ukraine could further Putin’s ambitions to reunite the Soviet Union. The Baltics come to mind first. Globally, a soft response could embolden China’s designs on Taiwan. On the domestic political front, an appearance of weakness could further activate right-wing radicals, fueled by our real or perceived loss of global status.

I know it’s easy to preach intervention if your own child is not going to the front lines. These are horrible decisions, no question. But, as I watch the talking heads and retired generals offer their analysis on the 24-hour news channels, my mind wanders back to my father, my family, his stories and the harsh realities of war. 

During the 1990s, my aunt and her small family endured the lengthy siege of Sarajevo during the Balkan Wars, huddling in basements and venturing out for water while Serb artillery and sniper fire rained down on the streets of Bosnia. A mortar landed on the roof of their apartment, forcing them out. The United States did not intervene in that conflict until it was much too late. It was the wrong choice. The souls buried in mass graves lay in testament.

During World War II, my father lived through the Nazi invasion of the former Yugoslavia as a young teenager. He went without regular food and shelter for a period of time. He witnessed neighbors and friends hauled off to the camps, never to return. After the Allies liberated Europe, a communist regime led by Josip Broz Tito took power, and things grew worse. Both my father and grandfather were imprisoned as perceived dissidents, even sharing a jail cell for a brief time. Somehow, they both survived and found a way to rebuild our family.

My father escaped Yugoslavia with just a backpack, mountaineering over the Alps into Austria before eventually emigrating to the United States, a land where he found freedom and opportunity. He is still here, at the age of 91. His son found his way to San Francisco 30 years ago, completing the last leg of a journey that began with war and ended in a city of refugees of every stripe, be it political or cultural.

I’m happy to have found my place here, and raised my own family. But I still travel back to the old country on a regular basis to revisit my relatives and roots. It always feels like home, and I often wish my father and mother never had to leave.

I’d like to think we can help this generation of Ukrainians stay home and stay safe. The world doesn’t need more refugees. It needs more sovereignty.

Editor’s note: The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com.

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