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NEW DELHI: It was a small gathering in the chapel at the Vatican Embassy in New Delhi on Saturday. Lively chatter, mostly in Ukrainian, floated around as friends caught up within the dull yellow walls of the Embassy, formally known as the Apostolic Nunciature.

The cheery atmosphere belied the fact that New Delhi’s small Ukrainian community was there to remember and mourn. While fighting rages on in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion earlier this year, Saturday’s memorial service was held in memory of another dark chapter in Ukraine’s history: the Holodomor.

“The Holodomor was a massive famine that took place in Ukraine in 1932-33. It was a man-made famine by the Soviet colonist regime. We estimate that between 3 to 7 million people died but these are only estimates. We don’t know the exact number. Today is significant because it is the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor," explained Volodymyr Prytula, a Ukrainian diplomat who arrived in New Delhi just weeks ago.

The story goes that Joseph Stalin, the strongman who ruled the then Soviet Union for over two decades, engineered the mass famine to break Ukrainian nationalism and solidify Moscow’s control over the region. Holodomor, literally translated from Ukrainian, means “death by hunger".

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, the parallels between the current times and those of a century ago are all too clear. Then, as now, Ukrainians waged a titanic struggle for independence and identity against a regime in Moscow that is determined to deny it to them.

“In the context of today’s events and Russian aggression against Ukraine, it is important to remember those who came before us," Prytula added.

Russia, for its part, vehemently denies what many Ukrainians believe to be a fact. Sixteen countries recognise the Holodomor famines as genocide. So does the Vatican, which might explain why Saturday’s memorial service for the victims of the famine was held in its New Delhi embassy.

The service was led by Reverend Juan Pablo Hernandez, a jovial and familiar figure in Delhi’s diplomatic circuit. Hernandez, who hails from Mexico, serves as first secretary at the Vatican Embassy.

Dressed from head to toe in the white vestments of a Catholic priest, Hernandez went around shaking hands and herding the attendees past the Embassy’s sparse but well-kept lawns and into a small chapel. Looking around, the crowd was an eclectic mix. Besides Ukrainians, Hungarians, Uruguayans and Indians, among others, sat together in the pews. All to remember men, women and children who died almost a century ago in a land few of the attendees have ever seen.

“We are all united in paying tribute to the resilience of the whole country of Ukraine," began Hernandez. Over the course of an hour-long sermon, he urged the gathering to abhor violence, practice forgiveness and abandon hatred.

Echoing Pope Francis, Hernandez averred that, “terrible wounds of the past are an appeal to the people that these tragedies should never happen".

As the service ended, Ukrainian diplomats scurried around handing pamphlets detailing the horrors of the Holodomor famines.

“They are using history to tell their story and make their case to the world," murmured the Ambassador of a major European nation to this writer.

As the attendees of the service mingled, I was introduced to Maryna Akram, a Ukrainian living in New Delhi.

“I have been in India for 23 years since my husband is Indian. I’ve lived here in great happiness," said Akram, who speaks fluent Hindi.

Even as the Holodomor was being remembered, Akram’s mind was not far from the fighting ongoing in Ukraine.

“When I think of my sister in Ukraine, I dread that rockets are raining down on her now. In my place, how would anyone feel? We are disappointed and angry with Putin’s regime. In order to aggrandize himself, Putin is trying to dominate our nation and cause it to collapse," she said.

Akram, like many Ukrainians who live in India, was torn about India’s unwillingness to condemn Russia for its invasion of their country.

“I love Indian culture as I do Ukrainian culture. I love your language and it has become my own. India is a great democracy and has always welcomed people with open arms. When India decided to stay silent, I was greatly ashamed. I felt very ashamed to say I live in India," Akram said with visible emotion.

Many Indians still view Russia with a degree of affection. Akram was acutely aware of this reality.

“When I first came to India and told people that I was from Ukraine, they asked me where it was. People thought that I was from Russia. I had to tell them that Ukraine is its own country in the same way that India is its own country," she remembered.

“A few years ago, I saw one of my children’s school textbooks that said Ukraine was a part of Russia. I thought I would die then. I was wondering how that sentence found its way into a school textbook in India," Akram added.

“There’s a lot of information from the Russian perspective also on TV. So people will better understand Russia," she concludes somewhat sadly.

Raising awareness about her country’s plight has been hard. Akram and a few other Ukrainians organised a meeting at a park about the situation in Ukraine.

“We were just holding our flags and there were no demonstrations or sloganeering. In just 10 minutes, the police appeared and told us we couldn’t take photos with our flag. We told them we were in a free country but we were asked to leave."

At length, Akram is called away by her friends. She gave me a quick smile. “We Ukrainians are always with India. I hope India will be with us," she said by way of farewell.

Rev. Hernandez, upbeat and jovial as always, accompanied me as I stepped out of the Embassy into the noise and smog-induced haze of Delhi’s streets. “Violence will answered by peace. Hatred shall be defeated by love," he had preached. This writer couldn’t help but hope that he was right.


Varuni Khosla

Varuni Khosla is a journalist with close to 14 years of experience in writing business news stories for mainstream newspaper companies like Mint and The Economic Times. She reports and writes on luxury and lifestyle brands, hospitality and tourism news, the business of sports, the business of advertising and marketing and alcohol brands.
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