top of page

From the banks of the Danube River: #OperationGanga and the Universal Hierarchy of Human Privileges

By C Chandrawala

Image Courtesy: IANS

Because when we have coloured skin, even our grief, even our traumas, are made less somehow. We are made to consistently apologise.

Not only for our offences.

Not only for our existence.

But for our struggles as well.

And for the violence enacted upon us (and others as well) (but also, on us.)

We must apologise for our wounds.

For being collateral damage in a war that is “not our war”.

It hurts me to write this piece. No part of me wants to have to lay these facts bare, but they are unavoidable, and at some point, they have to be voiced. While I read the articles, while I watch the videos, while I see the rage and the heroism of the Ukrainian people, the world’s admiration and solidarity building, the dignity and respect with which the media tells their stories, the absence of hashtags and prayers, and instead, the immediate and effective responses - there is a large part of me that celebrates. Finally, it seems, the world has figured out what a real, global, multi-sectoral, comprehensive, and coordinated response to a crisis should look like. Ammunition is provided, refugees are welcomed with open arms, sanctions ripple out, war crimes are labelled as such, UN votes are quick and definite, stories are told in a relatable way, and sympathy is tossed aside for action and empathy. Hell, even Mcdonald's and Coca-Cola got involved. Who imagined that in 2022, Shell Gas would be the good guy? It’s the platinum package in international responses.

On LinkedIn this post pops up, from a well-intentioned (white) guy in Canada, declaring:

“"If you're a php developer fleeing Ukraine,

I'd like to offer you (and your family)

a new life in Canada.

I'll pay for your plane tickets,

find you guys a place to stay,

and hire you as a full-time developer"

𝐀𝐩𝐩𝐥𝐲 𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞: *link removed for privacy*

Finally, if you are an employer, perhaps you could do the same! Let us #ProvideJobsToUkrainians.”

But on a deeper, quieter level, a second thought lingers and embeds itself, like a thorn in my sympathy - if my skin colour is darker than your pumpkin spiced latte, would my suffering even matter? Why were these stories not told of the Afghans, the Yemenis, the Palestinians, the Syrians and Iraqis? And on and on and on? Why does it seem like we got the bronze package?

And I keep scrolling. As Russian troops lay waste to hundreds of lives in Mali, Saudi bombs continue to fall like rain on the streets of Yemen, in the same month. While the 168 people that were disappeared from a train in Nigeria earlier this week continue to be nothing more than a whisper in the dark.

I keep scrolling. And Biden arrives in Poland.

I write to you from the banks of the Danube river.

Three short hours away is the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, across which 140,000 people have crossed in the past 14 days. Tensions have been building for years, but since I’m not an expert in Eastern European affairs, I’ll just recap the last few weeks. On February 21st, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech in support of the independence of two breakaway regions - Donetsk and Luhansk - from Ukraine. Many commentators say this set the stage for the oncoming invasion, and it didn’t take long for it to begin. Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24th beginning in the eastern territory of Donbas, which quickly spiralled into a full-scale war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law in Ukraine that same day. Since then, there have been numerous attempts at diplomatic peace talks to no avail, whilst millions of people have fled Ukraine. Heavy fighting and Russian military force have been seen in Kyiv, Mykolaiv, and Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city has been “90 per cent” destroyed. Since the invasion began, an estimated 4.2 million people have become refugees according to the UN. The estimated death toll is around 18,000, but there is no way to get an accurate number of the loss.

When the news first broke, we were, of course, appalled. Shock gave way to horror as we realized the extent, the brutality, and bombardment of the attacks, news channels and virtual feeds filled with blonde haired blue eyed survivors and pink-cheeked babies, running from bombs, grieving lost loved ones and homes, valiant in their determination to defend their homeland.

And then a second story began to emerge within the first. International students - Nigerians, Indians, Morrocans, those that had spent the last year to four years living and learning in Eastern Ukraine. Many at schools right along the border, and still more in Kharkiv. I'm not going to rehash what these students went through in their attempts (successful, and failed) to get to safety. If you haven't heard, here are a few stories. An (un)shocking dedication to a narrative of "us" vs. "them", even when the "them" is blatantly defined as anything but a community of colour, there is evidently still space for racism. It was made evident that despite being locked in the horrors of it, this was not "our war."

I am not telling you this to stir up strange anti-Ukrainian sentiments at a time when the country is hurting beyond measure. It does not escape me that there are communal graves being dug within a day’s drive from my door, or that civilians are being executed while at the same time children's hospitals are being bombed. Lives are being cut short in a horrifically brutal manner, and there is no instance in which that is anything less than horrendous. The bombs are real, as are the fatalities, the bodies lining the streets, the fears. But when even these horrors don't amount to a sense of mercy that isn't predicated on colour, it gives me a reason to pause.

I am telling you this to paint you a picture of what it is to live in Central Europe as a person of colour. What it is to always know that your human rights will be given a secondary status; to know that you are always one false step away from being afforded less protection than a pet. An environment where you are at once watched, and also purposefully unseen.

And in the middle of all of that, I want to tell you a story of the good guys you don’t often hear about. Heroes of Color.

Let me introduce you to #OperationGanga

After the news broke, I started by doing what we all (hopefully) do. I looked for spaces where I could help. Reaching out wherever I saw makeshift stations for food, drink, and shelter popping up. At each stage, I was reminded - sorry, you don't speak Hungarian or Ukrainian, so I'm not sure how you can help. Not only is this not to be "our war," but as people of colour, it's also made rather obvious that it's not meant to be "our rescue" either. I'm not going to lie to you, for a moment, I really struggled. The altruistic side of me and the pragmatic side of me duked it out, with the theoretical side trying to assign points at random, trying to define whether the best thing to do was to sit idly on the sidelines, or to push forward and find a way to help - because where there are such immense needs practically on my doorstep, surely, there is reason and a way to help.

It was in this environment then, that these students, most between the ages of 17 to 22, found themselves fleeing for their lives from a war that has all the hallmarks of a pre-world war. And #OperationGanga began. Across five neighbouring countries, the Indian embassy, with Tata and Air India, established a flow of evacuations.

My email pinged, introducing me to a lifeline that would define much of my purpose over the coming days - the Indian Embassy was looking for volunteers to support what they anticipated to be anywhere between 5-15,000 Indian students who would be coming across the border in the coming days. Already, a few hundred had arrived, and they would need help - food, transport, accommodations, it was unclear where the list began and ended. I opened up the google sheet to add my name to the list, noting that already, within minutes, the list numbered over 30 volunteers. By the end of the day, there were over a hundred.

A WhatsApp group emerged and by the end of the day, food was being provided and delivered, mass transportation for the students was being arranged, and students were being connected with parents who were desperate for information on where and how they were - all through a network of volunteers that had literally sprung up overnight. Volunteers took shifts at the two major train stations, often staying overnight in nearly freezing temperatures to greet students as they are unboarded the trains, letting them know they were safe and welcome, and most importantly, that they would be taken care of. Transportation was coordinated to drop larger groups at one of 8 or 9 hostels and dorms which had become temporary shelters for the community. Local Indian restaurants, grocers, and teams of aunties bought, made, and dropped off food in batches. Eggs were boiled by the hundreds, parathas flew off pans into neatly formed stacks, shelves of snack bars were emptied into grocery carts, and tetra packs of juice flowed. Perhaps Kanye put it best when he said, ‘so many aunties, we could have an Aunty Team.’ Well, let me just say, our Aunty Team kicked a**.

Over the coming 9 days, this group of volunteers took care of over 6,000 Indian students fleeing the war in Ukraine. Across the five neighbouring countries, the operation accounted for 91 evacuation flights, over 20 of which departed from Budapest Airport. They coordinated with students trapped at the Kharkiv, and those at the Moldovan and Polish borders, those boarding trains at the Hungarian border and arriving in Budapest without friends, family, or any safety net to account for them. These volunteers stretched out, and overnight, they became a safety net. At the end of the operation, not one student was left behind (unless it was their choice to do so) - none were left to starve or spend the night in the streets. I won’t lie and pretend that the situation was perfect. Those who arrived once the better hostels had filled up were stationed wherever space could be found - offices, and empty dorms. Some had to spend the night sleeping on tables and chairs. In some cases, the wait for food was longer than in others. But none were left to fend for themselves, and all received the silent but powerful message that wherever in the world you might be, the community will come together to help when you are in crisis. You aren’t alone.

And in an environment such as the one we all have inhabited in Central Europe for however many years, this statement is worth something.

The feeling I had watching the last evacuation bus pull out of the hotel this afternoon was a moment I’ll likely never forget. 50-something strangers aboard a bus, waving to 50-something other strangers who had coordinated, and contributed to, the last four or five days of their life. Offering the space to recuperate, reorient, and recover. The sun was setting, and even the dust motes seemed to carry a bittersweet tinge of gratitude.

Gratitude for safety. For implicit trust. For community.

Today while I was walking home, I turned to take in the Danube under a crisp blue sky. And for a moment, I was surprised to find the familiar landscape transformed. The river, flowing, had morphed into the Arabian sea. The boats, instead of nordic leisure cruises, were replaced by smaller fishing vessels and dhows. Parliament itself bore a remarkable resemblance to the Taj hotel, and behind me, the rumbling tram lines echoed a distant Churchgate station. For a moment, Budapest had been Bombay. It’s haphazard heroism, its delinquency and its desperation, and also its dignity. For a moment, we all belonged. For a moment, I was a part of my surroundings.

And for a moment, we knew what it looked like to be taken care of when sh*t hits the fan. To trust that there is a network of safety mechanisms that are there to catch us. Is this, I wonder, what it must feel like to get the platinum package in humanitarian assistance? Knowing that if the worst should come to pass; the latest in military technology would be at your disposal; that food assistance and medical assistance would be at the ready; foreigners would sign up to defend your country and your right to live, simply because it felt like the ‘right thing to do’; and that their governments wouldn’t punish them for that conviction; that terms like “donor fatigue” don’t apply to you; that when you arrive at a border, your trauma will be recognized, and you will be welcomed with open arms. Your children will be given space at the local school and hugs when they arrive. That fast-food chains and clothing retailers and gas companies alike will do their part to not just provide a “show” of solidarity, but to actually be willing to sacrifice profits in favour of it?

Earlier this week, the Brookings Institute released a report noting that the Saudi war in Yemen ‘turned seven years old’. It goes on to point out that “the Saudi intervention in Yemen has many similarities to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Like the Russians, the Saudis greatly underestimated their opponents. The Saudi mission was initially code-named Operation Decisive Storm; it is anything but decisive. In 2015, its architect, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS) told then-Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan that the Houthis would be toppled in a matter of a few weeks. As Brennan notes in his memoirs, he wondered what MBS “was smoking.” The Saudi ground forces never even got close to Sana’a. They seemed to assume the rebels would be defeated with airpower, a badly flawed strategy.

Unlike Ukrainians, more than 3.6 million of whom have fled the country to neighbours like Poland and Moldova in the past month, few average Yemenis can flee the war to a refuge outside the country. There are many internally displaced persons, however, who have lost their homes — more than 3.6 million as of December 2020.” 3.6 million people, who, at the end of the day, are denied the ability to flee the same horrors we’ve all been watching unfold just a day’s drive away from my doorstep. How can this disparity be justified?

Let me reiterate, this isn’t to say that Ukrainian refugees shouldn’t be afforded those protections, those supports - they should. But this illustration of what could be in terms of a response to a humanitarian crisis makes it more visible that 'what isn’t' happens all too often instead; that there remains, even in 2022, a shamefully twisted Global Hierarchy of Suffering which has designated those of us who are not a certain colour less deserving of protection, of support. That Human Rights have remained rights for only some, and privileges for many others. That somehow, even within the tragic situation that is unfolding (over the past month, over the past eight years, and the many years before that as well) not all tragedies are treated as equal.”


bottom of page