A letter to the people of Mariupol

Whatever you do, do not lay down your arms.

A woman walks outside a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine.
A woman walks outside a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, on March 9 [AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka]

Dear brothers and sisters,

I spent three and a half years of my life where you are now – completely encircled by enemy troops bent on my people’s wholesale destruction. I am familiar with the anguish, frustration, fear, and desperation that you must be feeling. But let me give you the good news first: You will prevail. There is no doubt in my mind that Russian troops will never conquer Mariupol.

For one thing, they do not have the manpower to do so. It takes a lot more troops to occupy and control a city of more than 400,000. The Serb forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina laid siege to our capital of Sarajevo and shelled it for three and a half years, without ever managing to enter. The Russian armed forces do not have the fighting spirit and are nowhere near the determination of the defenders of Mariupol.

I am no military professional or military historian, but I maintain that the Ukrainian military is the best fighting organisation in the world at this time. The Russian military is simply not willing or capable of paying the price to occupy your city.

Let me also give you the bad news: you will pay for your freedom with your lives and the lives of your loved ones – your brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. With every step, you will lose those you could not imagine your lives without. This is not just a war between Russian invaders and Ukrainian defenders. This is an attempt at politicide. The Russian goal is not just to conquer Ukraine, but to wipe Ukraine, as a state, off the map, relegating your history, culture, and people to a footnote in the history books to be written by the future likes of Ivan Ilyin and Aleksandr Dugin.

Now, let me tell you about what comes after. For you, it is never going to be over. This war has already hijacked your lives and the best you can do is embrace the fate that has been thrust upon you. History has been unusually cruel to you. In this war, you are fighting not only for yourselves but for future generations that are yet to be born. It is a crushing burden that you have not asked to bear. To make matters worse, you are also fighting this war on behalf of an ungrateful continent that cares more about warming up its homes with Russian gas than saving your children from bombs and starvation.

Whatever you do, there is one notion you should never entertain: laying down your arms. As we learned from the Serbs in Bosnia, the Russians can only exterminate you – and they certainly will – if you are unarmed. Allowing yourselves to be disarmed is the quickest way to a mass grave.

Indeed, historically, the Russian military is no stranger to this precept – recall for instance the Katyn forest massacre of 1940. Your own history is also full of examples of Russian brutality. The alternative to fighting off the present Russian invasion is something akin to Holodomor. You are paying with thousands of lives to avoid losing millions.

I know this is difficult to remember as Russian artillery is raining down upon you. I know it is of little to no consolation to the many thousands of children displaced in Ukraine or in refugee camps who will grow up without their parents. Having lost my own father to the ravages of war, I know exactly the gaping hole in the heart that this loss results in. However, I must say that I have only come to fully appreciate my own father’s sacrifice after witnessing the tremendous bravery of Ukraine’s people. I hope that this holds for you at least some meaning and tells you of the enormous inspiration that your courageous fight has been to the entire world.

There are many parallels to be drawn between our war for Bosnia and your war for Ukraine. In the 1990s, we too were fighting against a larger neighbour, ruled by a deranged autocrat who sought to rob us of our lives, freedom and identity as a distinct and sovereign people. However, the dissolution of Yugoslavia was of far less consequence beyond the region than the fight for Ukraine. The fate of the world is literally being decided on the Ukrainian chernozem.

Unfortunately, the old adage that geography is destiny seems to be true. In that respect, the only thing worse than sharing a border with Serbia is sharing a border with Russia.

Finally, you need to know that we see you. You are not fighting in the dark. When this is over – and it will be over, when the Russians have withdrawn in shame and defeat, I hope to come to Mariupol to listen to your stories, because that is all that you will be left with. When this is over, I hope to come to a free Mariupol and a free Ukraine to pay homage to your sacrifice.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.