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Cincinnati watches Ukrainian sister city enveloped by war

Bill Rinehart
The Cincinnati sign on the side of the convention center was lit up Thursday night with the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Members of Cincinnati's Sister City Partnership with Kharkiv are watching the invasion in Ukraine and hoping for the best.

The president of the Sister City organization says he's heard from a few friends since Thursday morning, but communications are getting tougher with each passing hour.

Bob Herring says he received several emails as the Russian attack started. Friday morning, there was a message from a teacher in a subway tunnel.

"The message essentially was, 'We're hiding in the underground. The sounds of distant explosions and shooting does not give us a chance to relax. There's no internet connection in the underground, so I check my WhatsApp from time to time and when I can come to the entrance it's better to keep in touch that way.' "

Herring says members of Cincinnati's Sister City program feel helpless. He says they have no plans for a street demonstration yet but are talking about showing up at a City Council meeting next week to show support for Ukraine.

Bill Rinehart
A kiosk at the north end of the Purple People Bridge lists Cincinnati's sister cities.

Herring says hundreds of Cincinnatians have traveled to Kharkiv since the 1990s to help people in that city transition after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Sister City program was started during the Eisenhower administration as a form of citizen diplomacy. Herring says the mayors of two cities agree to collaborate on issues, and citizens take over the program.

"Where there are areas of mutual interest, collaboration can take place," Herring says. "Over the years, Cincinnati has collaborated with folks in Kharkiv in law, medicine, the arts, education, media, you name it. The list is long."

Herring says the two cities traded delegations for years, as Kharkiv and Ukraine started building its own modern, free market economy.

"We're just a bunch of people who believe in Eisenhower's vision, and for citizen-to-citizen diplomacy. We've seen it work," he says. "Hundreds of Cincinnatians have helped the Kharkivites make that transition from a command, Soviet economy to a free market with bumps along the way, no doubt about it... make that transition from a top-down authoritarian government to a parliamentary democracy. A lot of challenges, with corruption that they need to work on," he says.

"Folks in Kharkiv are on that journey west to a parliamentary democracy and all the civil liberties that come with that. They're on that journey to a free market. They're there, in many respects, and they don't want to go back."