ST. PETERSBURG — Scattered throughout Neal Walker’s small Eckerd College office is decor from his past lives: A patterned rug from Kyrgyzstan, a tapestry from Guatemala, a painting from Bangladesh and a side table made from Ukrainian marble.
Each piece is a reminder of Walker’s life in those countries.
For more than two decades, Walker, 65, worked for the United Nations, offering humanitarian help to countries across the globe, from places in Central Asia to Equatorial Guinea, he said. His last post was in Ukraine, where he worked as the head of the country’s U.N. program from 2014 to 2018.
Walker estimates he’s lived in about 80 countries — some for months, others for years.
But by 2018, Walker said he had grown weary of the wars in the countries he served. He retired from the U.N. to teach at his alma mater, Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. Now he is a professor and diplomat-in-residence at the college, where he lectures based on his decades of experience in other countries.
Since February, he has watched from thousands of miles away as Russia ravages Ukraine — a country he helped strengthen just four years ago.
“I really loved my job,” Walker said. “The first place I visited was Mariupol. And you can imagine how I feel seeing what’s going on in Mariupol.”
At Eckerd College, Walker hopes to teach his students about their own ability to impact communities in need. Recently, he has spoken with his students about the war in Ukraine, using real-world scenarios to showcase human impact.
“All those places … all those countries that aren’t on anybody’s list of tourism destinations, right where the need is really, really critical, where the United Nations has on-the-ground presence — this is where my career has been,” Walker said. “So when I come here, I teach what I did.”
Life in Ukraine
Walker talks fondly about his time as a student at Eckerd College, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1978. It also is the place where he realized his life’s passion — traveling, he said.
After a few semesters spent abroad during his college years, Walker decided he wanted to continue traveling.
“I realized I just wanted to travel internationally more, and I didn’t want to do it as a tourist.”
And travel he did. Walker spent six years working for the Organization of American States in places across Central America, as well as Bolivia in South America. It was in Bolivia that Walker met his wife, Gabriela. He then began a career with the U.N.
The Walkers have spent their lives traveling to different countries, spending years at a time immersing themselves in those countries’ cultures. Along the way, they also raised two children.
Eventually, their path led to Ukraine.
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In 2014, Ukraine had just gone through the “Revolution of Dignity,” or the Maidan Revolution.
“So what happened in Ukraine was, of course, you had this ‘Revolution of Dignity’ where, over the course of many months, through hard-fought street battles with the police, the government was changed, and you had a new government coming in,” Walker said.
Instead of being pro-Russia, Walker said, this new government wanted to be part of the European Union.
Immediately after that, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, a move Western governments regard as illegitimate, according to an Associated Press report.
When Walker arrived in Ukraine to run its U.N. program in July 2014, the country still was vulnerable to corruption, he said. The U.N. worked to help eliminate corruption through legislative changes.
“The U.N. system had just about 200 people when I arrived in 2014,” Walker said. “When I left, we had 1,600 people. Again, 90 percent of these are Ukrainian professionals.”
The work the U.N. does is “awesome” — there’s no other word for it, he said, and its ability to deliver humanitarian assistance without politicizing it is unmatched.
“So ending corruption, improving health care, and then the really challenging work was actually opening the — we called it the nongovernmental-controlled areas of Ukraine,” Walker said.
These were places where Russia-supported separatists were continuing to fight Ukraine, Walker said. They were areas of huge humanitarian need, he said, but the Ukrainian government and embassies from other countries couldn’t go in, so the U.N. provided aid.
“We were delivering humanitarian assistance that saved millions of lives,” Walker said, adding that Ukrainians led the way in those efforts.
He said it isn’t surprising that the Ukrainian people are continuing to fight for independence against Russia. Ukraine is a country of great pride, he said — something that was evident traveling across the country.
“They have their sense of culture, they have their sense of national pride,” Walker said. “They have fought to achieve that independence, that democratic independence from Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
The war in Ukraine
In addition to its humanitarian work in Ukraine, the U.N. also monitors human rights violations and reports on them, Walker said.
The Biden administration announced March 23 that it had determined that Russian troops have committed war crimes in Ukraine. On Monday, the global outcry grew as horrifying images emerged that appeared to document the deliberate slaying of Ukrainian civilians, prompting President Joe Biden to call for Putin to be tried as a war criminal.
“This guy is brutal, and what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous and everyone’s seen it,” Biden said Monday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused the Russian military of committing war crimes Tuesday and pleaded with the U.N. Security Council to have those responsible brought to justice.
Whether Putin is found guilty of war crimes will be, in part, determined by Ukrainians continuing to collect evidence for the U.N., Walker said.
“Any perception of victory will simply strengthen his sense of impunity and his willingness to take these kinds of actions,” he said. “Anywhere democracy raises its head, he will intervene to undermine democracy.”
The U.S. can lead the way in what Walker called quiet diplomacy, meaning the U.S. can encourage other countries to denounce Putin’s actions, Walker said.
“Ultimately, any solution needs to be defined by the Ukrainians themselves, first and foremost,” Walker said. “And then the United States stands behind what it is that they might like to achieve.”